September 16, 2008

No reason to be cynical of ‘celebrity’

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Over the course of the recent political primaries the concept of celebrity has been cleverly manipulated by opponents of Barack Obama to create uniformly negative connotations. He’s been called a “rock star;” he’s “hot;” he’s “so cool.” How else to explain the unprecedented public response to his appearances, they ask?

Likewise, preening pundits, always in search of the next day’s “grabber” issue, now include the Obama “celebrity issue” as daily fare in their reporting. (Meanwhile, the tireless self-promotion of television news anchors and political reporters has moved celebrity addiction to a whole new level.)

However, casting Obama primarily as a celebrity has been a major disservice to the American public and the American political process. In fact, these naysayers are pandering to a public they assume can (and will) imagine only the worst about celebrities — “famous for being famous,” “idol of the masses,” “all shine, no substance,” — in short, smooth entertainers with a talent for performing without revealing who they actually are.

The assumption (or hope) is that the American public will believe that all celebrities are the same. No matter the reasons for becoming famous, one must be diminished in the process. When this fact has been established in the public mind, all events with large, enthusiastic crowds cheering compelling speeches by the “celebrity” can then be dismissed as evidence of shallowness.

The link to entertainment is crucial. Entertainers are not presenting themselves to the public; they are playing roles. However persuasive their scripted presentations, they as themselves are only pretending. What we the admiring public see is the performance, a mask behind which we know there is a “real” person who almost certainly does not resemble what we see in the performance.

If we accept that all political speeches (or speeches by politicians) are essentially performances in the sense of entertainment, the obvious next question is, “How can we really know who they are?” Surely we should expect to know the leader of the free world in ways that go beyond the mask of public performance.

It is curious that by now the particulars of Obama’s life story are probably better known than John McCain’s, yet who Obama “really is” is supposedly tainted by his celebrity status. Before Obama’s recent nomination acceptance speech the media were nearly breathless in declaring that his major task would be to enable us to know who he is. “We still don’t know who he is,” they kept repeating.

How differently the media have treated McCain. His public mask is simply accepted as defining who he is: 40 years ago he was a POW — that’s who he is. Enough said. The mask is a free pass. We need not ask who he really is behind the mask.

But who knew how he treated his first wife? Who knew he had seven or eight houses (he couldn’t remember) while bragging about his connection to blue-collar voters? Who knew how many principles and policy positions he embraced in his last campaign and then scuttled them entirely in this one? The mask is the tough, ex-POW, straight-talking maverick. Behind the mask, the person he is, his judgment, and his leadership ability have not been deeply probed.

It is understandable that we should be wary of the meteoric rise of public figures attended by great acclaim. We can cite other countries that surrendered their critical sense of reality to magnetic personalities who, behind the mask, were corrupt and vicious dictators. However, it requires a similar suspension of our own critical faculties to dismiss as a mere celebrity someone who has demonstrated a rare ability to inspire millions at home and millions more abroad by reaffirming universally appealing values.

The fact is we have learned that Obama’s call for us to embrace the best of American values and to hold our leaders to these same standards is not inconsistent with who he is. Caution is not an unreasonable initial response to someone who has entered the political arena so dramatically, but skepticism based primarily on his widespread appeal is irresponsible.

By now we have had enough of cynical leaders who by dint of who they really are have callously robbed us of our capacity to believe in lives and words that touch something deep inside us and move us to reach for more than we thought possible.

Perhaps we are distrustful of believing inspiring leaders after eight years of disastrous leadership by those who, when unmasked, revealed little more than the worst we could have imagined. Leading, after all, is the opposite of misleading. We may be cautious in assessing the public’s remarkable response to Obama, but we need not be cynical.

Benjamin Ladner, a former president of The National Faculty in Atlanta and American University in Washington, lives in Greenville, S.C.


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