National Catholic Register


American Idol

Part 3 of a Series on Vanity

BY Melinda Selmys

November 20-December 3, 2011 Issue | Posted 11/14/11 at 7:52 PM


Andy Warhol prophetically quipped, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

The term “15 minutes of fame” has come to refer to a sort of perceived entitlement: Many people seem to believe that they have the right to claim their “15 minutes,” to be, however briefly, the center of attention.

The irony is that Warhol was pointing out the fleetingness of fame, challenging us to consider the great cultural joke of placing elevated importance on a momentary television appearance or photos in a newspaper. If fame were democratized and universalized in the way that Warhol suggests, it would lose all of its significance. The juxtaposition of a quarter of an hour with the scope of an entire human life should serve to highlight the futility of fame, not to whet the appetite for personal notoriety.

Warhol’s prediction, however, was true.

It has become increasingly possible for anyone in North American society to claim his 15 minutes, and so many do. Consider, for example, the proliferation of reality-TV shows. The people who appear in these productions are generally not paid for their work, and they are usually the subject of ridicule and disdain from the viewers.

The shows range from the merely voyeuristic to outright exploitainment.

Hoarders and Intervention, for example, are literally an exposition of an individual’s most private personal struggles, served up to an unsympathetic audience whose primary pleasure in watching is the joy of judging other people.

We might also consider the explosion of amateur pornography, now a hobby so widespread and prolific that it threatens the revenues of major “adult film” companies.

Add to this various “tell-all” blogs, sexual and otherwise; the ever-increasing quantities of personal information available on Facebook and other social-networking sites; the emergence of a group of people who spend more time tweeting about their life than they spend living it, and you can see the development of a pattern of self-ploitation.

What is driving this trend? The superficial answer is that it is a form of vanity: People wish for their lives to be interesting to other people, and so they are driven to adopt a series of scripts or rituals by which they make their lives palatable for consumption within the public sphere.

The problem, however, has its deeper roots in an epidemic of loneliness.

Vanity is not merely a product of pride. The self-confidence of the vain is a confidence trick revealing a deep underlying insecurity.

The man who knows that he is doing truly productive work is not the one who is compelled to showcase his most trivial accomplishments on YouTube.

The woman who’s sure that she is attractive to a loving spouse is not the one whose evening wear is indistinguishable from her lingerie.

Vanity is literally empty, and it is an expression of an interior emptiness — not always a lack of personal resources, but a lack of personal relationships.

One of the great errors of the “self-esteem” movement lay in the presumption that a person’s sense of worth comes primarily from within. The greatest love of all does not consist in loving oneself, but in loving and being loved by others.

Genuine self-respect arises out of an experience of being valued not for one’s accomplishments, but for oneself.

Traditionally, this consciousness of personal dignity arises out of the unconditional love within a family. It is not an accident that the erosion of the family has undermined intimacy and spurred the creation of an artificial world in which people can clumsily reach out for love under the cloak of anonymity.

The solution cannot be moral disgust, nor can it be a herculean attempt to cleanse the Internet of narcissistic self-indulgence or smut.

“Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for ‘friends,’ there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself,” said Pope Benedict XVI.

The Pope is not calling on Catholics to judge those who succumb to the vain temptations of an Internet fantasy world, but, rather, to create genuine relationships with them.

The lonely are there, huddled in their masses within the virtual ghettos of the Internet. They are willing to expose themselves to the all-seeing eye of Google Analytics, the ridicule of their peers, and the taunts of trolls and griefers because they are desperate for friendship.

Christians, therefore, are called to transform the World Wide Web from a space in which the hungry spider traps her lonely prey into a place where people are bound together by a fabric of authenticity and love.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at