r m p

THE EPISTLE

 

 

We Wanna-Be's

Back in my college psychology class I remember reading about "eccentricity credits," the extra break we are willing to give certain people because we do not want to have to condemn them.  The example in the textbook was that of an eccentric First Lady (I think) who arrived at some high society function wearing blue jeans. When the Society Page reporter asked the hostess about this gross breach of etiquette (can't you just see Aunt Pittypat reaching for her smelling salts?), she replied cooly, "Mrs.  So-&-So feels more comfortable in dungarees." As if anyone else who showed up similarly attired would not have been bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! But the President's wife? She can get away with it. We wouldn't mind if she showed up stark naked as long as we could say she appeared at our soiree, would we?

Religious demagogues like Jim Jones and Jimmy Swaggart have as many eccentricity credits stashed away as they do dollars in a Swiss bank account. One Jones cultist rationalized Jones' sexcapades on the grounds that as a special man of God, operating in higher gear, I guess, he had special needs. Ordinary morality didn't apply. Morals are for mortals. The history of religions (e.g., Sabbatai Sevi the 17th century messiah) presents us with other examples of "prophetic blasphemy," messianic libertinism. And don't forget Nietzsche and his Ubermensch's "transvaluation of values."

But I am thinking rather of American pop celebrities and their considerable eccentricity credits. Specifically, the tragic cases of three athletes. A few years ago, a promising but apparently not-too-bright college basketball player named Len Bias cut short a stellar career with an overdose of cocaine. Immediately the media lionized a tragically foolish youth into an atoning savior. We were told with all the network sentimentality of an after school "disease of the week" special that poor Bias had not died in vain, since his abrupt death now served as a sign to other youths. "Just say no" writ large in the hell-fire hues of "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." In fact it was a dignifying of the old joke "He's not good for nothing; at least he's a great bad example."

More recently Magic Johnson contracted HIV from his irresponsible habits of promiscuous sex, as he himself admitted. Now he is a pious media spokesman, a seven-foot-tall poster child. Football player Lyle Alzado, once a lying user of steroids, now a doddering wreck because of steroids, a Bruce Banner who had turned into the Incredible Hulk once too often, is now the Mother Theresa of the steroid freaks. Good for him. Its the least he and Magic Johnson can do, as when Leopold (or was it Loeb?) tried to atone for the perfect crime by volunteering for prison medical experiments.

But what puzzles me is how in the public fancy Bias, Johnson, and Alzado instantly became transfigured into Bodhisattvas of Compassion. It was as if they had volunteered to take these afflictions upon themselves for the good of mankind, heavenly Christs who conceived the notion of taking on the thousand natural shocks of the flesh in order to demonstrate their divine solidarity with mere mortals.  Like Father Damien among the lepers.

Again, once Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer, the public was galvanized as to the seriousness of the situation, as if uncountable women had not died of it before. Anita Hill gained notoriety by accusing a Supreme Court nominee of tawdry behavior, and the media decided that she had done the public the favor of bringing the dangers of sexual harassment to light -- as if no one had heard of it before.

In all these cases the unspoken idea is that "Once it happens to a celebrity, then things are serious! Let's do something about it!"

Why are people like Len Bias treated like saints? Because the public idolizes celebrities and will go the second mile rationalizing and excusing their behavior in a way we usually reserve only for our own conduct! We feel we have something at stake in their foibles, that there is some shame for us in their scandals. How have we come to merge our identities with theirs?

It is because our own lives are so impoverished, so empty of meaning, that we must fill the void by living vicariously the "lifestyles of the rich and famous." Oh that we could be Donald Trump, Ivana, Marla! We can't be, but why not pretend? The result is an addiction no less fatal than that which killed young Bias: celebrity worship is the opiate of the people. It keeps those who wallow in it from realizing that their own lives could be made significant. This escapes them because they confuse significance with glamour. And whence this confusion?

It is media propaganda. People must be made to think that what they see on TV is the truest and most desirable reality, a Platonic Realm of Forms. If a woman does not look like a TV star let, she is not quite real as a woman. If a romance does not bloom as in a TV soap, then one ought to question whether one is really in love. The media have generated a false consciousness, an insidious idea internalized like an orthodox religious catechism, whereby we yearn for what we can never get in reality but can vicariously experience on the boob-tube. As we worship at that altar we will find the bogus fulfillment life denies us (and which life never promised us anyway).

Isn't this paranoia on my part? What motivation could Big Brother possibly have for mounting such a scheme? Well, of course it's all to fatten you up for when the collection plate comes around, when the commercial comes up. By sponsoring the TV shows you watch, advertisers are simply bribing you to watch their ads. For you the commercials interrupt the shows. For them the shows interrupt the commercials. What each relishes, the other sees as a necessary evil.

As James Fowler and others point out, every human life is an attempt, conscious or not, to live out some particular story. The advertising media have succeeded in getting people to choose for their own the stories they see on TV, at first to emulate, then, because it is easier, just to watch. And I am urging you to snap out of it.

Now you are expecting me to urge you instead to internalize the story of some great figure, some saint or philanthopist. I will not. You may indeed learn important things from such people's epics, but your life must be your own. One dear friend of mine, I am convinced, sought to model his life on that of Kierkegaard, another on characters from a Bergman movie. The results were not pleasant to see, and all the more so since the imitations were so close to the originals! You must find out what your own life is about and then try your best to live it. Your mistakes might as well be your own.

 Robert M. Price

 

Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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