The Profits of Personality

During the writing of this series of messages about our political disorder and my own preference for developing an independent mindset versus being lost to a pathological lockstep with any political party, I was introduced to two books that have helped to shape my further thinking on the subject of character. The first of these was written by James Davison Hunter entitled The Death of Character, which was published in 2000. In it he made a passing reference to the second book, published in 1985, and written by Warren I Susman, entitled Culture as History.

Susman’s contribution to the discussion is the premise that America went through a transformation during the 20th Century, moving from a culture of character to one of personality. The old Puritan-producer order, with its emphasis on the development of the moral qualities we call character, was displaced by the new, custom made for a consumer society dynamic of personality, with its emphasis on being “liked and admired.”  He quotes a line from French writer Henry Laurent’s 1916 book Personality: How to Build It as being truly representative of that new age of self-aggrandizement, who stated, “Personality is the quality of being Somebody.”

Ironically Laurent’s title informs us that personality, like character, must be formed in keeping with the accepted social order of the moment. Self-help books like Laurent’s abounded with their emphasis on developing the most appealing face, voice, poise, clothes and attitude. The ultimate sign of one’s success in becoming Somebody could be found in having followers or, in 21st Century terms, a posse.

If I understand Hunter’s thesis correctly – and by the way neither book is an easy read – then I would say he is in agreement with Susman’s claim about the transition from a character culture to one of personality. But despite his book’s title, Hunter does hold to the belief that character is not dead. It is still present in our society, just confined to the small enclaves where creeds still exist, which help members of these isolated communities form convictions, which in turn help shape one’s character. The overwhelming problem, in his view, is that our institutions have succumbed to the cult of personality, making it hard, if not impossible, for the role of character to resume its once dominate place in the American way of life.

My reason for writing this lengthy preamble to my intended message is not to go intellectual on anyone. That would, after all, put a dent in my acceptability, which would work against any attempt at enhancing my personality. But this Hunter-Susman collaboration in my reading formed a perfectly timed example of just what their academic acclamations look like in real time. My example is the reporting via Yahoo (that wonderful source of non-news) of Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin foregoing the usual strikingly costumed celebrity celebrations of Halloween in order to attend a church service.

First of all, that I was looking at a Yahoo headline was not my fault. I still have a Yahoo e-mail account and as any user knows, when you sign out from your account you exit through Yahoo news. This is the internet equivalent of exiting a ride at Disneyland, where one must pass through a gift shop in order to breathe fresh air. And this is where I learned about the escapist attempt at holiness promulgated by this famous pair of media darlings.

What I know about the Biebs, besides this affectionately shortening of his name by his fans, is that he is the male counterpart of Taylor Swift, both being musical juggernauts in terms of popularity and sales. But being a father of two adult children, one who favored heavy metal and the other country music, neither Swift nor Bieber ever laid claim to the hearts and minds of my children, leaving me deprived of hearing their songs emanating from the juvenile confines of my household. This means I am clueless about their musical catalogue as well as the sound of their voices. I am definitely not a camp follower, but that does not diminish their popularity and therefore the evidence of their personalities in any way. With regards to Hailey Baldwin, I had to do some further research to discover which Baldwin brother she was descended from. It’s Stephen, the youngest, if you are as culturally deficient as me.

But this deficiency in my own awareness of today’s pop culture only heightened my interest in the story behind the headline about their church attendance. So I did what any curious soul wielding today’s technology would do. I clicked on the link, which took me to a website boasting of a couple of photos with captions and a description of what the Biebs and the Babe wore on their outing. There was no mention by name of the church they attended, what the message was – if any – that held more appeal for Bieber and Baldwin than a Halloween-themed outing, or an insightful quote from the couple about the meaning of their faith in their life as recently weds. But you could follow another link that would tell you how you too could get Ms. Baldwin’s “look” by purchasing the right style of clothes; affirmation of Susman’s claim that personality is the perfect expression of a consumer society.

The kids deserve better, but this is the price of personality. The qualities of face, voice, poise, clothes and attitude touted as essential in the early 1900s has proven to be paramount more than a hundred years later. And if Susman were still alive, he could feel justly vindicated in his academic assessment of what was taking place with this paradigm shift from character to personality development and its apparent permanence. What is important now is what’s on the surface. It is – to borrow a now popular phrase –  “flipping the script” between character and personality. What you get is what you see and that through the long-distance lens of the digital age, proving that the current cult of personality is no longer personal.

All of this puts me in mind of a rather prophetic song made popular by Lloyd Price during my own youthful development.  In 1959 he sang about his foolish enslavement to the girl of his dreams who had – you guessed it – personality. Its allure was evident in her walk, talk, smile and charm. But at least there was still some aspect of character present as he crooned about her great big heart; a symbol of substance beneath the veneer of what another song of that era touted as poetry in motion.

Rave on, Lloyd Price; you were a prophet without intention, the depth of your insight inversely proportional to the shallowness of our values.

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