Fame

Playing to the Cameras

Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was on the Daily Show. She shared her view that oral arguments before the court should not be televised because the temptation to play to the cameras would change the nature of the proceedings.

Sotomayor believes that partisanship in Congress started to grow when cameras were allowed in. Since then senators have been standing on the empty senate floor speaking “to the camera not to each other… Many senators told me that they felt much of the collegiality died when they stopped getting together in that room and were forced to listen to each other and were forced to sit next to each other and talk to each other.”

Bloomberg today shared a clip of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg who has invited a press pool to travel with him on his bus. This is something, they note, has not been done since John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” in 2000. The candidate pointed out that this means that campaigning hasn’t been done this way “since the social media era began.”

Why have a bunch of journalists, who might not present you as you’d like, follow you around when you can reach the public directly with a tweet?

In both cases, the Senators speaking directly to the camera, the presidential candidates tweeting directly to the public, you’re bypassing confrontation and pushback, and also bypassing the natural empathy that tends to come with face to face conversation. It is much easier to caricature someone’s position and use it to your own ends when they’re not sitting beside you.

It’s not just the politicians though. Voters play to the cameras too. Buttigieg observed that instead of shaking hands, the people who meet him want a photo with him.

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A handshake is just between two people. It can not be shared with a wider audience. We’re more focused on having something to show to the people not in the room than on the quality of the interaction in the room. The unobserved moment may as well not exist.

It struck me that in the social media age we’ve all become adept at playing to the cameras. We have more outlets than ever to share our views with the world, and at the same time, our desire to have two way conversations has dwindled.

You see the result in a lot of disputes where people do not even think to talk to a person directly before going to an authority or the public to complain. “So and so said/did this and it made me uncomfortable and he/she should be fired…” And in response, the problem the organization seeks to solve is often the PR disaster rather than the interpersonal conflict between these individuals. They, too, play to the cameras.

We have an entire attention based economy, where we try to “build platforms” and get clicks and likes. (Chris Hayes had one of the best observations about social media, he called it, if I remember rightly, “weaponizing our human need for affirmation.”)

As I previously mentioned here, Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed.

Because there is nothing everyone agrees on we form little safe zones online where we assume most people will look at things as we do. Within these tribes the range of discussion and thought becomes homogenized.

Is it possible that the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of broadcasting ourselves and that we’re due for a shift back to a culture that values community and face to face interaction over being known to a large impersonal audience? Have we all used our proverbial 15 minutes and gotten sick of it? Time and Twitter will tell.

“Impressive Freddy Mercury Imago”

What happens when you choose an identity for yourself that already exists in the world? When you admire someone so much you try to become them and fail? To paraphrase the famous quote attributed (wrongly) to Oscar Wilde: you’re disappointed to realize you must be yourself because everyone else is already taken.

Identity_Theft_Cover_for_Kindlejpg_picmonkeyed I was particularly interested to read about a case reported in Improbable Research today.  First of all, it taught me the term “imago” meaning “an unconscious, idealized mental image of someone, especially a parent, that influences a person’s behavior.”

W.H.J. Martens, in The American Journal of Psychotherapy wrote:

A case report is presented and analyzed of a patient who was a double for and imitator of the late Freddy Mercury, lead singer for the rock group Queen. The patient was socially excluded, rejected by his peers, and neglected by his parents. As a consequence he experienced self-hate, shame, low self-esteem, and serious identity problems. Although impressive Freddy Mercury imago appeared to benefit the patient, mainly though social acceptance and enhanced opportunities for relationships, in the long term it could not cover up his deep-rooted and repressed identity problems.

The patient “had become increasingly aware that he would never be Freddy Mercury, but also he had difficulties in accepting and showing his real self.”

That is one of the main themes of my novel Identity Theft, in which a young man takes on the persona of his rock star boss online. There are actually two characters in the novel who take on identities that already exist in the world. Even the rock star character, whose identity was stolen, laments that there is probably no point in writing songs as The Beatles already existed and he will never be John Lennon.

It seems to me that most of us have “impressive imago” of one kind or another. There are people who loom large in our imaginations, whose accomplishments serve as bench marks against which we measure our own lives and often find ourselves lacking.

 

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What upset people so much in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am passing judgment on the accusers or saying their statements are not truthful. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.” In an interview years ago about his career at that time (ironically with Charlie Rose) Spacey said he couldn’t get work and was pleased to get a role as a “spear carrier” because he didn’t want to wait tables.

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found weird and notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

Shooting for Significance

I have been busy this week, and therefore I did not have time to watch the latest mass shooting unfold as a media event on my screen. I find that I am unable to summon any genuine emotion about it besides vague anger and frustration. Tim Kreider did a good job articulating this anger in The Week. His article was written in May 2014, but I had to read for a while to realize that because these events blend into one another and the same articles tend to work for any of them.

It seems that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was seeking fame. “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” he allegedly wrote.

As I noted here in 2014, Ethan Watters, In his book Crazy Like Us, describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter.  “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”

Mass shootings are now part of the American “symptom pool.”  Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, we have a well-established blueprint for how young men full of pain and impotent rage can express their psychological suffering. Unlike leg paralysis or anorexia, it is destructive to innocent strangers.

Saying that killers want to be featured on the news is not really enough. A deeper question is why they want to be on the news. Assuming that the shooter did write the social media post attributed to him, it is interesting how being in the news is equated with being significant. Being known means that you matter.

David M. Friedman credits Oscar Wilde with ushering in our modern celebrity culture, which he describes in Wilde in America: “It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.”

