I’ve been thinking about something for a long time now. Maybe you have, too. The way we blast into the privacy and personal lives of famous people has reaped an acrid harvest for many years now. I don’t know when it started, exactly, because gossip and excessive curiosity have been around since the Beginning of Time. What I mean is the relentless investigation of the famous and of celebrities, and the ruthless exposure of everything discovered. There was a time, journalists and historians say, when newspaper and magazine people tacitly agreed to leave most of people’s lives alone, at least people in elected office. But that agreement is long gone.
In fact, this trend of exposure seems to have started in our youth, maybe with the Kennedy family. Mass media had become available, and even instantaneous media with TV and remote cameras. and suddenly there was a new way to feed the insatiable and endless appetite of the public. Billions of dollars have been made ever since.
The particular reason this development is regrettable, and even tragic, is that it tends to strip all of us down to the lowest levels of shame and ignominy. Given that we all have flaws, we have all made mistakes, and most of us have done things we later regretted, it’s virtually impossible to escape this wide glaring lens of gossip, sensation and condemnation. And the media is distorting. The media can make anything look one hundred times worse.
Specifically, this development that has reached full, destructive maturity recently leave us with fewer and fewer people to admire, and less and less hope, without with we cannot survive. Again, no one is truly immune, because media smearing is now perfected as a vile art form. Anyone can become a victim.
We live in an era where virtually every public reputation and character is sooner or later attacked. Defiled. Calumniated, which means falsely accused or condemned.
Everyone we admire or may come to admire is chopped down at his or her knees. We may still admire the person and appreciate his or her contribution, but the damage is done with tens of thousands of others.
I remember when Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) [photo at right] was about to run for Vice President with Senator George McGovern (D-SD) in 1968, and suddenly it was disclosed that Eagleton had been treated for depression and undergone electroshock treatment. That ruined his political career and publicly humiliated him. Yet probably 5 to 15% of all adults suffer from depression at one time or another. Depression is the second or third most common human illness. There is nothing shameful or weak in it, yet there is a stigma. The same is true of electroshock treatment.
Now any time someone comes in the public attention as a political figure, an actor or singer or musician, or sometimes writer or scientist or other, it follows someone somewhere will claim he slapped his girlfriend in college once, or got arrested for drunk driving, or his cousin was a murderer, or worse.
The Kennedys are the best example of this abuse, but not the worst or the last. Christopher Hitchens berated Mother Teresa.
Yes, sometimes the accusations are well founded. Consider Bill Cosby. Bernie Madoff.
But what happened to forgiveness and minding our own business?
If I asked you to think of two or three public figures you admire from any field, the probability is that the people you think of have been denounced, discredited or accused of awful things, or will be soon, unjustly or not.
Who will cast the first stone? Well, these days it’s lots of people who will. If they turn out to have unfounded accusations about themselves, or sordid pasts, they are likely not to care.
Some claim or believe that’s just how people are: rotten. There have always been some who believe that. But we know it's not true.
Again, with fewer and fewer people to admire, and less and less hope, we cannot survive.