Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Touching Greatness?

Tonight my friend Ted was three rows from someone I know he admires greatly. Ted and his wife spent the night in the company of Gord Downie, and the rest of the Tragically Hip. Ted's written about Gord in at least one post in his blog and the quote at the top of his blogroll is from Gord. He's a good person to admire - actually they both are; Ted and Gord. Speaking specifically of Gord Downie though, a friend of mine once finished a book that he thought Gord would enjoy. So, Jason wrote a note, tucked it into an envelope and mailed it off to Kingston. Four months later, Jason got a package in the mail. It was the book he'd sent off, with a handwritten note: Jason, the book was great. Thanks. Gord Downie. That's class, right there. I can see why Ted would admire a guy like that.

My friend Charla spent this evening in the company of a mega star; spending copious dollars to go to Calgary to see Oprah. Like Ted with Gord, I think Charla sees an inspirational character in Oprah - something that is totally lost on me - and feel a connection to her at her live performances.

Suffice to say, I don't think that I'm stepping too far out of bounds when I say that both Ted and Charla would list meeting Gord and Oprah, respectively, as something they would like to do. They would both likely get something of tremendous value from a potential, intimate meeting; from the chance to sit and talk with someone they greatly admire.

Which got me thinking... who would I like to meet? Who in this world, living right now, would I give up my precious time, to sit down with and have a chat. Taking away all the unattainables - Darwin, Einstein, Marie Curie, P.E. Trudeau, Charles Schultz, and myriad other historically, scientifically, and socially important thinkers - who would I want to meet?

I don't know.

Maybe President Obama because he's such a polarizing figure, who's done more to try to actually lead his people than any other American President in recent memory. Possibly the band They Might Be Giants, to thank them for producing a kids album that encourages children to discover, to learn, and to value the empirical data of science. Perhaps Richard Louv, or as we call him somewhat tongue in cheek, "The Prophet Richard Louv". That's a tough one because on the one hand I'd like to pick his brain about the need to get kids out into nature and where he sees society headed. On the other hand, I'd like to smack him for reducing the issue to snappy catchphrases and idioms. Jon Stewart would likely make the list - one of the few celebrities who I have no reservations about.

But, as far as "popular" people go, I'm afraid that's my short list. A-list celebrities hold no interest for me. Oprah's glow doesn't extend this far, and current "popular" music (while entertaining) is contributing next to nothing in the way of social dialogue. Let's face it, from Michael Vick, to Tiger Woods; and from Manti Teo to Lance Armstrong; from the histrionics of the NHLPA, to the whining of pro tennis players, is there any sports figure worth listening to?

I think that's the problem with the question: What famous person do you want to meet? It can lead to a number of possible negative outcomes. Personally, I don't want to meet a famous person, because I don't care about fame. Part of why we want to meet famous people, can be seen manifested in our fascination with pop culture.

We demand acceptance. We thrive on familiarity. By meeting famous people, yes we may get some insight to them, but what we really gain is the perception of acceptance into their tribe, their clan, their world. Once that meeting takes place, there are a few possible outcomes: You may further identify with that person, potentially shaping your worldview so that it matches with theirs; you may become disillusioned when that person doesn't meet your expectations, forcing you to either reevaluate how you feel about that person, or alternatively, change your values to match theirs  (see Cognitive Dissonance); or you may come away feeling totally ambivalent about the meeting and the person - this may be the best possible outcome because in a way, it would totally validate you as a person.

I'm not knocking anybody for wanting to meet the rich and famous. I am saying that while it can be fun to play the game, be careful what you wish for, and be ready to have to do some serious rearranging of your psyche if things don't go well.

Let me use Oprah as an example here.. A few years ago Oprah decided to give voice to Jenny McCarthy and let her rant incessantly about vaccinations causing autism. Oprah nodded sagely and agreed with Jenny that parents should think long and hard about having their kids vaccinated. Between the two of them, they convinced thousands, tens of thousands of parents, not to vaccinate their kids. This despite there being no peer-reviewed evidence ever published, about a link between vaccinations and autism. They were basing their assertions off of one poorly written, poorly cited and ultimately discredited paper - and McCarthy's belief that her vaccinating her own child, was what caused that child's autism. When that study was finally discredited, Oprah was silent. There was no hauling Jenny back out to account for her actions, the way she just did with Lance. There was no call for an apology the way there had been with James Frey, the author who'd lied to Oprah, on her show.

At the end of the day, Oprah chose to remain silent on an issue that was of far greater importance than whether or not some super-star athlete stuck needles in his arm so that he could ride his bike faster. She was quiet as a dormouse about her part in perpetrating one of the most dangerous public-health unravellings of the 20th century. In the end, Oprah chose to do nothing - which is worse than doing the wrong thing. And so I have to ask myself "Why?". Why would Oprah, a woman beloved by millions, choose to hold Lance Armstrong to account, choose to demand an apology from James Frey, and choose not to bring back Jenny McCarthy for the same treatment.

All I can come up with is money, ratings, and self-identity.

The first two are easy. What are you going to tune in for? Lance Armstrong admits he took performance-enhancing drugs? It was the highest rated Oprah television event ever, I'm sure. Jenny McCarthy talking about being wrong, about medicine... boooorrrriiiiing. Nobody's watching that, so Oprah ignores it.

The self-identity part is trickier and slipperier for Oprah. See, in the case of Lance and James, she was one of us. She was taken in and can claim the same moral indignation as the rest of us. But with McCarthy, Oprah was a willing participant. She helped spread the gospel about the dangers of vaccinations, just much as she spreads the word about her favourite things. In the McCarthy case, if she brings Jenny back on the show, she herself has to admit her own complicity. And, for those of us with normal egos that's hard enough. When you're considered the Queen of television, that's damn near impossible.

And yet, that may be what she wants more than anything: To identify with us, "the normal people." If she doesn't make McCarthy apologize or at least rebut the actual science, then she (Oprah) gets to be a victim, just like you and me. She gets to identify with the rest of us and to be part of our tribe; one that is totally closed off to her because of her fame.

So, Oprah has spoiled me for meeting celebrities. I just don't know where the line between real and fake would lie. I'm not that good a detective. So, for the most part, I'll pass on the famous. I'll dream of meeting Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain researcher who documented her own stroke, while it was happening, Or maybe Alex Zanardi, the Formula One driver who lost both legs in an F1 race and then went on not only to drive competitively again, but to win Gold at the London Paralympics in handbiking (paralympic cycling). Perhaps Neil de Grasse Tyson, or Richard Dawkins has some time for me, to discuss where we've come from and where we're going.

Or maybe, I'll just drive to Canmore to hang out with my friend Colin. Colin ran across Canada last year to raise awareness about the plight of overweight, under-active, nature-deprived kids. He did it on his own with no corporate backing. He cashed in his life savings, quit his job, and put his grad school thesis on hold, because he believed that this needed to be done. He has a hell of a lot more credibility and class than Oprah ever will, and there's no doubt about his motivation, his commitment, or his depth of character.

And if Gord Downie ever want to drink a beer on my porch... Ted knows where to find both of us.

1 comment:

Red said...

You've got my vote on this one. For Oprah it's all about money. I think the big stars for the most part are extremely shallow. We have to keep our feet on the ground.
I would like to talk to my Dad again. There are many questions I have to ask that I didn't ask when he was living.