The Catholic Thing
Heroes vs. Celebrities Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 20 February 2013

At Brooklyn’s SS. Cyril and Methodius grammar school, which I attended in the 1950s and 1960s, the nuns encouraged all their students to adopt as role models saints and virtuous historical figures.

The first recommended model was our namesake’s saint.  For me, it was easy to admire St. George, who traveled on horse with a lance fighting the forces of evil. 

In higher grades, the sisters read to us Vision Book’s Lives of the Saints series.  One that stuck with me was Elizabeth Ince’s St. Thomas More.  That book plus the movie A Man for All Seasons which I saw for the first time in 1966 catapulted the great martyr to number one on my list of heroes.  Even today, I have a copy of the Holbein portrait of More hanging in my office.

Every February, the sisters made a big to-do about two American heroes, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington whose birthdays, February 12 and 22, respectively, were national holidays.  Portraits of the two great men were hung in every classroom and walls were decorated with patriotic bunting.  There was much discussion of their virtues:  The Father of our Country could not tell a lie and Lincoln, after putting in a full day of splitting rails, sat beside the fireplace at night educating himself.

One year, we were introduced to young George Washington’s 110 rules of civility, which he copied into a small notebook he carried with him his entire life.  Those rules, I learned later in life, came from a text used by Jesuit priests to teach their pupils a code of conduct, courtesy and honor.  Here’s a sampling: 

  • ŸShow not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy;
  • In your apparel be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature, rather than to procure admiration;
  • Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust;
  • When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence.  Honor and obey your parents though they be poor;
  • Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Unfortunately, the days of admiring great presidents for their virtues are over.  The Lincoln and Washington holidays have been replaced with the generic “Presidents’ Day.”  We must equally honor great men and mediocre ones.

Frankly, I do not wish to honor President James Buchanan (1856-1860), a spineless politician with a prissy disposition who was dominated by Southern advisors and sat idly by in 1860 when the South was arming for war.

Nor do I wish to honor President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), a blatant anti-Catholic who when the House of Representatives passed a bill that seemed to open the door for public funding of parochial schools, snidely called it the “Jesuitical Clause.”

     Getting over reality: the dumbing down of America

Because of the 24/7 news cycles, Internet pop-up advertising, and short attention spans that can only digest sound bites, the great problem of our age is that people are quickly bored and demand new heroes every day.

And they really don’t demand real heroes who have performed courageous deeds or lead noble or virtuous lives and stood for standards.  They instead demand ever-new celebrities.

Back in 1962, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Daniel J. Boorstin, wrote a prescient book titled The Image: or What Happened to the American Dream. He explained that Americans were being flooded by “human pseudo events” that are “new varieties of unreality which clutter our experience and obscure our vision” and have given rise to the cult of celebrity.

It was Boorstin who coined the phrase, “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knowness.” In other words, they are notorious for their notoriety; famous for being famous. The celebrity, Boorstin concluded, is “the perfect embodiment of tautology:  the most familiar is the most familiar.”

Real heroes stand the test of time, become immortal and stay alive in works by historians. Celebrities are contemporary and are promoted by their press/publicity agents.

“The passage of time,” Boorstin observed, “which creates and establishes the hero, destroys the celebrity.”  Celebrities live and die by media attention.  Once they are out of the news they are finished.  Former fans soon ask, “Whatever became of …?”

Kids who are wholly ignorant of genuine heroes – the Founding Fathers, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa – are, however, expert on the tastes, dress, vices and sexual habits of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, and Justin Bieber.  As Boorstin put it, “Images now displace ideals.”

The Cult of Celebrity has become so ridiculous that The Today Show recently ran a segment devoted to the most favorable and least favorable celebrity baby names of 2012.

Did you know that Katherine Heigl and Josh Kelley named their daughter Adalaide and that was a good choice because it is “granny chic”?  Or that Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth’s child, Tennessee, received a bad name.  Yes, according to Baby Center website editor Linda Murray, “Moms love her but hate this name.  It is too southern, too offbeat, and people expect more from her.”   

