Through Lines: the Celebrity in All of Us

Mar 7

In his seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, sociologist Erving Goffman uses theatre and performance as analogies to describe all our social interactions.  He argues, in essence, that we are actors, consciously or unconsciously performing our identities for and to others.  For different audiences, we no doubt assume different roles, responding like actors to environment, stimuli, and relationship, as we seek our broader super objectives.  Like actors, we appreciate the applause, even if our performance is less than stellar.  Many of us can also acknowledge that those identities we perform for the people around us are as much a fiction as the characters the theatrical actor assumes over a lifetime: so much smoke and mirrors—and  a lot of make-up—even if built on the actor’s psyche and physique.

Harry Carry, Jr., John Frid, and Celeste Holms. Photos by the AP, ABC, and Murray Garrett

In this sense, it is not surprising that the celebrity performer has assumed such a high degree of acclaim in our society.  If we are all performing the fiction of our identity, then why not tip our collective hat to those actors, athletes, musicians, newscasters, politicians, who have risen to the top through their ability to perform their identities to the public.

Just how far the celebrity performer has risen really came home to me this New Year while watching an ABC evening newscast “In Memoriam: People We Lost in 2012.”  Of the 86 people whose deaths were notable, 45 of them were performers—actors, singers, musicians.  Eleven more of them were writers or speakers of some kind—journalists, authors, newscasters, and a motivational speaker.  The next closest categories were those serving in the government, non-performing artists, and athletes.  There was one inventor, N. Joseph Woodland, who co-invented the barcode; one soldier—Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who famously co-designed the blitzkrieg used in Iraq I, 1991; and one regular person—Rodney King, who, of course, performed unwittingly on video along with the gaggle of LA cops who were kicking and tasering him.

Micahel Clarke Duncan. Photo by JB Lacroix.

Now, I’m not disputing anyone’s right to be listed in ABC’s “In Memoriam” dedication.  A notable death is a notable death, but can we seriously accept the fact that in 2012 there wasn’t at least one notable educator who died, or one police officer, or pastor, or architect, or engineer?  Clearly, there must have been a notable scientist or two who died, but not according to ABC.  One can only assume that the criteria used to determine which 86 people would be highlighted must have defined “notable” in such a way as to favor the celebrity, or those whose performed identities played out on the electronic media.

I make note of this phenomena not simply because it is but one more piece of evidence suggesting the circular logic of the electronic media, i.e., they decide what is important based on what is important for them.  For me, the danger of this trend is twofold.  On the one hand, by socially elevating the celebrity performer we acknowledge that we appreciate the act of performing more than the content of the performance itself.  Perhaps, this happens because the content of any performance is temporal, as temporal as last night’s rendition of Shear Madness.  Thus, why not celebrate the performance as an end in-and-of-itself?  This kind of thinking might explain our political actors’ determination to perform the same fiscal cliff / sequester cliff drama over and over again until we are numb with exhaustion.

Phyllis Diller. Photo by Dan Callister.

On the other hand, even more disturbing is what our obsession with celebrity reveals about our values.  It seems as if we value the celebrity performer and his or her fiction more than the people who really do the day-to-day work of improving our society.  In other words, the actor who mimics the lawyer, the cop, the doctor, the teacher, the scientist is more notable than the people he or she mimics, the people who perform those professions in life, making an actual difference in our lives. And I say this, even though I love actors and the work they do, albeit on the stage more than in film where the camera is the real star.

So, as each of us prepares for our roles today as father or mother, clerk or caring friend, let us acknowledge and salute the performer in all of us, and let the celebrity take a step or two—or three—toward the back of the line.  For it is the authentic flesh and blood doer of deeds who actually makes a difference in our lives.  Let us make notable the EMT who examines the gunshot victim and stops the bleeding: not the actress on TV who imitates her between make-up touch-ups, lighting adjustments, and a shout of “Action!”

