Oscar For The WinWe are living in strange times.

Our cultural definition of “success”— both in business, and in life— has become virtually incomprehensible. Formerly we relied on the power of the human conscience to curb the worst personal excesses of public figures via a little mental mechanism called “shame.” Those who behaved abominably would suffer pangs of guilt and be ashamed of what they had done— especially since their society would rightly castigate them for their ill-behavior.

No longer. The prevailing message currently perpetuated by our media is “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” The worst examples of our society— the ridiculously selfish and the criminally stupid and lazy— are now extolled as enviable champions of our cultural belief-system. Why? Because so many of us seem addicted to avidly following their heinous misadventures on television and in digital and printed media, because apparently they’re just so darn INTERESTING.

Reality, advertising and entertainment have melded into a blurred mass of blabbing faces and flailing limbs: “the celebrity elite.” Like a modern-day aristocracy they sponge up monetary tribute tithed by the befuddled masses while desperately flaunting their own faults, foibles, and sheer freakishness in pursuit of a media career. Sadly, the analogy fits. It IS equivalent to a modern freakshow, the rampant exploitation of which is no less repugnant than in the heart-rending traveling freak shows of old… except in the new media-fueled freakshow the freaks exploit themselves, enthusiastically volunteering and even competing for a chance to be exploited. Anything for a grab at the elusive brass ring of fame.

They spring from some inexhaustible spawning-ground to shuffle through the fickle spotlight with little to distinguish them; spokesmodels, teen idols du jour, and vapid celebrity wannabes with trendy stage names and perky plastic smiles. Most have no sense of shame at all. Those who do sense their own awfulness take extra care to insulate themselves from the rest of us, lest they be infected with pangs of conscience and (one hopes) a sudden urge to jump off a high building to escape the eventual social ramifications of their own idiocy.

Why does this syndrome persist? Because the freakshow generates piles of money for the advertising industry, which sells products to generate revenue for the manufacturing industries, which fund the production of one artistically-bankrupt TV disaster and cultural car-wreck after another. In many quarters, this lack of responsibility has become the status quo of our business world. Profit means never having to say you’re sorry.

When did the old heart-warming adage “all’s well that end’s well” (and its modern equivalent “no harm, no foul”) transmogrify into the sinister Machiavellian maxim “the end justifies the means”? WTF? Trust me: those two concepts are NOT the same thing.

Plus! If you manage to win an Academy Award— which is now apparently the holy grail of media success in American culture— you can pretty much get away with anything. A few years ago they officially quit saying “…and the winner is…” when an Oscar is presented, changing it to “…and the Oscar goes to…” to avoid implying that any of the nominees are “losers.” I agree. No one wearing a $10,000 designer outfit, eating a $1200-a-plate dinner, and clutching a $25,000 gift bag of celebrity swag while most of the free world watches them breathlessly on live satellite television can be considered—in any sense of the word— a loser. Or can they?

I guess it depends on your definition of success, doesn’t it?