Several years ago, I was doing some work for the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center. Taking a break in the cafeteria, I fell into talking with a quite thoughtful yet entertaining group of Korean War veterans. It was near Christmas, and one of them asked if I was a fan of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t much trust those who don’t like the movie, so I said it was something I made sure I watched each holiday season.
My response was unanimously approved by the vets. One then forcefully said Jimmy Stewart was the film’s best actor. His opinion was based not just on Stewart’s acknowledged thespian prowess but because, “he was one celebrity who had a real education (Stewart was a Princeton University graduate), enlisted early for World War II and did serious military service and not just forced photo shoots to sell war bonds.” This veteran then added he couldn’t believe how much “people have come to prize so many movie stars and professional athletes and not average people like us who fought in real wars or helped build this country.” His friends agreed by displaying some of the saddest facial expressions I’ve ever seen on humans.
I thought of these vets and their admiration of Jimmy Stewart despite his massive Hollywood stardom when the latest Kim Kardashian outrage recently gurgled up from the celebrity news swamp; that being Kardashian’s view (this is the cleansed version) that ordinary women can succeed if they only arise from their posteriors and develop a taste for hard work. Of course, commentators wise and foolish alike remarked in large numbers upon the insensitivity and general inaccuracy of Kardashian’s remarks. That would include the idea that the U.S. employment market isn’t in trouble so much because huge groups of people are bone lazy but because (among many other factors), a whole lot of people over 55 have chosen or been forced to leave the work force.
It’s probably fair to say that more people than should be permitted in an allegedly advanced society spend too much of their days and nights worrying about keeping up with people such as the vastly privileged Kardashians. I’m not one of those people. But this most recent outburst has me wondering why the hell so many of us continue to put so much precious effort and value into the ill-thought musings and often highly questionable actions of so many we have elevated to the level of celebrity.
My concern with society’s decades-long celebrity worship isn’t often something that ruffles me up enough into writing a column. But given the fact that at present, innocents are being slaughtered in Ukraine, millions of people worldwide have died of a virus that has played the mutation game for two years, and a lot of men and women do indeed get off their asses (as Kardashian impolitely said they should) and work their not highly compensated or appreciated butts off during a pandemic as custodial staff, healthcare workers, truck drivers, teachers and more, such idolatry seems naïve at best and nearly immoral at worst. Especially at a time when the world may be in as much danger and trouble as it has been since the days of World War II. Especially when learned experts and ordinary folk alike are not casually discussing the possibility of World War III.
Of course, some of us have recognized the need to celebrate the work done by more ordinary beings. In recent years, it has become fashionable to approach military service members to thank them for their service to the country. And during the early days of this pandemic there was much banging of pots and pans for the labor done by healthcare workers dealing with the sickest of those felled by COVID-19. But none of these acknowledgements really come close to properly appreciating or compensating these and many other people for all they do. As well, calls to regard as heroes (or “even” celebrities) those who have risen from decidedly non-privileged backgrounds to accomplish things like helping develop the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, as is the case with Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, occasionally come in a brief but frenzied flurry. And then they are mostly forgotten because some movie or professional sports star will not get vaccinated or is getting divorced once again.
If the world manages to find a way out of its current peril without a war the horror of which almost none of us alive can imagine (much less World War II-style rationing), it mostly will be through the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices of ordinary people who won’t have much time to keep up with celebrity follies.
Ordinary people who might once again want to say they are happy to say it’s a wonderful life.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, recently moved from St. Paul to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”