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Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, Sweet Celebrity

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Let's consider for a moment the fates of two men who took unique paths in military life and whose careers were once intertwined: General David Petraeus, now our Afghan War commander, and his former subordinate General Stanley McChrystal, our former Afghan War commander before he became the first general since Douglas MacArthur to be axed by a president -- in his case, for a Rolling Stone version of "loose lips sink ships" (or administrations).  Petraeus, the most political U.S. general in memory, dusted off the failed counterinsurgency doctrine of the Vietnam era, made it bright and shiny again, built fabulous relationships in Congress and in militarized Washington think tanks, and then rode it all to the heights in Iraq and at U.S. Central Command.  Now, in Afghanistan, without the slightest compunction, he's left his beloved counterinsurgency doctrine in a ditch as conditions on the ground worsen.  Instead, he's called in the firepower and the propaganda, both in double measure.  (Oh, and in case you hadn't heard, we've finally achieved glorious victory in the godforsaken village of Marjah in southern Afghanistan where a senior Marine general recently announced that the battle against the Taliban there is "essentially over."  Huzzah!)

Thanks to such a string of dazzling "successes," Petraeus has scaled the heights of American celebrity.  Just the other day, he reached Mount-McKinley-esque elevations (with Everest still ahead) when ABC's Barbara Walters declared him not just an "American hero" (though that, too), but the Most Fascinating Person of 2010!  He topped a list which included Justin Bieber, Sarah Palin, and future British princess Kate Middleton, possibly because he has so much more bling than they do.

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McChrystal might not seem such a happy story.  Running teams of Special Operations assassins for years from the shadows in Iraq and Afghanistan -- hardly the sort of thing likely to lead to American celebrity -- he became Afghan War commander under Centcom commander Petraeus in 2009.  The Taliban, however, seemed to surge faster than his forces did and he was even saddled with responsibility for approving Afghan peace talks with (and "goodwill payments" to) a Taliban impostor.  Then, of course, he presided over a group of hard-drinking aides, deeply frustrated by the war they were so unsuccessfully fighting, who mouthed off to that Rolling Stone reporter about the Obama administration, et voilà, he was out on his ear. Open to him, then, it seemed was only the usual grim route for retired generals: a quick trip through that fast-twirling military-industrial revolving door, pension in hand, to a lobbying job at an elevated salary with a defense contractor and maybe even a "senior mentorship" at the Pentagon.

But such a man was not Stanley McChrystal.  Pulling himself up by his combat boot straps, he took another path.  He started by accepting a post at Yale University teaching a seminar in "leadership"; then, he signed on with a "world class" speaker's bureau called Leading Authorities, and next thing you know he's on the talk circuit offering "Four-Star Strategy Lessons" for a fee that can hit $60,000 a pop (plus travel expenses and lodging for three).  Alright, it's not all glory like in Marjah.  He does, for instance, have to grit his teeth and give the keynote address at the International Sign Association's Expo 2011. ("While the majority of our educational and networking events are directly related to the sign industry, Gen. McChrystal will offer valuable insight into leadership during difficult times," says ISA president Lori Anderson enthusiastically.)  Nor does he always fill all the seats when he speaks, but this is what sacrifice is all about, right?  And his message is surely invaluable.  To wit:

"One of the things I learned about communications is you need to keep it very direct, very straightforward, simple, and you need to be repetitive with it.  People need to hear a consistency in your message over time.  Don't worry about trying to say something dramatically different every time you talk to people because if they hear the same message enough times it's actually very reassuring that you are consistent in the direction you're trying to take the organization."

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Think of Stanley McChrystal, then, as the military version of a self-made celebrity.  Next year Barbara Walters? 

Lewis Lapham, who for years edited and introduced each issue of Harper's Magazine, now does the same at Lapham's Quarterly, a gem of a publication that, four times a year, unites around a single topic the most provocative, original voices in history. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.)  Its newest issue focuses on celebrity, now evidently almost as available to generals as to movie stars, and is introduced by a longer version of the following essay.  We thank that magazine's editors for allowing us to preview it at TomDispatch.  Tom 

Domesticated Deities
About Messiahs Come to Redeem Our Country, Not Govern It (and Don't Forget Marilyn and Elvis and Jackie O and Diana and Oprah and Brangelina and David Hasselhoff)
By Lewis Lapham

[A longer version of t his essay appears in "Celebrity," the Winter 2011 issue of Lapham's Quarterly and is posted at with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
-- William Shakespeare

Label celebrity a consumer society's most precious consumer product, and eventually it becomes the hero with a thousand faces, the packaging of the society's art and politics, the framework of its commerce, and the stuff of its religion. Such a society is the one that America has been attempting to make for itself since John F. Kennedy was king in Camelot, and the collective effort -- nearly 50 years of dancing with the stars under the disco balls in Hollywood, Washington, and Wall Street -- deserves an appreciation of the historical antecedents.

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Associate celebrity with the worship of graven images, and not only is it nothing new under the sun, it is the pretension to divinity that built the pyramids and destroyed both Sodom and Julius Caesar. The vanity of princes is an old story; so is the wish for kings and the gazing into the pool of Narcissus. The precious cargo that was Cleopatra, queen in Egypt, was carried on the Nile in a golden boat rowed with silver oars, its decks laden with the music of flutes and lyres, its sails worked by women dressed as nymphs and graces.

The son et lumières presented by Louis XIV in the palace of Versailles and by Adolf Hitler in the stadium at Nuremberg prefigure the Colorado rock-star staging of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential nomination. Nor do the profile pictures on Facebook lack for timeworn precedent. During the three centuries between the death of Alexander and the birth of Christ, the cities of Asia Minor were littered with tributes to an exalted self. Wealthy individuals aspiring to apotheosis in bronze acquired first a prominent vantage point and then a prefabricated torso representative of a goddess or a general. A flattering hand fitted the custom-tailored head; as with the cover photographs for Vanity Fair, prices varied according to the power of the image to draw a crowd.

The Rule of Images

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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