Friday, December 18, 2009

"He Believed He Was Not Divorced"

Conor Friedersdorf has a nice little essay today endorsing a little more celebrity hypocrisy:
I want celebrities to be duplicitous with their fans. Unless humans stop sinning entirely, a welcome but unlikely prospect, public figures are going to do bad things sometimes -- cheat on their wives, get addicted to heroine, leave profane voice messages for their kid, etc...I may object to their behavior. But if they're going to sin, as most people do at some time or another in their lives, I'll thank them for doing their utmost to keep up appearances. In a way, that duplicity signals their understanding that they've transgressed.
He concludes:
To cite one example, the divorce rate in the middle class and up is far less dire than what one imagines observing the Hollywood marriages that are the ones we're most frequently told about, but hearing the stories, how could it be otherwise that divorce looms in middle class minds as a marginally more normal occurrence among "people like us"?
Which reminds me of this great Ronald Reagan story and analysis, courtesy of Garry Wills:
Reagan emerged from this [Hollywood] world of hypocrisy, of illusion, of endangered identity, with surprisingly few scars.  But it is important to see how he managed this -- by pretending that nothing had happened.  As Lou Cannon put it, "Reagan acted as if he had not really been divorced at all.  He never changed this way of looking at what happened to him...On the lecture circuit in behalf of the film industry soon after the Wyman divorce, Reagan surprised audiences by invariably including a line or two in his speeches about the high success rate of marriages in Hollywood."  He survived Hollywood by using its own weapons against it.  When Louella Parsons [think: People magazine] gave her audience a melodrama of tragic breakup, Reagan solved all that by simply not including it in his own mental movie.  He believed he was not divorced.  For certain stars, at certain moments, the question of a truth test for what one wants to believe must not arise.  The all-American world of movies was an elaborate structure of feignings.  Each performer had to strike her or her private bargain with make-believe.  It is clear, from early on, what Reagan's device would be: he pretended there was no pretense.  When he had to, he could will his own innocence.  That is what chastity symbols are for.
I suppose I should add: Wills isn't knocking Reagan, here; he's trying to understand him.  For Wills, what's remarkable about Ronald Reagan is just how successful he was despite managing to believe all sorts of things that were pretty clearly not true, in any literal sense.  One can understand that and like or dislike Reagan, like or dislike the ideas that Reagan held and stood for.  But you can't understand him without accepting some fairly baffling stuff.  I think I've said before -- it's a terrific book, highly recommended.

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