In a time when many people seem not to want to know about their neighbors, the ancient impulse toward gossip finds its preferred target in the realm of celebrity. Too many of us would rather know every detail about people we will never meet than the first thing about the folks who live next door. Our obsession with celebrity is nothing new. From the time that professional athletes and stage actors became national figures, the media have encouraged us to be interested in stars' every act. This trend has only been exacerbated by the 24-hour news channels and the internet. Disinterest in our neighbors is probably a more recent trend, consistent with a general aversion to all things public that comes with the intensively marketed privatization and virtualization of all experience. The foibles of a golfer, even the best golfer, should not enthrall us as they seem to, especially not when every American should have bigger fish to fry.
Gossip itself isn't the problem. That's democracy in its most basic form. It may too often be a means to enforce mindless conformity with traditions, but it's also a reminder that we are all accountable to each other. The question that turns gossip into politics is: what should we be accountable to each other for? Gossip usually seems to focus on sex because that's one topic most people feel competent to pass judgments on. The political realm has been so mystified (or supposedly specialized) that people don't feel competent to judge anything but any policy's impact on their own pocketbooks. Even then, one suspects that the latest celebrity misadventure still means more to many people. Is it utopian of me to wish that more people would be as passionately engaged with issues that actually do mean more to them, whether they realize it yet or not? It depends, since passion often comes with prejudice. But informed passion is probably what the Founders and Framers depended on to keep their democratic republic from declining into what it is today. But too many Americans were encouraged to mind their own business (making money) or anyone else's business but that of the country, which had somehow gotten too complicated for most of us to understand. Celebrity gives us circuses without bread, and at no expense to our rulers -- indeed, practically no effort on their part. There's no conscious effort to distract Americans from what really matters; it's just too easy to make money by doing so, and the result is the same without anyone willing it so. It's just free enterprise at work.