Aug. 18 (Bloomberg) — You might have missed the news that several courthouse guards are being investigated for accepting autographed baseballs from Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers of the modern era, after his mistrial on charges of lying under oath about steroid use.
This might seem like a minor offense, but it isn’t. Suppose the guards were accused of receiving $200 in cash — one estimate of the resale value of the autographed baseballs. Suppose further that the person handing out the bills happened to be an accused drug dealer, whose case had similarly ended in a mistrial. Presumably we would be outraged, and the story, rather than crawling across the bottom of the screen on the sports channels, would be leading the evening news.
But here is the trouble: Had the offer of a gratuity come from the drug dealer, one assumes the guards would have rejected it out of hand.
Why the difference? Because Clemens is a celebrity, and in the presence of celebrity, people seem to believe it is perfectly normal to act ridiculous — if by ridiculous we mean abandoning whatever notions of duty, morality and common sense that ought to guide our judgment. Celebrities, too, have a societal license to act ridiculous in their own presence, and often do — and, oddly, they often increase the value of their celebrity as a result.
Much has been written over the years about why we follow the doings of celebrities at all, and why we often become goofy in their presence. Some theorists point to data suggesting that celebrity worship fulfills a need formerly satisfied by religious affection. Others, armed with brain scans, contend that celebrities touch our romantic selves, so that our irrationality around them is much like our irrationality around our loved ones. Whatever the reasons, the effect of celebrity is undeniable.
Most of the time, our silliness is harmless. Standing alongside the barrier outside a night club or an awards show, shrieking and swooning as the famous go by, might be a peculiar way to expend energy, but it does no particular social damage. In 1966, when Willie Mays hit the 535th home run of his career – – making him, at the time, the greatest right-handed home run hitter ever — umpire Chris Pelekoudas stepped up to shake his hand as he crossed home plate. Pelekoudas reported himself to the league office for this act of partiality, and was told not to worry about it.
But our love of celebrity can also cause terrible harm — especially when the celebrity culture overflows its banks and pollutes the roiling waters of our politics. In a democracy, politics at its best is a serious business, calling upon all the best traits of our character — reflection, steadfastness, courage, tolerance, compassion, determination. When we instead conduct politics according to the rules of celebrity, we bring into democracy all that is worst in our culture.