The Monica Follies

Last week 70 million of us--including me, I'm ashamed to admit--watched Barbara Walters interview Monica Lewinsky for two hours. The next day, thousands of viewers bought the book Monica talked about: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which President Clinton had given her. And hundreds of viewers called ABC to find out what kind of cosmetics Monica was wearing. Clearly, Monica is not only being treated as our newest media heroine, she's influencing our culture. Well, I for one repent that I wasted so much time watching the Walters special. I found myself revolted by the maudlin--though well-coached--performance in which Monica went to great lengths to make herself seem the innocent victim. What we saw was a sordid, modern picture of narcissism and ego-centricities. And what a pathetic picture it was. One has to feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky. Her whole view of life and reality, of decency, of what is right and what is important, is thoroughly degraded. The Walters interview was just the beginning. Monica's book went on sale the very next day. As a reporter on British television candidly acknowledged over the weekend, "This woman is a commodity, up for grabs to the highest bidder"--and he's right. This brings us to the meat of the contrast between celebritism and heroism. We're seeing celebritism at its worst in the merchandising of Monica. Celebritism, you see, is the raw merchandising of human beings as products. The object may be a serial killer, a convicted government official--or a flirtatious White House intern. What matters is not what the person did, but the price that can be generated and the market value of the fame. In his book, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits, Dick Keyes writes that a celebrity is "one who is famous and well publicized," well known "apart from how they became known. Celebrity itself is indifferent to moral character," he adds. One can be famous "but still a thoroughly obnoxious person and menace." Amen to that. Keyes then contrasts celebrity with true heroism. A hero is someone who excels at something we prize and inspires us to try to emulate his achievements. But this definition is incomplete, he says, because some of the people best at getting others to follow them have been dictators like Hitler and Stalin, or in this case, young women who flirt with married men. To distinguish heroes from these kinds of people, we have to include a moral dimension. We should identify as heroes, Keyes says, only those who "show qualities of moral character." Stay tuned for the rest of this series on heroism and I'll tell you about some real heroes--people like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. When the news media give so much attention to the likes of Monica, they encourage our young people to emulate those who are merely celebrities. The sudden jump in sales of Leaves of Grass and the cosmetics Monica wears shows that too many people are beginning to see Monica as someone to emulate. That's why we need to help our kids and grandkids understand the difference between heroism and celebritism. And then you might make the same resolution I've just made: Avoid Monica mania. Refuse to buy her book or watch her on television. We all have better things to do--like reading about, and teaching our kids about, true heroes.


Chuck Colson



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