Gone are the days when people were named after persons who were admired for their character, their contributions to mankind, or their acts of charity. And sought to act like them. Today, people glued to their smart phones and iPods imitate those who are nothing more than figments of the mass media. 

The cult of celebrity is the latest example of the dumbing down of America where, as James Russell Lowell once said, “The idol is the measure of the worshipper.”

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic VoterHis most recent book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, February 20, 2013
The gliterati are...well...irrelevant. They know it; we know it; the media know it. But their presence is sufficiently numbing that we are not inclined to take oxycodone to get through the day.
written by Dave, February 20, 2013
We live in an anti-heroic age, in fact: true heroism requires the exercise of virtue to heroic degrees, and it also requires an understanding that there are things in life that are more important than life itself. It requires commitment to ideals and causes that are greater than "self-actualization," self-projection, and comfort. It requires self-sacrifice. And so few there are who understand the heroic nature of Pope Benedict's papacy and the heroic nature of his resignation; few there are who understand the heroic nature of many of the Church's pastors, priests, religious, and laity who labor faithfully in the Lord's vineyard; or who understand the heroic nature of authentic parenting. Eliot's The Hollow Men come to mind; but the last word is really found in what used to be called The Last Gospel: "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not been able to overcome it."

Thank you, Mr. Marlin, for the great suggestion (implied) for Lenten reading: we would all do well to recall the lives of the saints and what they endured in fidelity to the Light of Christ and in fidelity to their mission to spread that Light in the place and way the good Lord asked them to, in fidelity to the teachings of the Church. Much is required of us now, and much more will yet be required.
written by debby, February 20, 2013
Pray for these people. They have no one who really loves them for their souls' sakes. Their pain is obvious.

21 years ago my firstborn daughter, then 4, gave up "Yogi Bear" for Lent, telling me, "I think I love him too much, Mommy." On Easter Monday I reminded her that she could now watch her favorite show. She did but remarked to me, "I still like him, but Mommy, he doesn't "mean" the same to me anymore. I can watch it or not watch it. What happened?"
(Yea! 1st "celebrity" attachment re-ordered in her life.)
"Ah, you have discovered 'holy detachment' and that is just what Jesus wants in your heart. 'Do not love the things of this world....' "
The following year with a newborn and this one now 5, the whole family gave up all TV for Lent (we were careful about what we watched of course anyway). 20 years later we are still cable and "regular" TV free in this home. My 14 year old son does not know who all these celebrities are by constant inundation; I consider this a ripe, lovely piece of fruit from this "sacrifice". We do watch some DVDs and internet here and there, but the worldly influence is not as suffocating as it would be were we just like all our neighbors. And, as the author suggests, we raised our children with the Saints as their brothers and sisters who "ran to Heaven ahead of them but can't wait to see them there"~ at least 4, 5 times a week a Saint's story was read aloud or discussed as they grew to read much on their own. AND EACH CHILD HAS AT LEAST 2 SAINT'S NAMES AS THEIR OWN.
ok, THAT SAID, the world is EVERYWHERE and we are still influenced. If my 14 year old son goes with me to the supermarket, some woman's naked body is on display at eye level (Sports Illustrated swimsuit is out everyone). He is training himself to cast his eyes downward- only last Sunday he happened not to be Altar serving - so casting his eyes downward put his face in the backside of a young girl's thong popping out of the top of her low-cut pants. - so in Church, we need to look straight ahead and CLOSE our eyes if we don't want to be distracted! OMGosh!
We are driving home the point to him that for his generation, there is little "custody of the senses" possible - he needs to call upon our Lady to pave for his brain a new road when he is smacked with immodesty and vulgarity. There is no "avoiding the near occasion of sin" unless you live in a cave.

