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Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State, Herman Cain, Lindsay Lohan: The Culture of Celebrity vs. The American Creed

A GUIDE special feature...
[If you began reading this in the Acoustic Americana Music Guide's news feature edition of November 11, 2011, then scroll down to pick up where you left off. It's clearly marked.]
    So what the HELL does that list of diverse people and things have in common?
Actually, it does.
    Sometimes, individual events need the context of the bigger picture. Let's consider some current events in terms of our society's guiding framework – the “American creed.” It's the cleaving point where each of us decides what we think of things as they happen, and the origin of inner and outer conflicts in our celebrity-obsessed society.
    The Founding Fathers first referred to an American creed. Jefferson wrote extensively about it. So did John Adams. To them, it was a new, humanist, non-ecclesiastical religion.
    Webster's offers several definitions of “creed,” and a key one is, “a reading or statement of belief that summarizes the faith it represents; a definite summary of what is believed; a confession of faith for public use; esp., one which is brief and comprehensive.” Another is, “any summary of principles or opinions professed or adhered to.”
    Keeping that in mind, look at the people in the news and current events. It's enlightening to question things. Sometimes, to reconsider everything, and seek some meaning from it.
    Celebrities get a get-out-of-jail-free card for doing things that would put the rest of us behind bars or earn us the ultimate “just go-away and stop bothering people,” or at least get us disavowed and disowned by all who know us – THAT kind of humiliation. But badly-behaving celebrities stay on the media's stage, and the spotlight on them grows brighter and wanders off them less as they act out. At least, that's what happens most of the time (Mel Gibson aside).
    And then there are times when things are crazy in the other direction. Things even go horribly tragic sometimes, and that's compounded when our obsession with the “celebrity value” of a situation takes attention from the victims of a genuine human tragedy.
    Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, a living legend, was just fired because he didn't do enough – beyond reporting an allegation brought to him – when a senior member of the coaching staff allegedly molested a young boy in the Penn State locker room. Yet, the assistant coach who actually says he saw it happening (but didn't stop it) and reported it to Paterno will be on the sidelines for Saturday's game. The lack of justice in that is obvious. Is Paterno too much a celebrity to stay, but that assistant coach is not?
    Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan gets all kinds of deferential and preferential treatment to allow her to arrive endlessly late to clean a few public restroom toilets, instead of serving the jail sentence she deserves.
    That's okay, but a man who – by his own statement – saw a child being raped by an adult he knew, and didn't jump in and physically stop it, keeps his job? And his celebrity boss, who only heard about it afterward and reported it, takes the rap for grossly inadequate action?
    Joe Paterno was a rare coach who kept track of his player's academic progress. His players were expected to be student athletes. They were expected to graduate. They did. That's almost unknown in big-money college sports.
    Against this backdrop, there's enough room in the news cycle to give airtime and ink to talentless celebrity bums who are (inscrutably) famous for being famous. (It's a big “WTF?”) To wit, in the midst of the Penn State scandal, one of those interchangeable and talentless Kardassian clothes horses gets media time to whine about a marriage that didn't take, weeks after her recent multimillion-dollar wedding. We don't even want to waste a phrase like “Poor pampered baby.” We don't want to know anything about her. We want her 15 minutes to end.
    Why throw that in the mix? Because everything is connected to everything else. It goes beyond our society's idiotic, cult-like obsession with the various manifestations of celebrity worship. It's a collision of contrived “reality” and what we profess we believe.
    We are witnessing a high-speed head-on crash with the essence of the American creed.
[If you started reading in the November 11 edition of The Guide's News Features,
    Go back to Penn State, where a student demonstration was deemed “a riot” by the media, after a camera truck was overturned. That was late Wednesday night, just after the University Board's decision to fire Coach Paterno, rather than allow him to complete the current football season and retire. Next day, news cameras showed students stopping to hug Paterno's statue on campus. It's dealing with pain and loss, but is it from love of the grand old man himself, or nostalgic love for him as a symbol of their school, or merely worship of his celebrity?
    Prior to this week's shocking scandal, Paterno, at age 84, was unquestionably a celebrity. Immeasurably farther than that, he was a hero. Penn State is the only NCAA athletic program NEVER to have a penalty imposed for violating the rules. The school has never been banned from bowl games, like USC is now for its rule-breaking. Nothing shady happens at State College, PA – or so everyone believed. Paterno had been at Penn State 61 years, serving as head coach for 46 seasons. He had been nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal, though that was quietly withdrawn a few hours after he was fired.
    You've got to wonder if a generic, successful, celebrity, head coach – a sports or campus hero – would have been fired anywhere else. Precisely because Penn State was so singularly unblemished, it's Board had to fire Paterno and the University's President. On the practical side, they host band camps and other events that bring young people onto their campus all the time, so they needed to send a message. On the other side, they had to choose creed over expediency, because their past, their image, the consistency of expectations for them, and their view of themselves, were all at stake.
