Shmuley Boteach: Fiddling while celebrities burn

We should not be indifferent to the self-destruction of the rich and famous.

anna nicole smith 8 8 29 (photo credit: AP)
anna nicole smith 8 8 29
(photo credit: AP)
It was all a good laugh about the antics of Anna Nicole Smith, until it wasn't. For many years we stared in avid amusement at the spectacle of a buxom and out-of-control blonde who married an aged billionaire, fought for his fortune after he conveniently died, and then gave birth to a daughter whose paternity is now claimed by several men. Anna Nicole's life fed our society's infinite appetite for sensationalism, celebrity, sleaze and the bizarre behavior of today's famous. But then one day her heart stopped beating, and only then did we realize, as we heard the distressing details of her demise, that she was an actual person who left the world at a tragically young age. Worse, her baby daughter is now an orphan at the center of a greed-induced frenzy among rival claimants to her DNA. This innocent infant has already been dehumanized into a bundle of cash with a bottle. Her paternity has become a kind of lurid reality TV show, complete with sizzling ads on cable TV. Who will get the baby with the billions? Will it be the cheating prince? The outlandish lawyer? Or was it J. Howard Marshall, whose frozen semen returned from the grave? But what is so amusing about a little girl's life destroyed before it can even commence? FOR TWO years I watched as Michael Jackson deteriorated, until I could watch no more. To the rest of the world it was compelling and comical to see his face grotesquely distorted by unethical surgeons. It was gratifying to watch him waste all his money on worthless baubles. And it was lurid to hear about all the little boys whom he allegedly touched, even though these too were real children whose lives may have been ruined. But to me Michael was a tragic acquaintance, a man incapable of escaping the inevitable implosion of a complete meltdown. The toxicity of modern celebrity is a cultural disease that must be finally addressed. Who is it poisoning more? The celebrities whose lives it is wrecking, or we, the viewers, who take pleasure at watching human beings combust? The ancient Romans, with their passion for watching gladiators disembowel each other, could hardly be called healthy. But are we so radically different, watching with a smile as our celebrities slowly expire? Have we forgotten that to watch human beings suffer is not entertainment? Britney certainly attracts attention when seen dead drunk outside a club. But is it really entertaining when you think about her two boys, neglected at home, as their mom self-destructs? It seems odd that we would derive such intense satisfaction from witnessing the disintegration of human life. The public watched as Elvis devoured a mountain of pills and drifted to a place that nothing could brighten. His friends and posse did little to stop his terminal decline, fearing the alienation of their ATM machine. We Americans are a compassionate and charitable people. Is it not therefore antithetical to that generous character to take pleasure from seeing human beings go off a cliff? If we passed a homeless person on a cold street, would we not give him a few coins to buy something to eat? Or would we call all our friends to witness the spectacle of his cardboard-box and ragged clothing? I believe that Anna Nicole Smith, for all her treasure and fame, led a miserable life wracked with heartache. Like most people, she wanted to be special, she wanted to be loved. But unlike most people and similar to most celebrities, she mistook the fickle amusement of the public for real affection. THIS COULD only mean that she would have to keep the public amused. If she had married an appropriate husband and had well-adjusted children, she would not be on the tabloids' radar. So instead she chose to make her life into a circus of the absurd, so desperate was she for attention. In a famous quote she gave when she was deposed in court and asked to comment on her fame, she responded, "I like it. I love the paparazzi. They take pictures and I just smile away. I have always liked attention and I didn't get it very much growing up, and I always wanted to be, you know, noticed." But the public notices only train-wrecks. So Anna Nicole complied by driving her life straight into a locomotive. So many other celebrities follow suit. They date, marry, break up and, in the process, become slaves to the public's prurience. I have long argued that we should wean ourselves off our obsession with celebrities for the most selfish of reasons: so we can focus more on ourselves. Will a woman's marriage really succeed when she is more interested in Brad and Angelina's relationship than her own? But I now ask that we overcome our fixation not for selfish, but for the most humanitarian of reasons: to save human life. Even the most narcissistic celebrity is still a child of God. If we continue to discuss their flimsy marriages, they will divorce to be our water-cooler chatter. If we continue to discuss their bouts in and out or rehab, they will take to drugs to get on Entertainment Tonight. And if we continue to focus on their shattered lives, they will continue to die. The writer hosts The Learning Channel program Shalom in the Home‚ which is also the title of his upcoming book (