Where Did All the Accomplished People Go?

We used to revere scientists. Now we worship Kim Kardashian. Why?

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian
Kanye West and Kim Kardashian

Photograph by Chris Weeks/WireImage.

My face bears an expression of extreme gravitas. I would appear to have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Want to get inside my head? Want to hear a snippet of my internal dialogue?

Here goes: Blah. Blah. Blah. How long will it take Jessica Simpson to lose the baby weight? Blah. Blah. Is Brangelina tying the knot just to upstage Jen and Justin? Will Kim drag Kanye down the aisle? Blah. Blah. Blah.

Yes, my head is filled with pathetically stupid thoughts about inconsequential people, and so, quite frankly, is yours. We are all in the same boat. And why on earth do we privilege the most superficial idiocies of popular culture over more substantial fare? The answer is simple: We have lost our fascination with accomplishment.

Superficial vamps and tramps and bimbos are nothing new, but, back in the day, they were forced to share the spotlight with more talented folks, exceptional folks. Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller, remember! Successful individuals from all walks of life were feted and garlanded and propelled into the spotlight. We were interested in their accomplishments. During the last century, consummate skill was HOT! Accomplishment was a veritable aphrodisiac. Now it would appear to have become a giant turnoff.

A younger person reading this might well roll his or her eyes and assume that some old gay codger is merely having a menopausal things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be moment. But let me ask you this: When was the last time you saw a nuclear physicist or a world-class geologist on the red carpet? There was a time when it was not such a preposterous notion. In the past, accomplished people from a wide variety of disciplines were central to the culture. This is an objective truth. If proof is needed, then here is my blast-from-the-past list of examples:

Remember Dr. Christiaan Barnard? Old Chris became a mega-star in 1967 when he performed the world’s first heart transplant. (With his thick South African accent, he pronounced it “hod tronsblond.”) The lucky-ish recipient, a 54-year-old grocer named Louis Washkansky, lived for 18 days, during which time the handsome Dr. B. sliced and cauterized his way onto the cover of Time magazine and into our hearts. He became as celebrated as Bob Dylan. Hard to imagine, right?

Rudolf Nureyev in 1973
Rudolf Nureyev in 1973

Photograph by Allan Warren.

Meanwhile, back in the USSR:

In 1961 the Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev defected to the West. ‘Ere long Rudi became as feted and sought-after as the Beatles. With his bulging white tights, razor-sharp cheekbones, squalor-and-deprivation back story, and general air of haughty disdain, the fabulous Rudi was the most exciting ballerino (I refuse to accept that this is not a word) in history. I vividly remember when my scabby-kneed little classmates and I covered a classroom wall with pictures of this intrepid artiste. Yes, of course we loved Dusty Springfield, but we loved Rudi just as much, and we understood that he was an exceptionally gifted bloke. We understood that he could do stuff we simply could not do. His knees were superior to ours.

Mahalia Jackson was superior too. She was the best gospel singer in the world, tearing into every song as if her life depended on it, and everyone on earth knew her name. She was not conventionally pretty, but nobody cared. Back then, talent trumped looks. Back then fashion models were not deified; gifted people were.

Though none are as globally revered as Mahalia, we still have star gospel singers. One category of accomplishees, however, has disappeared entirely from the landscape. I’m talking about “the celebrity philosopher.” This notion now seems rather quaint, sort of like having an ornamental hermit living in a grotto in your backyard. Enter Bertrand Russell. He was a pacifist—“War does not determine who is right, only who is left”—atheist and a household name for much of the last century. Bertie held provocative views on every subject. His opinions about rural rusticity might give the new generation of organic back-to-the-farm green hipsters a little pause: “With the introduction of agriculture mankind entered upon a long period of meanness, misery, and madness, from which they are only now being freed by the beneficent operation of the machine.”

And there’s more …

Mahalia Jackson, 1962
Mahalia Jackson, 1962

From the Carl Van Vechten photograph collection, Library of Congress.

Every area of science and art is represented in my recollected pantheon of inspiringly accomplished celebs. The mass preoccupations of yore were bold and inclusive, thereby broadening our frame of reference whether we liked it or not. Even if you loathed foreign movies you knew the names Fellini and Godard. You may not have been part of the literati, but you knew that Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Harold Pinter, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal were integral to the groovy, swinging cultural landscape. Even if you loathed opera, you knew and respected Maria Callas and her commitment to her art, to mention nothing of her commitment to dramatic black eyeliner and swallowing a tapeworm to get thin, allegedly. Even if you abhorred bullfighting, you knew the name El Cordobés. Everyone did, as evidenced by the fact that, when I was about 10, my schizophrenic Uncle Ken gave me a poster depicting this fearless toreador: That’s how bloody famous he was.

And what exactly do we celebrate today?

Today we celebrate all the crap I mentioned at the beginning of this article, which basically means that we celebrate audacious women with impressive racks. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not hating on audacious women with impressive racks. I am a big Russ Meyer fan and have, in fact, something of a soft spot for audacious women with impressive racks. They are just great. However, audacious women with impressive racks are like cupcakes, and man cannot live on cupcakes alone. Sometimes you crave the crusty whole meal of an accomplished person. But today, alas, we are on a cupcakes-only diet.

The question is, why? Why have we shoved all today’s accomplished people onto the back burner? Yes, we have Adele, but I am looking beyond the popular-music realm to the broad areas of accomplishment alluded to above and asking where, fer chrissakes, are the glamorous neurophysicists? Where are the charismatic, overachieving innovators and inventors? Steve Jobs? A unicorn! A lone example. You are going to have to do better than that if you wish to upend my hypothesis.

Bertrand Russell

After extensive conversations with my inner Bertrand Russell, I have, of course, come up with a theory about the origins of this dire situation. Et voilà!:

We are living in an everyone-is-special-and-there-are-no-losers society. As a result, we are fearful of accomplished people because they can do stuff that we cannot do, and giving them the spotlight would un-level the playing field. We are, as a result, much more comfortable with the famous-for-nothing paradigm, because then, we, the great unexceptional masses, still have shot at celebrity.

P.S.: The one exception in this situation appears to be sports stars. Today athletic prowess seems to be more celebrated than ever. However in order to be really, really, really über-celebrated even a big-name dude needs to attach himself to an audacious woman with an impressive rack.