You might have missed the news that several courthouse guards are being investigated for accepting autographed baseballs from Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers of the modern era, after his mistrial on charges of lying under oath about steroid use.
This might seem like a minor offense, but it isn’t. Suppose the guards were accused of receiving $200 in cash -- one estimate of the resale value of the autographed baseballs. Suppose further that the person handing out the bills happened to be an accused drug dealer, whose case had similarly ended in a mistrial. Presumably we would be outraged, and the story, rather than crawling across the bottom of the screen on the sports channels, would be leading the evening news.
But here is the trouble: Had the offer of a gratuity come from the drug dealer, one assumes the guards would have rejected it out of hand.
Why the difference? Because Clemens is a celebrity, and in the presence of celebrity, people seem to believe it is perfectly normal to act ridiculous -- if by ridiculous we mean abandoning whatever notions of duty, morality and common sense that ought to guide our judgment. Celebrities, too, have a societal license to act ridiculous in their own presence, and often do -- and, oddly, they often increase the value of their celebrity as a result.
Much has been written over the years about why we follow the doings of celebrities at all, and why we often become goofy in their presence. Some theorists point to data suggesting that celebrity worship fulfills a need formerly satisfied by religious affection. Others, armed with brain scans, contend that celebrities touch our romantic selves, so that our irrationality around them is much like our irrationality around our loved ones. Whatever the reasons, the effect of celebrity is undeniable.
Most of the time, our silliness is harmless. Standing alongside the barrier outside a night club or an awards show, shrieking and swooning as the famous go by, might be a peculiar way to expend energy, but it does no particular social damage. In 1966, when Willie Mays hit the 535th home run of his career - - making him, at the time, the greatest right-handed home run hitter ever -- umpire Chris Pelekoudas stepped up to shake his hand as he crossed home plate. Pelekoudas reported himself to the league office for this act of partiality, and was told not to worry about it.
But our love of celebrity can also cause terrible harm -- especially when the celebrity culture overflows its banks and pollutes the roiling waters of our politics. In a democracy, politics at its best is a serious business, calling upon all the best traits of our character -- reflection, steadfastness, courage, tolerance, compassion, determination. When we instead conduct politics according to the rules of celebrity, we bring into democracy all that is worst in our culture.
Politics of Celebrity
Last week former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination after finishing third in the Iowa straw poll, a contest that few voters can accurately describe. (Neither can many journalists, evidently: You do not have to hunt far to find dueling stories on whether, for example, anyone who shows up at the door can vote.)
I am not a registered Republican, and I have no particular brief for Pawlenty. But there is something troubling in the media descriptions of the ex-governor’s failings -- that he seemed boring on television, for example, or that he never connected with voters. (Not, of course, that there have been any votes cast in the 2012 race yet.)
These criticisms are unrelated to the quality of his ideas, or his capacity to think through tough issues and reach wise decisions. They are, rather, the sorts of comments that a Hollywood producer might make in explaining why a particular actor just isn’t right for his upcoming film.
One sees a version of this battle being fought even today over the legacy of Ronald Reagan. What made him so successful and popular a president? To liberals, it was the power of his communication skills, his ability to connect with voters; to conservatives, it was the power of the ideas he was communicating. I do not pretend to know the answer in Reagan’s case, but I do think it is better for democracy if, in this case, the conservative side is right.
The theory of self-governance rests critically on the notion that we as citizens will take the time to inform ourselves about the issues before making our choices. Unfortunately, as the novelist John le Carre once noted, we tend to punish making a good point badly, and reward making a bad point well. It is style, not substance, that draws our attention.
Triumph of Glibness
The culture of celebrity politics too often rewards the mouthy, the glib and the outrageous, and hurts those who are thoughtful. What becomes important is not being able to present and defend good ideas, but having something succinct to say all the time. If a political candidate answers a question by saying, “That’s a tough one, I’ll have to consult with my advisers and think it over,” we should be delighted; instead, we will probably dismiss him as not ready to lead. Abraham Lincoln possessed a reedy speaking voice and a distracting accent associated at the time with the uneducated; in today’s politics, he would be a miserable failure.
So much of the energy of the partisan is nowadays committed to attacking, to sloganeering, to emoting. We all complain about the raucous absurdity of much of the cable world, but enough people tune in to keep the profits coming. Perhaps what appeals to the viewer is not the battle of great ideas but the conflict itself. Research cited by Daniel L. Wann and his collaborators in their book “Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators” suggests that at least among men, a contest becomes more interesting if they know that the teams are bitter enemies.
Yet here one is reminded of the wisdom of Bertrand Russell, who warned that if we never spend time alone with our thoughts, we never have thoughts of our own; we only have other people’s thoughts in our heads. Writing back in the 1930s, Russell argued that we should work less hard, because the vapidity, as he saw it, of popular entertainment was a function of our perpetual exhaustion: We are too tired to think, and so choose to be amused instead.
But if we take democracy seriously, we cannot let politics become amusement. Self-governance is hard work, and a self-governing people should require of its public debate more than telegenic candidates mouthing snappy answers.
(Stephen L. Carter, a novelist, professor of law at Yale and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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