Monday, May 31, 2021

Glittering Prizes and Endless Compromises

Because this past week was the 47th anniversary of my first playing "Working Man" at WMMS-FM, I ended up with a lot of new followers on social media (I've got more than 7,000 now on Twitter, much to my surprise). Since many of them are new to following me, they're probably also new to my blog, which I've maintained since early 2015. Sometimes, I do blog about Rush (as you can see from checking out some of my past postings); sometimes I blog about sports, or politics, or education. But this time around, I wanted to blog about ethics. 

As Rush fans know, the title of this post comes from the lyrics in the song "Spirit of Radio," but this is a topic I've discussed with Neil (and with other folks) many times. We all want to think of ourselves as ethical. We all want to believe that--unlike some folks-- we do have integrity and, if given the chance, we would do the right thing, where others would not.  Life is rarely that simple, however, and even the best people sometimes find themselves in a situation where they tell a lie, or cut corners, or make excuses. In other words, we don't always live up to our own ideals.

But I've been wondering about where some of us draw the line. I mean, are there things you just would not do, even if you could get away with them?  And if you were called upon to make a difficult choice, how would you decide?  What brought all this to mind was two things that happened recently. One incident involved pro wrestler and actor John Cena, who made the mistake of acknowledging in an interview that Taiwan is a country (which it is). But China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, and as a result, China's media and the country's leaders demanded that Cena apologize. Cena, who wants desperately for his new movie to be seen in China, almost immediately went on Chinese social media and issued a fervent apology-- even though, deep down, he knew he did nothing wrong. So, wasn't this one of the "endless compromises" that "shatter[s] the illusion of integrity"?  

And then, on a more serious note, there is the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, a time in our history when the editors of some allegedly reputable publications, the political leaders of a large city, and even some members of the clergy decided that lying was better than taking responsibility for their part in what happened. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, an angry White mob destroyed the prosperous part of town known as Black Wall Street, killing or injuring large numbers of Tulsa's Black residents.  Sad to say, some columnists incited the mob, using inflammatory and exaggerated headlines, and then praised what the mob was doing. Some White clergymen rationalized and excused the actions of the mob. And the city's White political leaders not only did nothing to try to stop them, but made sure the mob had weapons.  Later, although everyone knew what had really happened, they all worked hard to make sure the facts never came out (and that didn't change for decades).

So, if you were John Cena, would you have stood up to the powerful forces that could determine whether you made a lot of money, or would you have just decided to say what they wanted you to say, take the money, and go on with your career?  And if you were a White reporter in Tulsa, or the mayor, or the leading members of the clergy, and you witnessed the damage the mob was doing, would you have had the courage to tell the truth about it? Would you have tried to stop it? Or would you have decided it was safer to do nothing, for fear of public disapproval, or fear the mob might turn on you next? 

I understand how difficult it is sometimes to speak up, and speak honestly.  I understand that it can cost you friends (or folks you thought were your friends) or cost you the approval of people you work with, or maybe even put you in a dangerous situation.  But in a world where ethical behavior often seems to be in short supply, that's why we need to show more respect for those who try to be honest, especially at times when honesty isn't popular. My favorite philosopher, the late great Emmanuel LĂ©vinas, said we should always put ethics first. Imagine how much better our society would be if more people thought that way, rather than thinking about the next lie or the next excuse or the next compromise whenever the truth seems inconvenient.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

I Never Wanted to Be a Star

When I was a deejay, one of the first lessons I learned was that not everyone would like my show.  Yes, nearly every deejay has a group of loyal listeners (I still have some of the fan letters folks sent me over the years), but there were always certain folks who just did not like you, for whatever reason. Lucky for me, I was on the air in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s-- the era before social media. The people who disliked your show back then could write you a letter, or maybe phone the station (where the receptionist would take their message), but there was no way for listeners to make their feelings known immediately. That was probably a good thing.

I can't imagine what it must be like to wake up today and find you're the topic of an irate discussion on a website read by millions, where folks can trash your show (or you personally) and get lots of "likes" for doing it.  Today, since people might be listening to you online, the fans can come from just about anywhere...but so can the haters. And thanks to the internet, folks can react almost in real time-- criticizing something you said, correcting you, letting you know they loved X or hated Y. And it's all public: anyone can read it, and even if you respond, it could be taking place on so many different sites that it's impossible to reach every person voting on whether you're the best or the worst. 

What brought this to mind was the news that Ellen DeGeneres is ending her syndicated talk show. I still remember how controversial it was when she "officially" came out as gay: she made her announcement in April 1997 on the cover of Time magazine, and some stores refused to carry it. Fast forward to 2021 when the news that an entertainer is gay is no longer seen as a potential career-ender, the way it still was in the 1990s.  Attitudes changed, and since 2003, Ellen has had a very successful (and lucrative) career hosting her own syndicated talk show. She had a reputation for being nice, friendly, and generous. At the end of each show, she told people to be kind to one another. People believed her.  

And then everything changed. By late 2019, some extremely negative stories about her had begun to surface, and by 2020, there were accusations that behind the scenes at her show, far from being a happy place, there was a toxic work environment. It's an interesting phenomenon. People had built her up and praised her and put her on a pedestal. And now, she was the object of scorn, ridicule, and condemnation. I've never met her, so I have no idea if the "good Ellen" or the "bad Ellen" is the real Ellen, but it didn't take long for folks on social media to begin weighing in. Most asserted she was really not the kindhearted, easy-going person she claimed to be. 

Ellen seemed surprised that so many people turned on her. And whether it's an act or not, she also seemed hurt. And in the end, she decided it was time to end her talk show. Truth be told, the controversies had eaten into her ratings; but even if there hadn't been any negative publicity, many TV shows over the past several years have seen their ratings slide, and hers was one of them. She probably could have hung on, but now that her image as a "nice person" was gone, doing her show was probably not as enjoyable. Nor, I am sure, was fielding all the criticism.  And while she's rich and she'll be just fine, I don't think she expected that fame would come with increased scrutiny, or that she would lose her popularity the way she did.

I have a button I got in 1976, a promotional item for a Cliff Richard album entitled "I'm Nearly Famous."  I've often thought it's better to be nearly famous, rather than so well-known that you have to constantly maintain a certain image, and people all over the world feel they have the right to judge you-- even when they don't really know you.  When I make a mistake or say something on a podcast that folks disagree with, yes some of them might make a rude remark on social media; but I'm not the subject of millions of fans endlessly discussing whether I'm the worst person who ever lived. And while I understand that celebrities know the tradeoff (they will make a lot of money, but they won't have a lot of privacy), watching yet another celebrity get built up and then ripped apart makes me glad I never did become all that famous. Fame can be a lot of fun, but as many celebrities know all too well, it can also be destructive. And that's probably why I never wanted to be a star.