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Posted in: Arts, Film & Culture

Published on May 20, 2008 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Musings on a Rainy Afternoon

From Myanmar to Celebrity-Gods


Lately, the days are all raw and rainy. This is strange weather for May in Manhattan but who dares to complain? At least we are not enduring earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, tsunamis, or forest fires.

I cannot imagine the suffering of those in Myanmar who have just lost their loved ones, their homes, and their health– to the weather. May God have mercy upon them. Thus far, humanity has not risen to the occasion. The same United Nations that would not "intervene" to save the victims in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Congo, or Darfur are not saving those condemned to death, not by an earthquake, but by their own leaders in Myanmar.

Those who continue to call for matters to be settled (not by American military intervention) but by some imagined beneficent Tribe of Elders known as "the international community," are queerly quiet now as are all those diplomats who say that we must first meet and reason with the kind of evil men who control life and death in Myanmar. Do such well-meaning diplomats believe that lives lost while waiting for diplomacy to kick in are not as important as lives lost as "collateral damage" in high risk military ventures?

Enough of these rainy thoughts. Here's what's on my mind, what's really been bothering me. Where have all our standards gone? Gone to heaven, everyone?

For example, once, long ago, a professor had to complete a dissertation and a Ph.D and he or she represented the acquisition of a certain body of knowledge. This is no longer true. Increasingly, television personalities and authors of popular (but not necessarily learned works) are being appointed to professorships and are often the preferred role models. Hopelessly humdrum ideologues who are not original thinkers and who absolutely cannot write clearly or beautifully, now conceive of themselves as major public intellectuals–even as "revolutionaries." They hold forth, they are quoted widely.

There are no standards. Everything is the same, no one is any better than anyone else, nothing matters–or rather, all that matters is whether the celebrity event raises money and leads to headlines. This standard also applies to politicians as well. If he or she are charming, attractive, young, and charismatic, (just like a movie star), we love and entrust our hearts to them. Actors or rather theatrical types are our new Gods and we have always been a faithful nation.

Back in the olden days, an author might care more about words than about performing before a live audience. Now, a book is a product (like toothpaste or shampoo), and a preferred way to market a personality or a snake oil movement. Thus, an increasing number of performers mainly excel in acting out their own life histories, over and over again. Yes, they sell books at their lectures–but not necessarily real books.

Oh, my age betrays me. Very few people complain about such arrangements. They may no longer wish to sit alone with a book and struggle to understand it. People want to see it acted out before their collective eyes. We live in an age of Cliff Notes and prize-winning comic strips. People want to be entertained, they want their information packaged in a dramatic and colorful way.

Homer read his work aloud, Shakespeare had his plays performed. I can watch and listen to a Verdi or Puccini opera every night. Thus, I certainly do not object to audio-visual presentations. Rather, I mourn how few of our bestselling books or longest running plays or most frequently assigned textbooks comes anywhere near such classical standards.


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