Saturday, February 18, 2012

Celebrity Culture

Rule of thumb:    if Rush Limbaugh is against it, be in favor of it; if Rush Limbaugh is for it, be against it.

That applies even in the rare- very rare- instances in which Limbaugh can be credited with being (euphemistically speaking) tolerant.

And so it is with the kerfluffle in New Jersey.     Not the important one- gay marriage- but the unimportant one, Whitney Houston.     On Thursday Limbaugh argued

This Whitney Houston in New Jersey and the flag at half staff. I have a question. If she did not have in her life a problem with drug abuse and alcohol -- take a little out of it -- and she died prematurely...? We don't yet know what the cause of death was, but let's assume that alcohol and drugs had nothing to do with it. Take that out of it. How many of you would be upset that the flag was lowered to half staff? How many of you are upset about it simply because, in your mind, "She was just an entertainer. Come on! We lower the flag for statesmen, for heroes. What is this entertainer business?

(Insert cheap Oxycontin joke here.)

Rush backed the decision by Republican Governor Chris Christie, who would be ordering flags in New Jersey to be flown at half-staff today, the day of singer Whitney Houston's funeral in Newark, largest city in the state and  city of Ms. Houston's birth.        Limbaugh added

keep in mind: New Jersey lowered the flag for Frank Sinatra and Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band with Bruce Springsteen. So it's not that uncommon. It really isn't.

No, it's not uncommon, and the life of Whitney Houston should not be celebrated any less than that of Clarence Clemons or the mob-related figure.    

Here "is this entertainer business":        flags should not have been lowered to half-staff for those individuals, either, because they were entertainers.         Celebrities are mere celebrities, deserving in death no special consideration on the basis of their popularity in life. Honor is- or, rather, should be- bestowed upon "statesmen" and "heroes," such as members of the armed forces and selected political leaders, because they served the community, whether local, state, or national.      Their professional lives stand as a commitment to the public interest, in which they strive less for economic advancement than for the public good. Whitney Houston should not be penalized for being extremely talented and successful, but neither should either be a basis for honoring her memory, any more than it is for your extremely talented and successful (but less applauded) neighbor.    

Rush noted, approvingly, that Christie stated

I'm disturbed by people who believe that because of her history of substance abuse, that somehow she's forfeited the good things that she did in her life.  I just reject that on a human level.  What she is is a cultural icon in the history of this state....

All of us should learn to be a little more understanding of that, and understand that this is a disease and that we need to help these folks to try to conquer this disease and not ridicule them for it, because it's a struggle for everybody.

But it is roughly as misguided to honor Houston because of her record of substance abuse as it is to withhold the honor because of her checkered past.       Its significance is lessened further because we know not what role (if any) illegal drug use- or prescription drug use, alcohol use, bad choice in romantic relationships, or anything else- had in her death.       (And thanks for the lecture, Governor.)

Defending his decision, Governor Christie could have kept it simple by referring to the examples of Sinatra, Clemons, or others and left it at that.       But he decided instead to wax empathetic about Whitney Houston's drug involvement.    He did it, moreover, not because of a sense of compassion but as a weapon in the continuing controversy over drug use in his state.      In so doing, he missed an opportunity to remind us that great statesmen and ordinary soldiers are not entertainers and are deserving of honors that mere mortals, including the likes of singers, saxophone players, and actors, are not.

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