Simon Doonan writes in Slate lamenting peoples’ fascination with celebrities who have accomplished nothing. It is an old complaint by now, but still a valid one.
In a lot of ways, I think the interest in celebrities goes back to the days of the aristocracy, when people would be interested in the social goings-on in the upper-classes. We have no aristocracy proper in America, so we use the next best thing.
Doonan mentions how there are no revered philosophers. I guess that’s true, but I will say that the late, great Christopher Hitchens was basically a celebrity intellectual. Maybe you didn’t see his picture on the gossip papers at the supermarket, but he was pretty widely known.
Famous scientists? Well, there’s Stephen Hawking, though I guess he might be famous more for his overcoming adversity than for his actual scientific work.
Actually, come to think of it, both those guys are British. And hey, the British have an aristocracy, too! Dammit, who won that Revolution, anyway?