Where’s the pea?

By Joe Tassi | Nov 15, 2009

Celebrities are products, commodities, brands. Celebrity, whether it is packaged as entertainment, or draped in the American flag parading as leadership on the national and world political stage, is created to keep us mollified and unaware.

But we love celebrity. We love the real life stories of fame, the successes and excesses of their outrageous lives. And when the inevitable crash and burn occurs, we feed like vultures on their carcasses.

Marketing and public relations firms, managers, agents, political parties, and corporate masters create the iconic. It’s a con don’t you know, a slight of hand trick! Which shell is the pea under? They are cultural enablers as we are cast in the starring role of our own living movies, spending, consuming and creating fantasy, celebrity life styles, that cannot be sustained.

Michael Jackson in life, an iconic world artist, was the very embodiment of celebrity. The world audience dined on his music and his extravagant, crafted, fairytale existence at his Neverland ranch, even while his legal problems, drug addiction and financial woes cornered him like a pack of attack dogs. But to his handlers, even his troubles were gold, sauce for the goose. A new product emerged and was exploited: the fall of Michael Jackson. And we watched as he slowly unraveled and died from a drug overdose − in his rented Los Angeles home.

In death while 32 million viewers watched his televised memorial, Jackson gave us one more show, provided one more chance for his corporate masters to cash in and so produced a star studded, choreographed, celebrity extravaganza. At final rest, Michael Jackson was buried in his $15,000 gold casket. The credits roll and fade to black. Next!

Presidents are created and branded in the same way. Political party leaders rather than representing ideological or philosophical choice, have succumbed to extreme pressure in the service of unimaginable corporate power.

For nearly a decade it was brand W, the “compassionate conservative” with his tough talking, intellectually disengaged, born again, folksy approach. Brand W terrified us with tales of terrorists hiding in caves in Afghanistan, and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Fighting terrorism was his holy justification for involving American troops in two simultaneous wars. Brand W invaded our privacy by authorizing illegal wire taps and surveillance on American citizens, and brand W sanctioned torture of detainees at Guantanamo. Next!

Now it is brand Obama and “yes we can.” His polished sophisticated image, a president with intellectual gravitas, appeals to us. He offers us hope. We want to like him; we want to believe he cares about us or at the very least that he understands our struggle. But just as brand W before him, the Obama brand serves not the best interests of the American people but the corporate power elite that made his presidency possible. It was naive for any of us to think that these powerful entities, the military industrial complex, the insurance, banking, pharmaceutical, health care, oil and energy industries, would simply relinquish their control over this country on Jan. 20 just because President Obama had been sworn in after having campaigned as a reformer and agent of change.

In his book "Empire of Illusion," Chris Hedges writes that since taking office President Obama has authorized $1 trillion in defense spending that will support 70,000 troops in Iraq, for 15 to 20 years. He has expanded the war in Afghanistan, has refused to consider single payer, nonprofit, health insurance coverage for all Americans. Brand Obama will not prosecute Bush administration officials guilty of war crimes, or rescind secrecy laws enacted by the Bush administration. And brand Obama has not restored habeas corpus. Hedges further suggests that the Obama administration has already spent, lent or promised $12.8 trillion of taxpayer money to forestall the inevitable collapse of the American economy. That means when the next economic catastrophe occurs, there will be no bailout money − for anyone.

The unwelcome truth is that our celebrity culture is going down. Our commodity based consumer culture is no longer sustainable. What can we do about it? Plenty! We have enormous power when we choose to use it. Exercising our choice is our power, one person, and one choice at a time. It may seem a small contribution but together growing exponentially, mountains will be moved. Start exercising your choice by turning off the 24 hour a day celebrity radio, network and cable news pundits that get rich, paid to keep us alienated from each other in endless combat that no one ever wins. And when their screaming voices go silent and they no longer have our attention, we will be able to hear our own voices, voices that speak of truth, peace, compassion and tolerance.

Brand America is facing huge problems, including climate change, economic collapse, the health care crisis, the corporate takeover of domestic and foreign policy, military expansion, nuclear proliferation, class warfare, unemployment and racism. Until we are no longer seduced by the specter of celebrity, addicted to consumption or influenced by the vitriol of politics, corporately branded leadership will not abate the assault on our constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. I believe their bows are rosined − and they are tuning up.

Joe Tassi lives in Camden.

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