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“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” Revisited

Sidney Finehirsh
November 14, 2017

MY FIFTEEN SECONDS OF FAUX FAME AND THE DANGEROUS CULT OF CELEBRITY

by Sidney Finehirsh

AS I WALKED down Mass Ave in Cambridge several years ago, I was “recognized” as the celebrated Boston Red Sox third baseman.

“Ain’t you Wade Boggs?”

Immediately I smiled, thinking this guy must be extremely nearsighted. Still, I somehow felt the need to apologize.

“No, I’m sorry.”

His excitement evaporated instantly. My apology was met with silence and a look of skeptical confusion. His thrill quickly turned to disappointment as he, without a word, resumed his stride, and disappeared into the afternoon crowd. The regard I had briefly known turned to humiliation as his attention quickly wandered away, leaving me feeling like a useless, nonentity somewhere below the status of chopped liver.

Then it happened again. In New York, I was approached by a tourist who wanted to know if I were Robin Williams. Once more, I felt the need to apologize, but tried to make a joke of it. “Sorry, but I’m not Mork from Ork, and my improv skills are really awful.”

He didn’t find my self-effacing regret at all amusing and his expression went from fascination to irritation faster than the speed of that comic genius' wit. My whimsical words of apology just blew away in the midtown breeze. As the out-of-towner vanished among the sidewalk multitude, my importance in his eyes plummeted in a New York minute from exciting to irrelevant.

Somehow I continue to be mistaken for a celebrity. There was the time when my wife, her sister, her teenage daughter, and I had just been seated in one of those Broadway eateries where the promise is to get you to the theater on time. The waiter quickly took our order and soon brought our first course.

Digging into my calamari, I noticed a middle-aged gentleman dining with his family, staring at me with no attempt to conceal his gaze even as he brought forkfuls of pasta to his mouth. I figured I must know him, but just couldn’t place the face even as I searched my brain for a spark of recognition.

I became convinced he must be an acquaintance whom I’d met through business … maybe a client. I worried that I was about to ruin some business relationship due to a memory that had never been very good with names and faces.

I played at ignoring him in spite of his staring. Perhaps he would just go away or maybe my phone would ring the next day and a voice would say: “I saw you last night at café so-and-so ... Sorry for not saying hello, but I didn’t want to disturb your dinner.”

But his stare didn’t end, even as I tried to focus on the perfectly prepared salmon in front of me. Finally, he and his dinner party finished their meal, and they all got up to leave. Hallelujah, I could relax and enjoy dessert relieved of his steady gawk!

NO SUCH LUCK. As his family looked on contentedly from a short distance away, he approached, forcing my attention away from the mouth-watering berry tart that had just been served. I went for another trick in the networker’s playbook — pretending to recognize him. Rehearsing my lines in my head, I got ready to say “pleased to see you again.” With luck, he wouldn’t know that I hadn’t a clue who he was. I would escape with mindless pleasantries without ever needing to say his name.

Reaching my table, he put out his hand. I turned and reflexively grasped the meaty paw that was now hanging in front of my face, giving it my best affirmative shake. I deliberately remained seated, hoping it would shorten the conversation.

“I just had to come over to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your work.”

Good God, this guy thought I was some famous actor! In one shake of the hand, the whole situation had flipped. It was not that I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t know who I was!

“I have seen just about all your films and all the plays you did on Broadway,” he continued.

Oh no, he was a big fan.

He mentioned the name of a play, but it went by too fast for my befuddled brain to grasp. I was also distracted by his family, clustered near the table where they had just finished dining. They were smiling approvingly as their man realized what must have been a longstanding hope to meet his matinee idol. The thought of not embarrassing him in front of his family became foremost in my mind.

The handshake still ongoing, I replied casually: “Thank you. I appreciate you telling me that.” Then I pulled back my hand, turned away, and returned to my still-untasted tart, doing my best imitation of a star of stage and screen who was overburdened by adoring fans. That quick pivot brought me face to face with the studied silence and bemused raised eyebrows of my wife, sister-in-law, and niece.

But my pretend pretension failed to dislodge him. “Could you tell me what’s your next project?”

I was just getting in deeper. I faked a modest grin and replied, “You know, I really can’t reveal that information.”

He answered gratefully: “Oh, I understand.”

With a beaming grin, he proudly went off to rejoin his family, awaiting their hero who had just touched the object of his stellar worship.

I didn’t mean to play him for a fool, only to avoid both giving him a black eye in front of his loved-ones and proffering yet another unappreciated apology. But I had skated on very thin ice that covered a deep pool of potential humiliation for both of us. Fortunately, he never asked for an autograph.

AS I WATCHED the theater performance later that evening, my fifteen seconds of faux fame intruded upon my thoughts. The restaurant devotee’s pleasure, I realized, was no different than if he had actually met the person he thought I was. The delight he took basking in my counterfeit celebrity was as real to him as if he had met the genuine headliner. His biggest mistake was not misidentifying me, but thinking that a few seconds with a “somebody” had substantial value.

There was a time, now forgotten, when fame differed from celebrity — when fame meant accomplishment and honor. More than two millennia ago, a Jewish scribe by the name of Ben Sira called on us to “now praise famous men,” identifying them as those who were “wise and eloquent.” No more. Fame has become the mere quality of being famous, a money-grabbing racket practiced by the likes of the Kardashians. What was once a result of real achievement is now the result of publicists. What was once synonymous with distinction is now no more than gross puffery.

