Sunday, February 15, 2009

Is authenticity enough? : on celebrity and failure

Deep down, don't we all believe that a bit of wild behavior--drinking, smoking, padding the expense account, skimming your taxes--has a salutary effect on human personality development? Isn't sowing one's wild oats a revered rite of passage for American youth?

Um.... Who says these attitudes should be normalized? In this instance it is Joe Queenan writing the cover article for the Weekend Journal in the Wall Street Journal, "In Praise of Transgressions."

I understand that Queenan is a satirist. In this article, it's thin. I actually think he believes what he's saying.

So do many today who believe experimentation that is harmful to one's self and to others should be a valid opportunity to explore. We "expect" teens to be reckless. We expect them to be uncultivated in virtue and class. And we expect our public servants to skim taxes. Apparently, one is never required to grow up.

In speaking to a high school classroom last Spring, the students raised the issue of swearing. Why were certain words considered off limits? Many of the kids in the class loved to razz authority, snigger, glance at each other with knowing looks that they were somehow superior to all this nonsense. What was the morality behind swear words?

I touched on what mattered to them: their social status. Many of these students came from wealthy families. I told them that swearing, regardless of it's morality, is a sign of a lack of control, a lack of manners, and a lack of class. Suddenly, the classroom silenced. They all regarded themselves as upper class economically. I called them out that they were not demonstrating an upper class virtue and upper class concern for others. Swearing is often an assault of language (as it is uncreative) and an assault on manners (it tells others in earshot that crudeness owns the audible space). In short, swearing is often self-conscious and proud. It's unworthy of people who claim to be educated and leaders.

So it goes. To be a virtuous leader is not the same as making money, having power, having celebrity. It is a good time to understand this on a large scale.

People proficient at sports may be committed to swimming or baseball. That means if there's one quality they surely have it is tenacity. But that doesn't mean they are virtuous or well-rounded enough to be leaders. Yet we treat them as "heroes" because they did something physically incredible. A hero used to be someone who sacrificed themselves to help others. Today it means someone we marvel at, like a giant crane perched on a skyscrapper. Celebrities are skycrapers, but hardly "heroes." The fact that we keep staring at them and throw money at them says a lot about us.

We've developed a habit of thinking that doing something physically incredible is a passport to being someone worth listening to. Why we take the political opinion of so many Hollywood celebrities is irrational to me. They didn't become popular because of political opinion, and therefore, should be less considered than, say, some obscure professors who spend an lifetime studying the principles of good government and the corruption in Washington. Yet when we consider celebrity endorsements of candidates as weighty, they says a lot about us.

We just elected a President that appears to get votes because of celebrity 'coolness.' From my perceptions, he falls into a similar category, and may be the kind of president we've become socially conditioned to accept without question. Many pundits wondered what qualified Obama to be a messiah for the US government. Many are still asking this question as politicians vote to spend almost $800B on a stimulous package that the majority of those they represent do not want or are unsure if it will help.

When I read the headline that Phelps was caught doing illegal substances, I wasn't surprised. When he publically apologized, I wasn't suprised. That's what your PR agent will tell you to do, otherwise you will lose money and so will your PR agent. What surprised me was that Kelloggs, a large sponsor of Phelps, dropped him!

In today's world, I thought Kelloggs courageous (a virtue) to let Phelps go when the American public has much the same attitude as the quote at the top of this post. I think Phelps deserved it. Not because it's a bad influence in our children. Not becaue he was stupid. Not because he was callous. He deserved it because he was flagrantly wrong. This wasn't a mistake or an oversight. It was deliberate. What kind of behavior is over the line in sowing one's wild oats? What is enough to keep a celebrity from public endorsement and millions of easy money. Is our national pride and identity really wrapped up in the Olympics and gold medals? Who are we anyway?

Phelps won some gold medals for swimming. Great! But is that leverage enough to say we should celebrate him no matter what other feats he makes, including bong-smoking with frat boys? If he had been heroic, he would have taken a stand against the drugs. That's what heroes do, even if nobody celebrates the act.

A friend of mine spoke to his co-worker recently about this. The co-worker thought it unjust of Kelloggs to drop Phelps because at least Phelps confessed and was honest.

Here's another major assumption of today's postmodern culture: transparency equals virtue. For all the talk that postomderns give about authenticity, that's only a half-virtue. The other half is working toward change.

A.A. will tell you that confession and authenticity are only the first of twelve steps: confess your life has become unmanagble. That's transparency. But that doesn't mean you are well, should be in the spotlight, or are worthy of being celebrated. It just means you're starting to work the program. Time to move to step 2. When you reach step 12, then you may have something to say to the world that we all need to hear. Until then, work in your private world on being an appropriately human person.

There is no "revered rite of passage" called "sowing wild oats." We've smuggled that in as a smutty excuse to be less than human. We are to learn from history so we don't repeat it. That's one of many reasons so many acts are illegal (like drug use or skimming taxes... should we "rever" this? Is this a wild oat?). If we cannot respect this when it comes to the laws of our land, how will we fend against corruption when the laws crumble? Is virtue no higher than the laws? Seems not in the way we elect officials and pander to celebrities.

We will likely wake up one morning wondering what happened. We will no longer be laughing at what we got away with but sad that we got away with it. Should we expect more out of ourselves and from each other?

We need to understand the frailty and glory of human nature so we can harness it for good and be open to our own foibles. If we faile, sometimes "I'm sorry" isn't good enough. Sometimes we have to end the endorsements, step down from our offices, leave the spotlight. It's okay. We'll live. We recorver. We work the program. Our humanity is not wrapped up in who recognizes us or how well we succeed or fail. But by all means, let people who need to leave the spotlight be out of it. Authenticity isn't enough for a soul's recovery.

And all the while, we can work at not revering famous people for being famous, but look for local heroes. It's the unsung heroes that have a smaller chance of falling, in part, because they are heroes through their virtue rather than heroes of fame.
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