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Our Fascination with Celebrities

Posted: June 30, 2009 - 21:46 CT

In the past week or so, we’ve witnessed the death of several celebrities such as Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and even pitchman Billy Mays. First and foremost, we need to remember that these were real people with real families that we need to keep in our prayers.  Many celebrities, despite their fame and fortune, tend to be very sad and lonely individuals, usually a far cry from the roles they play.

It’s very interesting, and revealing to watch the reactions to these events from various sources within our modern society.  The so-called "mainstream" media virtually ignored the others in preference to Mr Jackson, since he was arguably the most popular and bizarre.  Not including commercials, each major network typically broadcasts 22 minutes of what they call "news" during their nightly newscasts.  The Media Resource Center reported that, on Friday evening (the next day after Mr Jackson’s death), ABC devoted all but 1:03 to Mr Jackson.  NBC gave us 1:22 of other news while Katie Couric over at CBS managed to squeeze in 34 seconds for a total of 2:59 vs 63:01 devoted to Mr Jackson.  "OK, right after this station break, we'll bring you an exclusive interview with a man who once petted a dog that was owned by a person who lived in the same town as one of Michael's third-cousins, and how this encounter changed his life."

So, it must have been a slow time for news… well, not exactly.  Only ABC's World News reported how Monica Conyers, a Detroit city councilwoman married to powerful US House Democrat John Conyers, pled guilty to accepting bribes.  But in the familiar game of "Name that Party", anchor Charles Gibson, who on Wednesday night made sure to identify Mark Sanford as "a rising star in the Republican Party," failed to name the party affiliation for either Democrat.  Speaking of Detroit, when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (a Democrat) was charged with felonies last year, none of the anchors considered Kilpatrick's party worth mentioning in dozens of stories.

ABC was also the only network to find time (20 seconds) to mention the House’s passage of President Obama's "cap and trade" bill.  This follows months of virtually ignoring the bill that is predicted to cost each family $1,241 a year, and that just the first year.  In a popular tactic, most of the costs are back loaded to a few years from now when its lawmakers will be presumably retired and living off their government pensions.  In his speech promoting the bill, Obama (with a straight face) pointed to the bankrupt state of California as being the example to follow.  This is the same president who promised that 95% of us would see a tax decrease, even though only about 50% actually pay any taxes.

So, our network news teams considered the death of Mr Jackson more important than the US House passing the largest tax increase in our history, an out of control government’s hostile takeover of the banking and auto industries (with the medical industry and others in the crosshairs), the Korean nuclear threat, the bloodbath surrounding the Iranian election, the crisis in the Honduras, and our government’s attempt to strip Israel of her defenses.

Sadly, many of us must share the media’s responsibility due to our fascination with celebrities.  I remember the electrical utility office where I worked shutting down early the day Elvis died because all of the women were going home crying.  I remember when the news broke during Monday Night Football when John Lennon was shot, and suddenly the game lost all meaning.  I remember entering the tunnel under the Houston ship channel when the news came over the radio that the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane had gone down.  I remember tearing up while leaving a convenience store and noticing the photo on the cover of People Magazine of Jackie Gleason with his sheepish smile and the caption, "So Long Pal" (The Honeymooners is still my all time favorite series).  I don’t watch much television these days, so the only celebrity deaths that truly affect me are the old favorites that bring back so many memories.

So, what actually drives this fascination with celebrities and can it actually be harmful?  To answer the second part first, I think it depends to a great extent on the level of attraction.  For most folks who are involved in meaningful relationships and activities in their own lives, watching a certain celebrity or show each week is usually just a harmless diversion or stress relief.  For others, the attraction may actually become a substitute for reality.  We’ve seen similar obsessions with the "virtual reality" sites offered on the internet (think The Matrix on steroids).  Many (particularly the younger generation) spend so much time living a "virtual life"  in "virtual communities" under an alter ego that they virtually have difficulty functioning in the real world.  For those, when a celebrity’s appeal collapses into seduction or outright worship, the results can be very destructive.  In the first few days alone, the webmaster of his largest fan club has reported the number of fans committing suicide due to depression over Mr Jackson’s death has reached at least twelve.  In a separate incident, officials reported that it cost the City of Los Angeles $25,000 recently to transport Britney Spears to the UCLA mental health center due to the extra security required (LAPD helicopter, squad cars and motorcycles) to keep the paparazzi and fans at a safe distance, thus diverting police resources away from responding to other public safety needs such as violent crimes and 911 calls.

Since I have a son in the marines, I’d like to mention the effect that this obsession has on our veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Northern Illinois University student IIona Meagher has written a book entitled Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops.  Ms Meagher says that Americans need to be more engaged with our veteran’s concerns.  "Veterans are proud of the job they’ve done, and they have a right to be proud," states Ms Meagher.  "After this incredibly intense, life-changing and maturing experience, they plop back into our society, and we’re talking about Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole and Lindsay Lohan.  That’s the biggest slap in the face to them.  Our lack of attention and seriousness really does affect the way they feel about their country when they come back."  Being placed on the Obama administration’s DHS extremist list doesn’t help moral either.

Now, finally getting back the first part of the question of what drives our fascination with celebrities, I think we can suggest several factors.  We’ve already mentioned those who see the Hollywood life as a substitute for their own.  This often may be due to boredom or even low self-esteem.  Another reason might be a lack of a good role model in their lives.  In each case, many typically view the lives of the rich and famous through rose-colored glasses, imagining themselves in the parts they play while ignoring the turmoil that exists in their personal lives.  Another factor is the amount of time we spend watching television.  Many of us spend more time with these celebrities than with our own family, so often we begin to think of them as family.

Roger Ziegler wrote an article in The Examiner which put a positive spin on the recent events, stating that these deaths remind us that death is an ally.  "When I realize I could die at any moment, I appreciate my life so much more.  In the face of my death, my daughter becomes even more beautiful, my anger at my wife becomes laughable.  I go for more of what I truly want that will make me happy, like writing blog columns that hopefully help others…  Take a moment a face your death.  You are going to die.  If you truly understand this you will live more now."

It was great article, but these deaths should also remind us also that we should make sure of our destination after we die.  Ray Davies of the Kinks once sang of movie stars as "Celluloid Heroes" who never feel any pain and never really die, but we are once again painfully reminded that this is not true.  When we die, it doesn’t matter whether we’re rich and famous or how popular we are.  The only thing that matters is our relationship with Jesus.  I hear many people say that death is natural, but in God’s original perfect plan, there is nothing natural about death.  Death only entered this world because of our sin, and the only cure is Jesus Christ.

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