Heroes vs. Celebrities

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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.