One of the residuals of living more than a few decades is that you get to see how things have changed. Sure, it’s challenging to believe that your memories are an accurate representation of the way things used to be. Time and the nature of humans makes such certainties elusive.
But the obituary columns sometimes remind us of who and how we were. Such rememberings can lead to a contrast with the way things have become.
I think one of the things that has changed the most since the middle of the last century is the way people identify those who they admire most. I can remember, when I was growing up, that my list of people that I most admired was made up of people that I knew. They ranged from the wise, old white-hairs to those contemporaries who simply seemed to have a better handle on things. There were two common characteristics. First, I knew them – they were real people in my life. And second, they triggered a sense of aspiration. In one way or another, I wanted to learn from them.
I can remember times when we fellow travelers would talk about who we admired and why. Those discussions were often about this teacher or that parent. In most cases, they were real to us. Sure, we admired this basketball or baseball player. We all had sports heroes. But we had a sense that those people weren’t real to us.
Things have really changed since that time. Today, when I ask someone who they admire they tend to respond by identifying some celebrity, writer or politician. The most common characteristic is that the people on their list are unknown to them except through their virtual representation as a celebrity.
When I ask them, “How much you really know about so-and-so? Isn’t everything you know filtered through their PR operation? And what is it like to admire someone who doesn’t even know you exist?” things tend to get relatively confusing. It quickly becomes clear that they are convinced that the virtual representation and the person behind it are identical. But that certainty only lasts until the differences are exposed.
One of the most recent phenomena along these lines has been the over-the-top adulation for the current President. His supporters were absolutely certain that they knew the kind of a man he was. They idolized his virtual image and castigated anyone who questioned its validity. The victory in November 2016 was an affirmation of their adoration. Their Savior had arrived.
But then, the wheels started to fall off. After promising to protect and improve their health care, the President aggressively supported legislation that would have stripped healthcare from many of the people who supported him. After putting himself forward as the champion of the common man, he advocated legislation which gave huge tax breaks to his contemporaries and slashed the social safety net so important to those significantly less well-off. In foreign policy, after running on a platform of America First, he seemed more a stooge of the Kremlin than the leader of its principal adversary.
Many began to question their faith in this falling idol. Their first response was simply to tune out. Many engaged in a “news blackout”. They stopped listening to the news and reading newspapers. But that strategy did not seem to work. The news had a habit of breaking through.
Now there is a rising anger amongst his supporters. They feel like they have been sold out or swindled. The truth is they have been. That anger is fueling a general rebellion against the executive branch and the President.
Whether you take the analysis above as accurate or inaccurate is not the issue that I am addressing. I want to return to the question of how you choose who you admire. One of the most insidious results of the “celebrity worship” culture which has come to dominate our country is that all our idols can turn out to be false – manufactured, virtual representations of a person that doesn’t really exist. In other words, a swindle.
When the people you most admire are unknown to you except through their manufactured image, you end up being locked in a cycle of adoration, disappointment, disgust and shame. It’s only when your heroes are known to you and part of your life in a non-virtual sense, that you can break the cycle.
At one time or another, we have all thought derisively about a child with “imaginary friends”. Well?
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II