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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Cult of Pure Celebrity

One of my favorite movies is “The American President,” (1995) starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. It is the story of a widowed president who falls in love with a liberal lobbyist. He struggles to navigate his relationship with her while also doing his job as the President. It’s a good movie, you should see it if you haven’t already. In the final speech of the movie, President Shepherd (Douglas), who has been maligned politically because of his budding relationship with the lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening), finally stands up for himself and his personal life at an impromptu press conference. In the middle of his speech he says, "Everybody knows America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free."

It was a powerful moment. What we do and say matters. Our actions and our words define us. That is a truth from which we cannot escape, no matter how much we try. Celebrity worship reflects a primal need that’s been present since the Babylonians: to elevate people to the status of mythic heroes, only to destroy them. “It suits us when… fame comes at a price. Or as the Greeks put it, the only place to go from the top of Fortune’s Wheel is down. Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, had to choose between a long, anonymous life or a short, glorious one. There’s no middle ground: a hero must either “go out in a blaze of glory or else disappoint us.”

Seventeen years ago (1994), then-NBA standout Charles Barkley (The Chicago Bulls) wrote the text for his own Nike commercial, a black-and-white ad that lasted 27 seconds and provided water cooler talk for people who watched it air back then and remains a conversation starter for anyone exposed to it since. Barkley, famed for his ferocious play, as well as his opinions, looked directly into the camera when he spoke just 42 words. But they weren't just words, they were the truth. When Barkley stated, "I am not a role model. I'm not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." Many parents and psychologists or family and youth sports researchers agreed with Barkley's premise.

Throughout his career, Barkley had been arguing that athletes should not be considered role models. He stated, "A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail; should they be role models?" In 1994, his argument prompted national news when he wrote the text for his "I am not a role model" Nike commercial. Dan Quayle, the former Vice President of the United States, called it a "family-values message" for Barkley's oft-ignored call for parents and teachers to quit looking to him to "raise your kids" and instead be role models themselves.

Barkley's message sparked a great public debate about the nature of role models. He argued, "I think the media demands that athletes be role models because there's some jealousy involved. It's as if they say, this is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we're going to make it tough on him. And what they're really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can't become, because not many people can be like we are. Not all kids can be like Michael Jordan.

It was brutal, perhaps harsh... but again, it was the truth. We have become a society which elevates our expectations to levels which far exceed anyone's ability to meet them. We worship "celebrity" and we place these people under microscopes, place them on lofty perches and then joyfully watch as they fall from grace and come inevitably crashing to the ground.

So what is the allure of fame? The lifestyle, for one thing. In the Faust legend, the doctor agrees to sell his soul to the Devil, but in return gets all his wishes granted for 24 years. In both ancient Albania and Mesoamerica, slaves and youth selected as human sacrifices were often first entertained in massive splendor. Nowadays, MTV allows the Jersey Shore kids to party themselves sick— with the explicit understanding that they’ll pay back the network by self-destructing for the cameras. Of course, in The Odyssey, Achilles’ ghost reappears and says he made the wrong choice— he should have gone for long-lived anonymity. But once fame is granted, there’s no going back. It perpetuates itself and never returns to the escape of anonymity.

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