Daniel Pipes’ superb 1997 book Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From dissects the phenomenon in Communist and Arab dictatorships. What does that have to do, though, with the absurd Ms. Kardashian? On the surface, the behavior of paranoids, who see significance in random and unrelated facts, is identical to the consumers of gossip, who also see significance in random and unrelated facts. Courtiers at Versailles, or bureaucrats in a dictatorship, are functionally paranoid, whatever their inner mental state, because Stalin as well as the Sun-King created a dystopia in which there is a great deal about which to be paranoid.
Here, I think, is the secret of Ms. Kardashian’s celebrity: In today’s America, rewards and punishments seem almost as arbitrary as they did in the Bourbon court. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when millions of star-struck kids set off to study science — the world recaptured nostalgically in the 1999 film October Sky -- the vast majority of Americans stare uncomprehending at the number nerds who build software companies or trade at hedge funds. Quantitative faculties at top universities would shut down if Chinese and Indian students stayed at home. Whether the success story involves a popular figure like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or hated figures from Wall Street, most people simply cannot imagine themselves doing what they do, the way the coal miners’ kids of the 1950s could imagine themselves as rocket scientists.
By the same token, Americans do not understand why they have been afflicted with falling home equity and poorer job prospects. The gap between winners and losers yawns wide. It doesn’t help to explain that America’s $6 trillion imports of capital between 1998 and 2007 pumped air into the housing bubble, and that the people in effect created their own Ponzi scheme. Americans do not understand their own unpreparedness to confront a global market in which America’s monopoly on markets and talent is fraying.
Nonetheless people need a success story with which to identify, and the arbitrary elevation of undistinguished individuals provides a proxy. Very few people can imagine themselves founding a biotech company that applies quantum mechanics to molecular processes, but anyone can imagine becoming a celebrity who is famous for being famous. The definitive celebrity who is famous for being famous, of course, is Barack Obama, the one-term senator from Illinois without a single accomplishment to his name — not an article in a law review, not a piece of legislation — who levered himself into the presidency.
I don’t mean to imply that all is lost. America remains the world’s greatest country with vast resources of energy and creativity. But we are losing time. A physics professor at MIT told me the other day that the Chinese students at MIT now have a better chance of obtaining a six-figure salary on graduation if they go home to China than if they stay in the United States. Restoring entrepreneurship — the chance for ordinary people to succeed on their work and talent — is the answer. We have time, but not all the time in the world. If we fail (and if the celebrity-in-chief is re-elected next year), we may become a different kind of country.