The destruction of greatness

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 19 Jul 2022


In this age of celebrity culture, little room is left for greatness to survive. Greatness is an internal quality, existing in the people of deepest character, that history records.

Celebrity however, is what we seek.

Have you not dreamed of being famous at one time or another? Millions of people around the world long to be under the spotlight. To be on magazine covers, on TV, on radio, in society, is their secret, unspoken desire. Go ahead and fulfil your dream, do something outrageous, illegal, scandalous, and you will become a celebrity overnight.

Social media is willing and able to help — Instagram, Facebook, YouTube are at your disposal. Just develop enough followers and you too will become famous.

Your accomplishments may be little or none, but society does not bother with that — the important factor that counts is visibility. The more extensive your visibility, the more extravagant your celebrity status.

The age of social media does not distinguish between good and bad, as long as you are famous. Perhaps “famous” is not the appropriate word, “notorious” is more exact.

Notoriety is linked to celebrity, suggesting that it can be the result of deviant or illegal behaviour.

Lawrence Friedman, of Stanford Law School, defines celebrity as “a state of being widely known and recognised, not necessarily for what you do, but simply well-known for their well-knowness.”

They are famous for being famous. You find them everywhere: in show-business, high society, manufacturing, fashion etc. They may not have done anything or maybe a little something, like marrying a billionaire, for instance. The name of the late Anna Nicole Smith comes to mind. Her good looks afforded her the billionaire, the affluence, the glamour, the celebrity status and finally her premature death.

Famous people do not pursue the spotlight, might even avoid it, but could be remembered longer in history for the legacy they leave behind. Emperor Hiro Hito was famous, but not a celebrity. Howard Hughes avoided attention to the extent of becoming a recluse, but could not escape from fame. Greta Garbo shunned it: “I want to be alone.”

Another Swedish Greta, the young environmental activist Greta Thurnberg became a celebrity for just a few months in 2020. In 2022, without visibility no one knows or cares where she is now.

Amber Heard was famous last month, dismissed today. Johnny Depp will be remembered for a long time, because of his accomplishments, not his divorce.

How different things were before the many visibility outlets. How little people knew about the “rich and famous”. Before photography, they did not even know what they looked like. Yet they were the source of inspiration and admiration. Their books were read, their songs were sung, their music heard and their heroism admired.

Who are today’s heroes? The Kardashians, Madonna, Elon Musk, Britney Spears?

Fame defines you. How do you wish to be defined? Think about it seriously.

The office held brought admiration, but those holding them today deserve no admiration, because of their flaws so apparent on social media. Why should we admire the leader of the “Free World”, Joe Biden? His visibility worked against him. Therefore there are two sides to being overly visible, much like a two-edged sword.

Dignity was associated with fame, not indignity. It is the antithesis of celebrity.

Is dignity what the public seeks? Let us not blame the public, it is shamefully the will of the media, or social media. Scandal is their bread and butter. The degree of shamelessness is in direct proportion to the degree of celebrity stardom.

To be a bona fide celebrity you must be obnoxious, arrogant, outrageous, and eventually an addict — not only to fame but to harmful drugs.

We lament the loss of such stars as Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and others.

Several books and studies have been conducted lately, primary among them is, Frenzy of Renown (1986) by author Leo Braudy, English literature professor at the University of Southern California. In his book he predicts that within a few decades fame and history would be a subject of academic studies. Therefore, it is not surprising that celebrity culture has indeed become an important feature in academic circles.

The conclusion is that “fame changes a person’s life—forever.”

The pursuit of fame, or rather, celebrity status, is a dangerous drug. It turns into an addiction and an addict would do anything to get his/her fix. The result, as we have seen, can be devastating.

Celebrities have become essential to our culture more than ever before, but is that a good thing?

America’s famous pop artist Andy Warhol said in 1968: “In the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” His comment on how feeble and fleeting is the nature of fame, haunts us to this day — and that was long before social media.

If you dream of piles of money, a life of luxury and you will live happily ever after, abandon those dreams. Fame comes at a very high price. You live under a microscope, and the public’s voyeuristic instincts will give you no peace.

Fame locks you up in a bird’s cage, like a toy in a toy shop. It will puff you up and shrink you down, at will.

Celebrity culture is undermining and destroying true greatness — a decline in clear-cut lines between the good, the bad, and the ugly.


“Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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