    If you set a high standard, you have a lot to live up to. Remember the old adage, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall?” Yet we all have feet of clay. This scandal, so far, is avoiding what usually happens next – as a society, we often enjoy watching our heroes fall as much as we enjoy their rise. That's not supposed to be part of our creed, but it's certainly there. If Paterno now goes from hero to villain, that's why.
    Whatever you may think of Paterno's reporting the allegation – but doing no more than that when it was first brought to him – the question begs, is the character of the hero still there? When the students marched to his house in the middle of the night, he told them to “Go home and get a good night's sleep,” and added, “Let's all pray for the victims.” He wasn't referring to himself, the fired coach. He meant the children who were molested. To his defenders, that's in-character, a properly-placed expression of the heart. To cynics, it's getting religion too late.
    How can the fact of “celebrity” save an arrogantly unrepentant young Lindsey Lohan but not the iconic, role-model-for-decades hero, Joe Paterno?
    It's that conflict of creed. We expect our sports heroes to be just that – heroes. Don't cheat with steroids or performance-enhancing drugs or your records and accomplishments will be forever tainted. Will Barry Bonds ever be esteemed like Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth? It's inconceivable.
    Yet show biz celebrities like Lindsey Lohan are not held to that standard. If you look at those pathetic Kardassian people, they apparently are not held to any standards. Perhaps society has some unhealthy expectation, some pathological desire, to see nitwits do rather nasty and self-destructive things. It would explain a lot of TV shows. And it's why it is so easy for professional publicists to manipulate the so-called “entertainment media” and get paparazzi in the right place at the right moment to photograph their celebrity client acting-out in some outrageous way. (It was all pre-planned with the publicist, coordinated for the cameras.) The resulting pics in the tabloids and all over the web bring attention their celebrity client wouldn't get, otherwise.
    Of course, an artist could perform at a cancer benefit, instead – and get almost no media.
    Generally, most of us never even think of things in terms of our creed. Yet each of us quietly draws from it, whether we consciously contemplate it, every day. Which decisions do we base on expediency – which ones on our real values as artists and humans in society? How often do we think of sharing a little blue planet where we want our art to inform a message of caring for each other?
    It's always some kind of question like that, of internal and external forces, of seeking satisfaction from inner fulfillment or from external fame and celebrity and the hope of financial success. The essence of that is why some of us feel torn over the Paterno decision – and grieved that it is the focus of attention instead of care and counseling for the people victimized as children since the 1990s – and for others who have been abused, anywhere it has happened or is happening.
    The larger world goes on. A winning college football team brings money from the alumni. Artists who behave badly stay in the news, and find it easier to sell song downloads and CDs. Some are informed and changed by events. Others continue as they always have.
    Some discern that chasing money can be problematic if it becomes the focus. Others see their only problem as a need for more money.
    Could Penn State chose winning a few football games (something in its short-term financial self-interest) rather than attempting to regain its monolithic singularity as THE collegiate athletic program with integrity? Events collided with the institution's vision of its creed.
    Was Paterno the last victim in this, or a man who failed the children who were victimized? Will this non-sports-related episode of unwanted celebrity cost him the hero status he earned countless times through his life's work? Should it? The report he received of an incident of abuse – was that something so foreign to his perception of reality – the perception of someone of his generation – that it rendered him unable to believe it was even possible? Would he have seen that report as something utterly fantastic, only explainable as an incident between coaches competing for position in a competitive program? Will anyone, even Paterno himself, ever know, in hindsight, why he failed to take more effective action? Will he know history's ultimate judgment of him while he still lives?
    Some things take time, but produce rehabilitated second chances or reinvented identities.
    Artists understand the latter, as actors struggle to avoid being type-cast and musicians struggle to avoid being pigeon-holed in one genre. Modern history offers examples of the former. Even Richard Nixon somehow rehabilitated himself into a sort of global elder statesman after he avoided going to prison with those who took orders from him in Watergate. Bill Clinton overcame impeachment and is now the nation's “go-to guy” for organizing international disaster relief or presenting more astute solutions to problems than what's being done by those currently in power.
    One thing about celebrity: it often fades away, especially when people finally realize there was no substance for it in the first place.
    The converse is happier: if you wait around long enough, you might just receive recognition for the good you do.
    The Montford Point Marines have just been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian (not military) honor – for their service in World War II. The 19,000 Marines were the nation's first black Marine regiment, taking part in some of the bloodiest battles of that war. Only 120 of them still remain among us. Senator Kay Hagan, whose father was a USMC Major General, introduced the bill to award the medal and was able to celebrate its passage on the Marine Corp's Birthday, November 10. The Montford Point Marines take their name because that's where they trained in North Carolina. They were forbidden from training at Camp Lejuene with all other East-Coast Marines in that time of a racist and racially-divided American military. These Marines now join the US Army Air Force's WW II Tuskegee Airmen and the 19th century US Cavalry's Buffalo Soldiers as black regiments whose service is honored at last, decades later.