And sometimes fame is no more than inheritance of a name. But such birth celebrities can still feel endowed with an innate wisdom -- as evidenced by their shrewd choice of parents! Today we have Ivanka, who packages empowerment pablum in books, declaring their contents to be the breakfast of female champions. Yet the shame of modern fame belongs not to the Kardashians or the Ivankas, but to us. After all, we are the ones who seek them out; who attempt to touch; who crave their shallowest attention and even emulate them in dress and speech.

I confess to the weakness. I once attended an event where John Cleese was the guest of honor. I approached him after dinner, trying not to gush, but to say something impressively profound. I later discovered, via a TV interview he gave, that Cleese considered such accosting fans to be “fawning creatures.”

What turns me and fellow nonentities from self-respecting individuals into fawning creatures? Bragging rights are an obvious motivation, but there must be something more than the meager vanity of telling friends of a close encounter with a star. That something is an American dream manufactured in Hollywood – a dream in which our innate talent, unknown to anyone but ourselves, is suddenly discovered by a luminary of the silver screen who appears to us lowly souls as almost “extraterrestrial.” Having been discovered, the astral being takes us aboard their celestial starship to share the glamour of their lives, which we imagine to be far beyond our mundane existence.

Yet it must be acknowledged that Hollywood didn’t invent or initiate the concept of fame divorced from honor. It was early moviegoers who demanded to know more about the lives of motion picture personalities. At first, Hollywood resisted, but its executives then embraced this unexploited market, amplified it, fabulized it, and industrialized it. The star system was born.

This market, however, appears to have deeper sociological roots than the offices of motion picture execs. It cannot be a coincidence that the need for fantasy celebrities arrived just as America was undergoing massive social change: farmers supplanted by the field hands hired by agricultural corporations; artisans replaced by factory workers who were themselves displaced farmers and dislocated immigrants. Even the self-esteem of holding a job and supporting a family in this disrupted world could be extinguished by bouts of long-term unemployment.

Whatever the national wealth generated by the industrialization of America, the self-identity that was previously associated with work and tradition was lost by the multitude. It was in this world that Hollywood discovered its mass market for celebrities as fantasy identities that could be taken on by members of the lonely crowd.

Cecilia, the central character of Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, personified this development. Played by Mia Farrow, Cecilia holds a tenuous job as a waitress, supports an abusive, unemployed husband — in the midst of the Depression — but endures her pale existence by frequenting the local movie show. She desperately needs the storied explorer, Tom Baxter, to step off the screen and into her life. The movie theater is not just her escape; it’s her only sustainable identity.

FANTASIES CAN be innocent enough and no more harmful than a daydream, but they lose that innocence when we invite our stars to leave the screen and enter our lives by buying their concocted brands, believing their tabloid myths, and putting our faith in their hyped achievements.

We even transfigure the glow of the bright lights shining upon them, turning them into a dazzling brilliance that emanates from them with transformational power. The images on the gossip pages turn into idols of a secular temple, and we place our faith in their miraculous mastery of the physical world — the power to drain swamps, build impenetrable walls, bring back obsolete industries, and resurrect fabled pasts.

These gods of theater, television, and cinema are only fleshy creatures like ourselves, but they’re prone to believe their own delusions of fabulous power. Their self-inflating fantasies are, however, shared by a captivated audience of millions who are also an electorate, the result being that our political reality has morphed into a reality show entitled The Apprentice President. With the collusion of fans as voters, a demigod of the celebrity cult has transformed himself into the demagogue of the Oval Office.

How do we resist icons carved from our own dreams? We start by demythologizing the mystique of superstar power. The fault, as Shakespeare wrote, is not in our Stars, but in ourselves.

So what will I do the next time I am mistaken for one of the famous? Lecture my fan on the dangers of celebrity? Not likely. Play the celebrity role as I did in that pre-theatre restaurant? Probably not. Inform the interloper of the mistake, accept our mutual embarrassment, and move on? Perhaps.

As much as I abhor the modern cult of fame, I have gained a measure of affection for that Wade Boggs fan in Boston, the tourist in New York, and the theater aficionado. They might be no more or less than everyday people looking for a little buzz on the street. My few seconds of interaction cannot inform me of their inner need for tinsel heroes. I know practically nothing about my admirer in the restaurant. I don’t even know who he thought I was.

What I do know is that the cult of modern celebrity is eviscerating the moral content of our political process. Of course, the claim to fame by the celebrity-in-chief is not the sole cause of our present distress, but only one of many related trends of our current history: the legacy of the “peculiar institution,” the growth of tribalism among the white working class, dislocations due to the new domination of global supply chains, gross (and growing) income disparity, changes between urban and rural electoral demographics, and the degeneration of the Republican Party into a political machine, engorged with dollars from big donors, intending to rule at any cost, even as a minority.

But within these trends, it was Trump’s pursuit of celebrity without honor that put him on the national stage. Our future has become hostage to the whims of the rich and famous. Let us now fear famous men. Ben Sira weeps.

Sidney Finehirsh is writer based in New York. He has a history of political activism, business entrepreneurship, and an obsessive interest in philosophy, religion, and Jewish history. He holds a degree in Philosophy and Physics from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and is presently a non-credit student at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.