Fame isn’t the end product, it is the beginning.

We are not, for the most part, a nation that manufactures things. We are a nation that sells things. We are not a nation of companies that train and raise up talent, we expect workers to have “portable skills” and to market themselves. Becoming known is a survival skill– a first step in a career not the result of achievement. From there it is but a small step to believing that only people who are known to many people are significant. It doesn’t matter how one becomes famous. It matters that one is famous. The most reviled reality TV star can probably launch a perfume line and have a career, or so it seems.

This is the part of the article where a writer is expected to close with a call to action– here is what to do about it. I don’t have one. None of the ingredients in the mass shooting soup are going to change easily. Gun culture and politics don’t seem to be on the verge of any sort of change. The TV news networks will continue to answer our curiosity about perpetrators of violence and in the process will unintentionally be giving the next mass shooter a blueprint for action. People will continue to suffer from mental illness, and it will always be hard to act before the event. Our cultural assumptions about the value of known-ness and of masculinity and power will not change overnight. But we can’t be entirely powerless to stop this, can we?

The Attention Based Economy

We live in an attention based economy.

This realization struck me a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to a sponsorship agent. I was trying to line up a sponsor for our coast-to-coast ballet master class tours. As we talked about “markets” and “reach” I thought about all of the television commercials and the stadiums and theaters with brand names on them and I began to imagine an Uber for attention. Instead of paying networks or stadiums to carry messages that consumers might or might not see why not monetize attention directly– create an ap where a company can pay individuals directly for a bit of their undivided attention? Cut out the middle man.

Increasingly artists of all kinds are told they need to work for free in order to gain “exposure.” The Huffington Post pays writers in exposure. American Idol pays its entertainers, with the exception of the winner, with “exposure.” I think it is about time we develop actual units of “exposure” so that artists can pay their landlords with it. Maybe we could call it “FameCoin.”

Young people, especially seem to feel that this free artistic labor is worth it because exposure is so valuable. But is it really? Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester studied the question and found “The idea that being on a television talent contest is a guaranteed route to fame and fortune is not supported. While this can happen, it applies to only a minority of contestants.” Gunter points out that few winners of The Apprentice lasted beyond the first year of employment with Donald Trump and few went on to develop their own businesses.

The fashion competition program Project Runway has run for 14 seasons without launching a breakout star.  As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post:

“Project Runway” returns…with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004…

“Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.

In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.

Whenever a mass shooting gets heavy news coverage people express outrage not only at the violence but that the shooter has become famous. Even notoriety is considered valuable.

A study by Adam Lackford does implicate the importance Americans place on fame as one of the ingredients that leads to our high rates of mass shootings compared to the rest of the world. So we respond with a “don’t say the killer’s name” policy. For those who would do violence in order to earn some notoriety, here’s some sobering news: It doesn’t work. Most mass shootings do not even make the national news these days.  As Shane Ryan wrote in The Daily News:

Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.

So to the angry guy who is building up his arsenal right now with a “this will show the world” drive– don’t do it.

In the literary world authors are constantly told to get out there and blog, blog, blog. The key to success as a writer is to build up a huge social media presence. But all of this is quite at odds with the traditional role of the writer as a silent observer of life.

“It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman told The Boston Globe in 2012, when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

This is, of course, the opposite of what we are told we need to do in order to have any chance of having a writing career. So we turn to social media in an attempt to earn some FameCoin. This desire to be noticed and followed has an impact on the type of work we create.

Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed. It is reasonable to assume, then, that writers who are frequent social media users will also get in the habit of thinking and writing in more conventional, less challenging ways.

A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is actually good for the creative process. The act of being rejected can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity told Salon that a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

I propose that it is time to rethink some of our assumptions about the value of attention and exposure. We are dealing in a currency that buys very little.

To Be Forgiven for Fame

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

 

640px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_by_Washington_Allston_retouchedSamuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his own epitaph. Years of addiction to opium, debt, illness and divorce had not dulled his instincts as a poet. He summed up his life with a beautiful chiasmus “That he who many a year with toll of breath/Found death in life, may here find life in death!”


He adopts a humble tone “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.” (One is tempted to wonder how sincere his humility was, given that this epitaph is carved in stone for posterity.)


The line that jumps out at me today is “mercy for praise- to be forgiven for fame.”
(There was a time when poets were famous.)


It is a strange request, as praise and fame are not something you do, but something others bestow upon you. He is being asked to be forgiven for how he was received by other people.
To be forgiven for fame is not something modern western people often ask. Leo Braudy writing in The Frenzy of Renown observed, “John Lennon of The Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus. As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: if Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”


Few of us hope that when we die our stories will not be told.


The book The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration by Peggy Hadden suggests artists use a quest for immortality as a driver.


 “Thus, the desire to break out of the limits of our life span prompts us to create, to leave something behind us… None of us thinks of retiring from making art. It seems too much like living itself. Visiting a museum is not like going to see dead people. Rather, it is like going to a place where we can instantly revive the artists, hear their views, see what they have to say. To be included in their midsts would be a way to live forever.”
The book then goes on to some other source of inspiration without having the candor to note that very few artists will actually achieve this or to give any thought as to what aspect of the artist really can live on or whether the artist would recognize or approve of the story future people tell about her.


Reaching the end of his life, Coleridge came to believe that this type of immortality was a chimera. That kind of renown does nothing to extend the life of the artist’s soul. If posthumous reputation exists at all it only preserves the public persona, the false self, its posing and vanity.  The only real “life in death,” he says is through Christ, and so he asks or mercy and asks, with some urgency, that his readers do the same.