Americans don't seem bothered enough by the country's growing wealth divide to do much about it, according to a recent Harvard Business School survey. In part, that's probably because they vastly underestimate the gap, believing the top 20 per cent own 59 per cent of the nation's wealth when they actually own 84 per cent.But there's another, less obvious reason for our passivity — the hope and glory pushed by an all-pervasive news, gossip and star-driven celebrity culture.
The core of the American dream teaches us that the formula for achieving wealth involves hard work, determination and luck. Celebrities, and the coverage of them, seem to provide visible proof of this message every day: If it can happen to [Canadian] Justin Bieber, it can happen to me. So why change the system?
Just last week, in an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, the story was retailed again. Mary Murphy, who played the sweet small-town girl opposite Marlon Brando in "The Wild Ones," was "a package wrapper at Saks Fifth Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills when she was discovered at a nearby coffee shop by a talent scout."
The narrative persists like "once upon a time." Stories about contemporary celebrities — in fan magazines like Us Weekly and on star-driven websites like E Online — typically highlight how much stars were like us before making it big. We see their embarrassing high school pictures and read about their small hometowns, relationships, babies, body fat, marriages and divorces.
Oprah Winfrey is at least as famous for her rise from rural Mississippi to billionaire media mogul as she is for her "Live your best life" message. Teen sensation Bieber personifies overnight success — from YouTube video to a recording deal and platinum album. The very title of his remix album and biopic, "Never Say Never," echoes the American dream of limitless opportunities for anyone who refuses to give up.
The rise of the Internet and reality TV, which has made fame and fortune seem ever more accessible, has further strengthened the illusion that our class system is wide open. That Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of "Jersey Shore" fame can command $32,000 for a Rutgers University appearance — $2,000 more than Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Toni Morrison received to deliver the university's commencement speech — is not just a commentary on the value we place on celebrity. It also reaffirms the possibility of social mobility for those with few skills.
The "has beens" who unwittingly star in these morality tales shore up a convenient notion of the American dream: that downward mobility — even during economic hard times — is about individual character traits rather than the social system or catastrophic societal and industrial changes.