    That's an example of the American creed fulfilled. It's a very American thing to see it as a necessary, overdue, and fine expression on behalf of a nation that should have been grateful, all along. And it comes from a paralyzed Congress that's accomplished nothing else for two years.
    Still, living our American creed is inconsistent – especially for Congress, and even among those with the highest aspirations. Racial politics are unfortunately alive and well and remain linked to celebrity. Presidential candidate and political neophyte Herman Cain, in the midst of a growing number of accusations of unwanted advances toward women, used a denigrating tone to refer to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, calling her “The princess of the House” with an emphasized sarcasm and bitterness. Not exactly something you'd do if you wanted to make people think you are free of gender bias and do not mistreat women. So, what's here that's racial? Conservative commentator Sean Hannity asserted, “The attacks on Herman Cain have racial overtones,” even as conservative uber-zealot Ann Coulter quipped, “Our blacks are better than your blacks.”
    Why does anyone even pay attention to a bomb-thrower like Coulter? Why does anyone cover the Kardassians? In both cases, it's an irrational fascination with talentless fools who contribute nothing useful to society. They're celebrities. If we followed our creed, they wouldn't be.
    In our own sphere of arts and music, you probably have your own personal list of celebrities who have been deemed “artists” by somebody, somewhere, for some reason you can never decipher. You probably keep it to yourself so no one will accuse you of jealousy of their financial success? Yep. We know, because we have that list, too. Sadly, it's growing.
    If we followed our creed, the Wall Street crooks would never have gained power by using our money to manipulate other people's money that they ended up ripping off for themselves. At least they would all be in prison now for doing it. Our creed demands it, and because it hasn't happened, we feel disillusioned and betrayed. We aren't living up to what we profess, to what we believe about justice in our society. Our creed is being undermined and eroded by the brilliantly self-serving greediest people in our society and by nitwit celebrities who have nothing to contribute. And cable news celebrates all of them, because it must fill air time.
    If we followed our creed, there would be an entirely different group of famous and ACCOMPLISHED musicians, playing big venues instead of small clubs and college radio and late night TV shows. They could even tell their stories of struggle and success on those cable news shows.
    Our creed demands that we ask ourselves a few questions.
    Why are accomplished, creative, hard-working artists, who constantly practice to continually improve and strive for mastery of their instrument, who work to improve their performing prowess, relegated to struggling, to the alms of small measures of success and acclaim, just one step above obscurity? Why are they (we?) playing 7 pm sets before anyone arrives at the venue, or 11 pm sets after everyone has left? Or playing a 3 pm festival-opening set on Friday, when some Nashville person with “thet fahke ackscent” sings songs written by somebody else and performs at 8 pm on Saturday? Why do people get rich who can't carry a tune in a bucket, and record with pitch-correction software on a big label, while WE can “bring it” on stage AND in the studio, and most of our last CD is still is boxes on the top shelf in the closet?
    Maybe we're the fools who bought-in to the American creed, of the Horatio Alger ethic of “Work hard and get ahead.” Maybe we're the ones who understand that things that are not earned are not truly appreciated. Maybe that's why we detest the Wall Street thieves so much.
    Maybe we're the ones who freely give co-writes to everyone who helps with our new song because our ethics demand it. And maybe we would rather keep our artistic integrity than kowtow to some obnoxious star-maker like Simon Cowell who delights in humiliating people.
    It's all in our creed. Our humanity is central to what makes us artists. It's our empathy and our outrage, our compassion and our ability to be embarrassed for those who need to be embarrassed, but are too full of themselves to know it. That's integral with whatever drives our creative process. And somewhere, what we hold within ourselves, our creed, shares and interacts with what's happening in society, with its crazy contradictions of integrity in some and rewards and bestowals of celebrity for others devoid of it. Maybe we, the artists, in our rebellious and unconventional ways, are the ones who hold fast to the American creed.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why don't you write for the L.A. Times? Yours is the most, if not only, sensible and incisive commentary I have seen yet that connects the dots on -- I'm at a loss for occasion-appropriate nouns.

It's not as if I follow stuff like this deliberately. As I'm struggling to engage in my day job the morning after a gig and the Times sports page is on the table where I'm bumbling through the motions of preparing a pot of decaf (I'm extremely sensitive to stimulants and can't even handle American regular coffee!), and then accosted at the check-out counter of the downtown L.A. Ralph's whilst hurriedly stopping to picking up toilet paper and kitchen sponges by tabloids screaming about the latest Kard-ass-whatever nonsense, it forces its way up into my consciousness irrespective of my will to tune it out.

Good reporting should be more widely distributed!

Brenda K

P.S. Not to downplay the Montford Point Marines in any way, but did you happen to see "442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity"?