Remember when Time’s man of the year, apart from the parade of presidential feebs and felons, was some hero or villain you had to respect, if not always admire?  Among the heroes was the first recipient, Charles Lindbergh, as well as Charles de Gaulle and Lech Walesa.  The villains included Hitler, Stalin, and Ayatollah Khomeini.  Where to put Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr., I leave to you.

In recent years, Time has accelerated its search for the trendy or tear-jerking, naming the founder of Amazon in 1999, Rudy Giuliani in 2001, whistleblowers in 2002, the American Soldier in 2003.  This year, Time climaxed its plunge into pop culture, naming as the “Good Samaritans” two mischief-making do-gooders, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Bono, self-appointed conscience of the chic and dumb.

Apart from his relentless quest for public approval, Gates is only one of a long line of hypocritical robber barons seeking redemption in philanthropic acts designed to make the world a worse place.  I leave it to a younger generation to judge the music of U2, but even by the deteriorating standards of rock music in the new millennium, they nauseate me with their slick and predictable song stylings and their Christianity-lite piety.

I suppose that such criticism, coming from someone who keeps pop music at about the same distance as a strange-acting canary just off the plane from Bangkok, is more than a little unfair, but as the cult of celebrity reaches higher and higher peaks of absurdity, I continue to be astonished by an American people that seemed ready to fly the flags at half-mast for a trash-mouthed comic whose greatest accomplishment was to set himself on fire, while free-basing cocaine.  Actually, the half-mast flags were for Eugene McCarthy, but it was the comic who got the headlines, while Clean Gene was consigned to the back pages or, worse, the editorial page.

Richard Pryor, according to Spike Lee, “Was great.  He was an innovator.  He was a trailblazer, and the way he showed social commentary in his humor opened up a universe for other comics to follow in his footsteps.”

In other words, if you dare not let your kids turn on the TV, lest they hear about things you never dreamed of doing, we have Mr. Pryor to thank.  The New York Times was even more effusive: “Mr. Pryor’s brilliant comic imagination and creative use of the blunt cadences of street language were revelations to most Americans.”

I don’t know what sterile cocoon the Times editorialists inhabit, but “the blunt cadences of street language” have been heard on the street for decades, screamed out by crackheads and aspiring rap artists who think mo-fo is the definite (and indefinite) article.

I have never understood why Richard Pryor or George Carlin—as original as the village atheist, as intelligent as the village idiot—are to be revered for using words that bad little boys like to say around the campfire.  I remember, as a wicked child, pulling the old wheeze on younger children, “Go ask your mama what ‘——’ means,” then hiding outside the door to hear what happened.  When you are ten, this is funny stuff (until you are spanked for it), but what do we think of grown men who think a whoopee cushion is the height of comedy?

It is not the prevalence of scummy language that disturbs me so much as the idolizing of perennial adolescents that is so much a part of our culture.  I had friends who used to bore me to tears analyzing the theology of Paul McCartney songs.  Then there were the dopers who wanted to “interpret” Bob Dylan’s never-ending flow of clumsy gibberish crammed into the form of greeting-card verses.  Dylan’s “poetry” occupies a special niche in the Nonsense Hall of Fame, along with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” George Will’s rhapsodies on baseball, and the foreign-policy pronouncements of Condoleezza Rice.

Nothing in this life of ours can be taken seriously unless it is pumped and pushed by some blank-faced celebrity with a brain as unfurrowed as his forehead.  I feel sorry for poor L. Ron Hubbard.  Whacky as his thin-gruel Satanism is, it deserves better than to be represented by Tom Cruise.

As pernicious an award as the Nobel Peace Prize is, Mohamed El Baradei deserves better than to be upstaged by a bevy of “global celebrities, including Salma Hayek, Julianne Moore, and Duran Duran,” who went all the way to Oslo to perform a tribute to the Nobel peace laureate “for his efforts to save humanity from nuclear weapons.”  When Miss Moore is not saving humanity, she is appearing unclothed in films and doing nude photo layouts.  But she is a prude compared with Miss Hayek, whose nude sex scenes have popped the pimples of a billion prurient adolescents.  I can only imagine the Norskis in their cups, disappointed at seeing the ladies rather less déshabillées than on the screen, screaming, “Take it off!”  Who could blame them?  There is a name for women who do this kind of thing, even “virtually,” for money.  I wouldn’t dream of attacking the right of pretty girls to appear in public, with or without clothes, but isn’t there one person on the entire Nobel committee who might have prevented this travesty of a travesty?

This is a different world from the world of our fathers, and, to gauge the difference, check out “today’s birthdays” reported on radio stations or on websites.  In the Old World, December 21 was the birthday of Thomas à Beckett, Jean Racine, Benjamin Disraeli, L.H. Morgan, Jean-Henri Fabré, Rebecca West, and Anthony Powell.  In the New World, we celebrate actors and actresses Richard Long, William Lundigan, and Samuel L. Jackson; a slew of athletes; and, oh yes, “journalist” Tina Brown.

When Juvenal complained that the Roman Empire tranquilized the mob with bread and circuses, Rome was still producing such statesmen as Titus and Trajan and such writers as Tacitus, Martial, and Juvenal himself.  We have to be content with the likes of Tina Brown, who is neither an American nor a writer.  The real point of Juvenal’s complaint is that the Roman people, stuffed and titillated, would allow their rulers to do anything they liked.  Instancing the fall of Tiberius’ minister Sejanus, attacked by the same mob who had cheered him on a few days earlier, Juvenal concluded that all political ambition is as futile as it is dangerous.  Of course, we good republican Americans know how wrong he was.