An insightful (if now slightly dated) look at the cult of celebrity, collective rage and unconscious defense mechanisms from Joe Queenan in The Wall Street Journal via the provocatively titled article “In Praise of Transgressions.” Queenan goes further than the usual deconstruction of pop self-righteousness re: celebrity, i.e. how we build up in order to tear down, projecting our hopes and fears about ourselves onto a chosen few so that we might feel better about ourselves, etc. In fact, he makes a pretty convincing case for celebrities as (post-religious) mediators of public guilt. It’s more than mere scapegoating (though it’s that too); he suggests that we find genuine therapeutic value in punishing celebrities. That beyond the right-and-wrong retribution involved, there’s the more basic reality that revoking our admiration/approval has power and power in the midst of powerlessness feels good, especially when it comes to people with whom we are relatively familiar. Implicit here is the notion that the psychic pain caused by suffering has to go somewhere–someone has to feel the pain, pay the cost, incur the punishment, etc, and it might as well be the guy on our cereal box. One can’t help but be reminded of all the Christian talk of “cosmic accounting” (substitution, propitiation, expiation, etc). Perhaps it isn’t so far-fetched after all… It might even be elemental. A few excerpts:

Americans who like their dudgeon high and their blood boiling have worked themselves into a tizzy now that the news about Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use has broken. The Yankee third-bagger’s fall from grace, coupled with Olympic hero Michael Phelps’s shocking admission of drug use and Tom Daschle’s unseemly failure to pay his income taxes has apoplexy aficionados digging into the record books to remember the time when the American people had worked themselves into such a sustained, unmediated level of fury at once-revered public figures. How could they do it? We all keep asking one another. How could they be so stupid? How could they be so callous? And what kind of message does it send to the kids?

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No public misdeed is too insignificant to earn our limitless fascination. Actor Joaquin Phoenix caused a stir this week following his appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” His principal offenses: chewing gum and maintaining a generally unresponsive demeanor throughout what proved to be a very painful, unproductive interview. (Mr. Letterman finally said, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”) And thus ensued a heated debate about whether Mr. Phoenix was acting, on drugs or just spaced out. Meanwhile, in a nearby solar system, the stock market dropped another 400 points.

These misbegotten individuals, their names dragged through the mud, can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that their miscues might have generated slightly less rancor given the perilous circumstances the nation currently finds itself in. After all, virtually concurrent with the disclosure of their misdeeds, the global financial system has imploded, the housing market has collapsed, both Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers have ceased to exist, unemployment has reached a level not seen in decades, millions of citizens approaching retirement age have seen their 401(k)s pulverized, and some of the most illustrious banks in American history seem poised to be taken over by the federal government.

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What accounts for the shock that greeted the Phelps miscue, the anger that greeted the Daschle disclosure and the rage that continues to be directed at Rodriguez? For one, we the public think that we know these people because we see them all the time on TV. Because of this, they root us in the here and now in a way run-of-the-mill white-collar villains do not. They have violated an old-fashioned code of morality that we can all understand in a way we cannot understand a $50 billion Ponzi scheme or the fact that Iceland has put out a “Closed for Business” sign.

Another explanation for the ire directed at this trio of sacrificial goats is that we enjoy having baseball players and swimmers and pols in our crosshairs, and we aim to keep them there. This is not so much out of a desire for retribution as a desire for therapy. Athletes, movie stars, pop singers and politicians are part of a consistent narrative that runs through our lives. They reach out and touch us, but we also reach out and touch them. This makes them entirely different from thugs like Bernard Madoff, a parvenu scumbag none of us had even heard of six months ago. When our luminaries, our heroes and heroines disappoint us, we feel that we have the ability to punish them because we know where they will feel it most. And so we keep on punishing them. Over and over and over, day after day after day. Until somebody really awful like O.J. Simpson comes along to redirect our rage elsewhere.

From the therapeutic perspective, this is vastly superior to ranting about the latest depredations of Wall Street. No matter how much we froth and foam, none of us can lay a glove on imperious figures like John Thain or the haughty fat cats who run the auto industry or the inept regulators who let Mr. Madoff run wild in the first place.

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Another reason public outrage has reached such a stratospheric level is because Messrs. Phelps, Rodriguez and Daschle are people who can actually hear our derision, people it is possible for the public to punish.