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What we can learn from aberrations of the famous

July 31, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Reading about the sudden death of Steve McNair and the circumstances attendant to his violent departure brought to mind some memories of readings about how our society deals with celebrity. Reports of this great athlete's life were lavish with praise and comments made by all who knew him indicated a legend in the making.

True, they were not a match for the celebrations and honors heaped upon Michael Jackson, whose untimely death was concurrently being recognized. Both events reinforced the memories of how societies deal with those who fail to abide by the folkways and mores that are a part of culture. The punishments range from mere gossip to hanging.

What was puzzling about these writings, from the very first to the present, was the observation that some categories of citizens were more or less not held accountable for known violations of these commonly accepted expectations. Two of the categories mentioned were geniuses and celebrities. The reasoning behind this was that geniuses could not be expected to act like normal people because they were so focused on weighty matters that trivial details were unworthy of their attention.

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Artists and musicians were also granted considerable latitude for nonconformance because "everybody knows" that the "artistic temperament" should not be stifled by limitations that might dampen the creative urges. The result was that, year after year, one famous singer, dancer, quarterback, or inventor was honored amid bright lights, pomp and ceremony with all of the warts (and more) fully aired out with no sign of embarrassment or demand for accountability.

During these years, there were also a number of famous political personalities who confessed to all manner of social infractions. If they were sufficiently contrite, they were re-elected to political offices. In short, the people being held accountable and serving the most time were the middle and lower ranks of society. Bankers charged with embezzlement were given short sentences in prisons with relaxed demands -- even enhanced facilities.

As a fan of country music, it was a frequent event to read of country music stars that wasted fortunes, friendships, marriages, and property because of an inability to govern their appetites. Hank Williams, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley are but a few.

One might surmise that it is very difficult for those raised in poverty to pace their pleasures when they face the realization that show business careers were tenuous. Nonetheless, it was almost impossible to continue admiring a talent as great as Elvis Presley while he publicly flaunted social expectations and had few, if any, restraints on insatiable physical appetites.

There is sadness in reading about the tragic demise of a gifted quarterback or monumentally talented entertainer. Perhaps they were like so many youthful drivers who speed recklessly, assuming that they are magically immune from the fate of friends who are maimed or killed.

One possible lesson from a look at the shortcomings of the great and the famous is that those, of more modest achievements, are actually fortunate. Their achievements are not as earthshaking; their notoriety is not as plentiful -- but the dependable, competent services given, are important to family, friends and community. The challenge faced daily is to live up to the talents and abilities with which they are endowed and live a productive life.

While the puzzlement about the justice -- even the utility -- of giving leniency to certain classes of society who trespass on social convention still remains, it is realistic to recognize the mystique that surrounds bigger-than-life personalities. Many of these outstanding personalities have an ego that permits them to assume they are so special that they may occupy space where angels fear to tread. It is risky to openly admit that they should be given some leverage in return for what they give to our lives. The temptation to expand the zone of permissibility is unrelenting.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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