Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is a bold man who has that single most important characteristic of leadership, namely, moral courage. Without a preparedness to be hated for pursing the courage of your convictions you simply cannot lead. Christie has that courage in spades. He’s saving our state from the oblivion of out-of-control taxes and he’s been prepared to challenge the unions to make concessions on contracts that can otherwise bankrupt us. New Jersey has huge problems and people are leaving, as is reflected in how we just lost a Congressional seat. Christie is slowly tackling the challenges and making considerable progress and it’s wonder he’s being widely regarded as possessing presidential timber.
But much as I admire our great governor, I’m not with him on flying flags at half-staff for Whitney Houston. Now let me be clear. The issue is not the biggest deal and I don’t want to make too much of it. We Americans have far greater problems to address right now. Moreover, I regard the untimely death of the pop diva as a terrible and sorrowful blow. Whitney Houston’s death is an American tragedy and she should be rightly mourned.
But flags at half-staff should be reserved principally for those who have made great sacrifices in the pursuit of selfless, patriotic service. Our celebrities get plenty of attention. Our soldiers barely get any at all. We mostly pay lip service to our support of the troops. Don’t believe me? Ask the average American how many Grammys Adele won the other night and a huge number would know the answer is six. Ask them how many soldiers died in Afghanistan since 2011 and I’d be surprised if even five percent of the population knows. (I myself had to look it up. According to Wikipedia it’s 2765 Coalition deaths as of 31 December, 2011.)
Our soldiers get paid little for their service. Our celebrities get paid a whole lot more. And just about the only acknowledgment our service men and women receive is the knowledge that their patriotic commitment is appreciated by a grateful nation, that there are certain great honors – like the flying of flags at half-staff should a soldier G-d forbid pay the ultimate price – that is reserved almost exclusively for them. The same is true of other Americans who distinguish themselves by great service to our nation.
Celebrities entertain us. They take the edge off of life. Their music inspires us and uplifts us. Their sitcoms make us forget our troubles. Their movies transport us to a more exciting time and place. We are grateful for the amusement and inspiration they can bring to our lives. But that’s not the same as patriotic service to the flag.
I can completely understand flying the flags at half-staff for a celebrity very dedicated to the USO, someone who is out there visiting our troops in Afghanistan and the like on a regular basis. I can see the flag at half-staff for a celebrity who dedicated their life to highlighting genocide or helping to end world hunger. But making a considerable contribution to the arts is not the same as serving the flag.
This is not a criticism of Ms. Houston. No doubt there are countless acts of kindness she undertook in her life that enriched the downtrodden and the poor. Still, she is known primarily for her incredible voice and capacity to entertain through music. But that does not rise to the level of a marine whose young life is snatched away for stopping the Taliban from beating women in the streets.
There is something else. One of the only courageous celebrities who spoke of the corrosive and dangerous nature of fame in the wake of Ms. Houston’s tragic death was Celine Dion. She was roundly pilloried for doing so. But she is right. I watched Michael Jackson’s fame slowly rob him of a healthy life. More recently it did the same to Amy Winehouse. And now it has claimed Whitney Houston.
Now fame, in and of itself, is neutral, just like money and drugs. All can be used for blessed purposes or they can become a curse. It all depends on how it they are handled and to what use they are employed. But the reason that so many celebrities die under fame’s influence is that fame teaches them they don’t have to play by the rules of mere mortals. They are worshipped by the masses. They develop a sense of invincibility. Nothing can hurt them. They are living gods, immortal, until one day they tragically die at a young age and the aura of immortality is dimmed forever. And the only way to save oneself from this fate while being a celebrity is to understand that fame is nothing but the attention one earns from a large amount of people for having a particular skill that draws a crowd. That’s it. You’re not a god. You’re not superman. You are human and frail and you have to lead a healthy life, like anyone else.
But when we make the mistake of elevating our celebrities to national icons when they haven’t necessarily earned that exalted status, it somehow perpetuates the myth that just because you can sing and dance you are performing something of vast global significance.
The great men and women are those who are born for service rather than adventure, living for the needs of others, possessed of such a strong and radiant inner light that they their actions need not always be highlighted by fame’s bright glare.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and received the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. The international best-selling author of 27 books and award-winning TV host, he has just published “Kosher Jesus.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. His website is www.shmuley.com.