Fame is Terrible for People

175px-Elvis_Presley_Jailhouse_Rock
Elvis

While researching my post on Music and Sex, I noticed a consistent pattern: fame is terrible for people.

Too many musicians to list have died from drug overdoses or suicide. Elvis died of a drug overdose. John Lennon attracted the attention of a crazy fan who assassinated him. Curt Cobain killed himself (or, yes, conspiracy theorists note, might have been murdered.) Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington committed suicide. Alice in Chains’s Layne Staley died of heroin. The list continues.

Far more have seen their personal relationships fail, time after time. The lives of stars are filled with breakups and drama, not just because tabloids care to report on them, but also because of the drugs, wealth, and easy availability of other partners.

At least musicians get something (money, sex,) out of their fame, and most went willingly into it (child stars, not so much). But many people today are thrust completely unwillingly into the spotlight and get nothing from it–people caught on camera in awkward incidents, or whose absurd video suddenly went viral for all the wrong reasons, or who caught the notice of an internet mob.

Here we have people like the students from Covington Catholic, or the coffee shop employee who lost her job after not serving a black woman who arrived after the shop had closed, or, for that matter, almost all of the survivors of mass shootings, especially the ones that attract conspiracy theorists.

It seems that fame, like many other goods, is a matter of decreasing returns. Going from zero fame to a little fame is nearly always good. Companies have to advertise products so customers know they exist. Being known as an expert in your field will net you lots of business, recommendations, or just social capital. Being popular in your school or community is generally pleasant.

At this level, increasing fame means increasing numbers of people who know and appreciate your work, while still remaining obscure enough that people who don’t like or care for your creations will simply ignore you.

Beyond a certain level of fame, though, you’ve already gotten the attention of most people who like you, and are now primarily reaching people who aren’t interested or don’t like you. If you become sufficiently famous, your fame alone will drive people who dislike your work to start complaining about how stupid it is that someone who makes such terrible work can be so famous. No one feels compelled to talk about how much they hate a local indie band enjoyed by a few hundred teens, but millions of people vocally hate Marilyn Manson.

Sufficient fame, therefore, attracts more haters than lovers.

This isn’t too big a deal if you’re a rock star, because you at least still have millions of dollars and adoring fans. This is a big deal if you’re just an ordinary person who accidentally became famous and wasn’t prepared in any way to make money or deal with the effects of a sudden onslaught of hate.

Fame wasn’t always like this, because media wasn’t always like this. There were no million-album recording artists in the 1800s. There were no viral internet videos in the 1950s. Just like in Texas, in our winner-take-all economy, fame is bigger–and thus so are its effects.

I think we need to tread this fame-ground very carefully. Recognize when we (or others) are thrusting unprepared people into the spotlight and withdraw from mobbing tactics. Teenagers, clearly, should not be famous. But more mundane people, like writers who have to post under their real (or well-known pseudonyms), probably also need to take steps to insulate themselves from the spasms of random mobs of haters. The current trend of writers taking mobs–at least SJW mobs–seriously and trying to appease them is another effect of people having fame thrust upon them that they don’t know how to deal with.

The Most Important People in History?

Who's that guy in the middle?
Who’s that guy in the middle?

While searching for a children’s book about that incident with Teddy Roosevelt and the bear (which you really would think someone would write a kid’s book about,) I decided to rank the importance of historical figures by number of children’s books (not YA) about them in the library database.

The round numbers are estimates, due to searches generally returning a number of irrelevant or duplicate titles that just have an author or title with a similar name to what your looking for. With the rarest subjects, I was able to count how many relevant books there were (I decided to exclude, for example, a fictional series with characters named Nick and Tesla, but you might have included them,) but for the guys with multiple hundreds of books, I just subtracted about a quarter of their score. This did not change the rankings, but it does remove some granularity.

The most important guys in the room:

Jesus: 250

Einstein: 150

Columbus: 150

George Washington: 100

Lincoln: 100

Moderately Important:

MLK: 50

Jefferson: 40

Edison: 40

Sacajawea: 30

John Brown (raid on Harper’s Ferry): 30

Rosa Parks: 30

Harriet Tubman: 30

Sojourner Truth: 30

Amelia Earhart: 25

Darwin: 20

Gandhi: 15

Washington Carver (peanuts): 15

Frida Kahlo: 15

Marie Curie: 15

Nelson Mandela: 12

Unimportant:

Isaac Newton: 10

Malcolm X: 9

Botticelli: 6

Teddy Roosevelt: 5

Beyonce: 5

Malala Yousafzazi: 5

Mary Terrell (female civil rights activist): 3

Jonas Salk (Polio Vaccine): 3

John Snow (helped eliminate Cholera, but who cares about that?): 1

Tesla: 1

Niels Bohr (father of quantum physics): 0.1 (part of a series.)

 

Thoughts: This is a winner-take-all economy. The cultural leaders are clearly enshrined on top. Does the library really need 100 books about George Washington? Probably not. Could it use a few more books about Teddy Roosevelt or Niels Bohr? Probably.

The cultural leaders appear to be hanging on to their positions despite modern liberalism; John Lennon is not out-selling Jesus (at least among kids.) Columbus’s numbers were a surprise to me, given that a lot of people really hate him, but his popularity is probably due to the fact that Columbus Day is still celebrated in elementary schools and school kids have to write reports about Columbus. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Columbus’s numbers shrink quite a bit over the next few decades.)

In the Moderately Important category, we have most of our diversity and civil rights inclusions. MLK might not have risen to the levels of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (yet), but he’s beaten out Jefferson for third-most-famous American status.

This section most exemplifies how fame is created by cultural elites (aka the Cathedral). Jesus’s popularity isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but the fact that you know Rosa Parks’s name and not that of thousands of other people who made similar stands against segregation is due simply to a committee deciding that Rosa Parks was more likeable than they were, and so they were going to publicize her case. If someone decided to make an obscure Serbian scientist who used to work for Thomas Edison famous, he might suddenly jump from John Snow-level obscurity to Amelia Earhart fame, though the acquisition of children’s books for the library would obviously lag by a few years. And if someone decides that maybe Teddy Roosevelt isn’t so important anymore, maybe we should talk about some other guys, then Roosevelt can drop pretty quickly from #4 American to the bottom of the list.

At the bottom, we have people who are even less important than Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart, like Jonas Salk and John Snow. I know I harp on this a lot, but I consider it a fucking tragedy that the guys who saved the lives of millions of people are less famous than some woman who crashed a plane into the Pacific Ocean.