Beware Americans: We’re Entering the Twilight Zone

Apr 13

The Trayvon Martin case has made me aware of one simple fact.  America has entered the twilight zone. Why do I say this?  Because despite all the media coverage of this case, the most important issues that the case demonstrates have been swamped by the hype.  Instead of focusing our attention on the failure of our criminal justice system (or in this case Sanford Florida’s criminal justice system) and the law that allowed a killer to temporarily go free, the media has focused totally on George Zimmerman and the cases racial component.

The case involves Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen year old, killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, while walking back from a convenience store.  Mr. Zimmerman confesses to killing Trayvon, but claims that it was self-defense, under Florida’s so called Stand-Your-Ground law.  Apparently, the law allows people not to back down from a fight.  In this case, it also seems to have allowed him to claim self-defense even when he was the aggressor.  In any event the police believe Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the event (Trayvon could not tell his version, of course, because he was dead) and within hours the police release him, even giving him back his gun.

George Zimmerman

After Trayvon’s parents are informed of the circumstances, including one assumes that Mr. Zimmerman confessed to the killing, they begin to protest that the killer should at least be charged with some kind of crime.  After all, they must have asserted: “our son has been killed by a stranger; he was unarmed at the time, and only carrying skittles and a soda pop.”  After the Sanford police ignored the parents’ protests, the parents sought a larger audience and, eventually, the story went national and international.

Then the Governor of Florida appoints a special prosecutor and eventually Mr. Zimmerman is charged with 2nd degree murder.

I assert that those are the essential facts thus far.  If you know something about the case, you’ll notice that I left out facts about race and ethnicity, and I did so, because at an essential level they are unimportant.  An unarmed person was killed by an armed person and the killer was not charged with a crime, even a misdemeanor.  Something is clearly wrong with this picture.

Being a parent myself I can understand the Martins’ grief and dismay.  When your child is killed, you most assuredly want justice.  What I don’t understand ,and what made me finally realize that America has entered the Twilight Zone, is why other people don’t understand this most basic of human needs: justice.  Why are some many people in America making excuses–not for George Zimmerman (he did what he did, what ever it was)–but why are so many people making excuses for the Sanford criminal justice system?  Or if the good people in the Sanford police department were only following Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law, why are so many people making excuses for the insane politicians who pass a law that legalizes murder?

Now one could simply say that a lot of people are racist, and thus made a lot of excuses for why Zimmerman would kill Trayvon.  Because he had a hoodie, which is apparently a sign of thuggery (despite the fact that a lot of non-thugs wear hoodies), or because he was a teenager and today teenagers don’t have morals (as opposed to earlier eras), or because black young men don’t respect the law and thus Trayvon didn’t respect the law, or because blacks are killing blacks and not complaining — the list goes on and on as to why, according to certain people, George Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin.

For me, however, racism does not explain why we’ve entered the Twilight Zone.  Oh, no, to enter the Twilight Zone requires a meeting of many vectors, a convergence if you will of a worm hole, an 11th plague, and a Reality Show with real people.

But seriously.  Although racism–both its long history and its current manifestations–is a factor driving the media insanity, several other factors are equally important.  An important factor is America’s other long history–gun ownership and violence.

John Wayne

The Stand your Ground laws that are sweeping the country right now are returning Americans to their Wild West roots.  We don’t need law enforcement any more.  We can just enforce the laws ourselves, or–if the job is too big for one man–we can hire a posse.  A product of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the stand your ground laws have given many gun-owners the legal confidence to shoot first and ask questions later–or not at all.  Americans of all races and ethnicities have been killed by other well intentioned Americans with a hair trigger and perhaps more than a little paranoia.  If you add up all the things that make Americans scared these days–from drugs, disease, old age, teenagers, debt, mental illness, African-Americans (not to mention violent crime)–the stand your ground laws with their liberal interpretation of one’s perception of fear make them a disaster waiting to happen.

The Trayvon Martin case plays right into the vortex of American psychoses.  It has the gun element, the race element, the crime element, the hoodie element; plus, there is also a black president running for reelection, who a good number of people still think is a secret Muslim, socialist Kenyan.  If you add all those factors together, you enter the Twilight Zone, where everything you say or think comes out ass-backward, looking more like an episode of Amazing Videos than anything resembling serious thought.