Let us ALL PRAY AND FAST AND LOVE AND EMBRACE (not decide they are "disgusting" and wash our hands of them)THOSE AROUND US and bring them to FREEDOM AND PEACE. I am CONVINCED that our fasting and little offerings bring torrents of graces to our world.
My Lenten fast this year is for our beloved Pope Benedict and for ALL MY FRIENDS. Although I wouldn't know your face if I sat next to you on the bus, you are all in my heart at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Blessings to you, and may all our SAINTS guide us Home. and may many in Hollywood (etc) come to discover His love and forgiveness.
written by Rob, February 20, 2013
A fine piece here and oh so very accurate. America is truly one of the dumbest places I know, filled with absolute morons who prove themselves more moronic every day. I addition to the harlots you mention, becauae in reality that is exactly what they are, the hero status of "rappers" is equally pathetic. And of course, we can never forget the lofty place of the athlete, the hero, the "warrior," what a joke.
How many of these dolts who can barely stumble through a sentence have multiple women, with multiple kids and of course who knows how many abortions, are the KINGS of World?

Why, because Americans are intellectually, culturally, historically and emphatically morally corrupted.
written by Briana, February 20, 2013
Anthony Esolen wrote a similar commentary this past fall for Catholic World Report. It's called "Listening to the Experts" and it's fantastic. I think everyone who reads this article should check it out. :)
written by Mark, February 20, 2013
I also saw A Man for All Seasons in 1966; I was in my first year of college.

I was greatly disturbed by the movie. I found myself continuously thinking about Sir Thomas More, reading books about his life, and even purchasing the audio from the movie. I didn't understand at the time that the Holy Spirit was using the movie as a vehicle to reach out to me. I reached back, and was baptized thirty-three years later. I have to think St. Thomas was praying for me.
written by Jim, February 20, 2013
George Washington Carver, a great man named after a great man
written by buckeye pastor, February 20, 2013
Just a word in defensse of Rutherford B.: I was pastor of one of the parishes in Fremont, OH, where Hayes lived most of his life. History shows that he was great friends of one of my predecessors, that he was an honored guest at the consecrations of both St. Ann and St. Joseph Churches, and that he encouraged prayer services connected with Grand Army of the Republic (Northern Civil War vets' association) to be held at St. Ann's. Tinged with the anti-Catholicism of his time? No doubt. Out-and-out bigot? I doubt it.
written by Tony Esolen, February 20, 2013
Another splendid article by George Marlin.

I was sorry to hear that about Hayes, who did right to put an end to Reconstruction, and who was quite uninterested in pursuing a second term. I shouldn't have been surprised, though. The Republicans then had inherited too much of the old Know-Nothing anti-Catholicism, and we are still suffering the effects of it, in the so-called Blaine amendments -- named for James G. Blaine, northeastern liberal Republican. My man Grover Cleveland eked out a win against him, when a minister who supported Blaine said that a vote for Cleveland would be a vote for "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." The backlash handed New York (where Cleveland had been that rare bird, a relentlessly honest reformer) to Uncle Jumbo.

written by Graham Combs, February 20, 2013
I barely thought about it when I was in RCIA but almost instantly took St. Thomas More as my patron saint.

That the prejudice against the South is resurging doesn't surprise me. The South is simply more religious. And just as infuriating to liberals, more prosperous and industrious. Interestingly since the 1990 census it has been documented that hundreds of thousands of Black Americans have moved -- in some cases repatriated -- to the South. We still vote and give lip service to cliches while America -- as she always does -- changes. Unfortunately this also means that cliches distract us from new and troubling developments. I lived in NY for seventeen years and I can assure the Archbishop of New York that guns are the least of its problems. Among them broken families, fatherless kids, drugs, truancy, gangs, violence, an STD epidemice (nationwide in fact), public schools propagandizing sexual experimentation, and the growing peril to the immortal souls of many. My point is not too far afield -- there are celebrity causes and too often the Church Distracted is mesmerized by them. Do we have core values, beliefs, and principles? Or are we simply social justice paparazzi?
written by Graham Combs, February 20, 2013
Postscipt: Richard Brookhiser published Pres. Washington's RULES OF CIVILTY some years ago in a small volume. I believe it is still in print or available.

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