The Culture of Celebrity, Let us now praise famous airheads, is an essay by the American writer Joseph Epstein, published in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. It is literate, well-reasoned, witty, worldly and wise. Epstein begins with a study of formal meaning and current usage of the word “culture” with several witty asides about corporate culture, the culture of poverty, and the culture of journalism.
His definition of the culture of celebrity involves fraudulent self-promotion for the sake of publicity and power. This evokes what Harry Frankfurt discussed as Bullshit.
The title of the essay is familiar. It is an allusion to Eccliasticus 44:1, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”, a passage sometimes invoked by 19th century writers. It inspired Rudyard Kipling, who alludes to it in the verse forward to his novel of English Public (Boarding) School life, Stalky & Co.. “Let us Now Praise Famous Men” is better known to students of journalism, photography and the history of 20th century in America as the title of a book by James Agee and Walker Evans, published in 1941.
For the most part, Epstein’s essay is politically neutral. His conservative loyalties appear when he writes about public intellectuals – he calls them publicity intellectuals. His point that academics, writers and commentators promote themselves should apply with equal force across the political spectrum, but he makes it seem, by taking shots at the late Susan Sontag, that liberal intellectuals are less credible than his conservative friends and allies. He seems to be following the lead of Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (ISBN 067400633X). Posner’s book is apparently neutral, but conservative writers have been using it in aid of the project of discrediting liberalism.