My husband and I have a running joke about the television game show Jeopardy. We imagine it with Jewish categories. “I’ll take medieval commentators for $200, Alex.” (Alex, of course, is Canadian Alex Trebek, the show’s long-standing host.) “Chumrot [halachic stringencies] for $300, Alex.” “Aramaic texts for $500.”
The absurdity of it is funny to us. Not that a Judaic version of Jeopardy is inherently absurd. It would, I think, be a good pedagogic tool in a Jewish education context. But the idea of broadcasting the minutia of Judaic knowledge as a mainstream trivia-based competition is, of course, a non-starter. Television strives for broad public appeal – the better to garner advertisers – and the audience for deep Jewish literacy comprises a very small chunk of the general public.
But I’ve been thinking lately that an overlay of Jewish commentary on mainstream popular culture might not be a bad thing. People joke about Jewish guilt complexes. Our culture doesn’t have a monopoly on this, but if guilt feelings were an Olympic event, we’d be on the podium. Jewish writers and thinkers of the past century have made much of the inhibiting effect of guilt, shame and embarrassment on our fulfillment and happiness. Think early Philip Roth, or Freud.
Maybe it’s a case of early millennial malaise, but I find myself longing for the return of guilt to the popular arena. It might put a curb on the cult of celebrity that has been spiralling downward. Think of it as a Jewish gift to the new future. Call it the new shame.
Media venues are currently awash with reminiscences of the debut of the Beatles in North America 50 years ago. Watching some of these appearances on the web remind us of how innocent that era was and of how jaded we have become. Today, there are few boundaries on what celebrities can do publicly without losing their following: nastiness, crime, callowness, addiction. Celebrity has become its own entity, with some celebrities celebrated not for anything they’ve done, but simply for being celebrities.
Take the example of the good-boy-turned-bad-boy Canadian pop icon who recently has been investigated for vandalism and driving while drunk. During one drunken evening, he was reportedly caught on camera urinating into a janitor’s bucket. He’s a kid, of course, immature and prematurely empowered by his celebrity. He’s buffered by the wealth he’s amassed, as well as by the admiring pack that travels with him and the adoration of fans. But what of the others on the road when he drives under the influence? What of the poor janitor who must deal with the sullied bucket?
Or take the mayor of the city I live in. He’s excused lying about drug use because he was in a “drunken stupor” and couldn’t recollect his actions. He, too, has driven under the influence, driven while texting – that is to say, been on the road and endangered others. He has singularly provided a wealth of Canadian material to late-night TV comedians.
Although I’ve mentioned Canadian illustrations because they hit close to home, the cult of celebrity without accountability is by no means solely a Canadian phenomenon. It’s certainly entrenched south of the border.
Why does this matter? Why should the actions of people I’ve never met and see only through various media outlets have any bearing on me or my life, or on you and yours?
It matters because through their ubiquity, they set the parameters for acceptable behaviour. Their actions, combined with their lack of visible shame, convey the message that anything goes, even if it’s illegal, tawdry or harmful to others. They inure us to behaviour that then becomes less shocking and comes to seem more ordinary, more acceptable.
More than a century ago, the American writer Mark Twain wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.” Blushing – a sign of embarrassment or shame – signals to us that something is off-kilter, that we need to address what we’ve done, to apologize, to change. These, of course, are the components of the Jewish concept of tshuvah.
But our celebrities don’t blush, at least not publicly. And if they lead the cultural way, soon we, too, will no longer blush.
So, we’re in double jeopardy. I’ll take guilt for $1,000, Alex.