In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.
The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.
Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.
The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, since adapted by prisons and schools around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. Whether there is isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.
These days, Americans don’t need a formative year spent in post-soviet Romania to feel uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.
And if it’s not the state watching us, it’s corporations after our money. Uber tracks our movements and fires drivers for sharing links to bad reviews on their personal media, unless it doesn’t. Facebook uses emotional manipulation to collect behavioral data, but insists it’s no big deal. Google compiles secret profiles through wiretapping but swears it would never.
So are we being watched or aren’t we? And do we care?
The biggest event of Hollywood industry has just wound down. The rich and glamorous have walked down the red carpet in their designer gowns, the famous people took home trophies, and the Oscars are over for another year.
It is a lot of fun to “ooh” and “aah” over celebrities. I love to dole out opinions on red carpet fashion choices and chuckle at Twitter making fun of Matthew McConaughey’s facial hair. But overall, I think celebrity culture is quite unhealthy. Too much power and fame seems to corrupt even the best of us, and being in the spotlight for too long takes its toll on the human psyche. We should be fostering meaningful relationships with one another instead of developing a system that makes it possible for the celebrity to crave constant attention and for the crowd to follow blindly in an unthoughtful, mob-like fashion.
But because the system is already in place, this mechanism within culture to put people on pedestals for us to blindly adore — when Christians begin to share art and ideas publicly, we have seamlessly co-opted the same model to create a niche Christian celebrity culture.
Some people follow pop-star celebrities. I follow spiritual writers.
Rather than tracking news about Lady Gaga or Beyonce, I’m a fangirl of writers like Anne Lamott, Nora Gallagher, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
The obsession is borderline embarrassing. Just last month, I announced at a party that writer Nora Gallagher, author of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, friended me on Facebook. (In truth, I was bragging about an imaginary friend.)
After Nora accepted my friend request, I was bold enough to send her the link to an op-ed I had written about making my teenager go to church. Within 48 hours, Nora wrote back that she liked the title of my piece. So I was convinced she would like me too.
My love of spiritual memoirs has reached the point that my book club, The Literary Ladies, issues a collective groan when it’s my turn to suggest book titles. Many believe that memoirs about faith are slightly self-indulgent. In contrast, I view such writing as the deepest expression of sacred meaning in the chaos of our daily lives.
I didn’t watch the Video Music Awards last night, but this morning I noticed that Miley Cyrus is getting all the attention.
That was really, really disturbing … That young lady, who is 20, is obviously deeply troubled, deeply disturbed … probably has an eating disorder … That was disgusting and embarrassing … I feel terrible … That was really, really bad. They [MTV] should be ashamed of themselves … She is a mess … I don’t want to see that ever again on this show … It was pathetic.
Well, Mika’s vehemence intrigued me, so I found the video on YouTube and watched it. It's bad. Awkward might the best word I can find to describe her performance, and it only became more awkward when Robin Thicke joined her onstage. Then it became awkward and demeaning. And I was instantly reminded of why I don’t watch the VMAs.
The brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, the Food Network star accused of tolerating a racist atmosphere in the kitchen of one of her restaurants, has sent my scapegoat antennae vibrating. Folks are lining up on opposite sides of the issue, to either defend or condemn this Queen of a Southern cooking financial empire. Dropped by the Food Network, Smithfield Foods, and now Walmart, and with a Facebook page populated by supporters, Paula Deen’s accusers and defenders are facing off like battalions on a battlefield. Extreme polarization like this is a symptom that scapegoating is underway, so I suggest everyone take a deep breath and back away from the deep fat fryer while I offer a few scapegoating observations.
The Verdict is Already In
Polarization is not about a search for truth. Polarization indicates that each side believes it is in possession of the truth and is running on overdrive, panting with the effort of making their accusation stick. “Paula Deen is a racist!” shout her accusers. “Why do you hate Southerners?” counter her defenders. No matter which side you are on, you are steadfastly, undeniably certain that you are in the possession of the truth and on the side of good.
When Angelina went public with her decision to have a mastectomy, what she called “My Medical Choice,” we couldn’t stop relating to her as a source of identity. Everyone is taking sides, as is our custom. Whether we applaud or condemn her decision, either way we are not seriously discussing the issue. Because when it comes to Angelina the celebrity, our major issue is always getting an identity boost from her. It was probably a bit naïve for her to think that we would react in any other way. She is not our friend, after all, not a “person” in any real sense. She is a “personage,” a distant but tantalizing figure who captures our imagination and invades our identities.
Many people are wondering if Angelina did the right thing. I’ve been asked it a few times in the last 24 hours and my family and friends know I don’t traffic in celebrity gossip very often! Yet they want to know what I think, and because I have not been either an Angelina fan or a hater, my reaction is subdued. I have nothing to win or lose by praising her or by trashing her, for that matter. I don’t feel scandalized or in a position to judge. She made a personal decision and because she’s a personage she went public with it; it’s as simple as that.
The day Franklin Graham was born, he received a telegram.
“Welcome to this sin-sick world,” the Western Union message said, “and to the challenge you have to walk in your daddy’s footsteps.”
It didn’t take long for Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, to realize that being a preacher’s kid would be both a blessing and a burden.
“I love my parents,” Graham said in a recent interview, “but there came a time where I couldn’t let my parents live my life.”
No, he doesn't go down on one knee every time he nails a dunk or a perimeter shot. And as far as I know, he’s not building any hospitals in far-off countries. But the 23-year-old point guard for the New York Knicks suddenly finds himself in a spotlight familiar enough to Tebow that the pair should consider a face-to-face lunch to compare notes.
Like Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin “rode the pine” as a bench-warmer for years. Unlike the star quarterback, Lin was cut by two other NBA teams before landing a supporting role on the Knicks bench.
So why do we know about him all of a sudden? Although Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni would love to claim credit, he admits the only reason the American-born player of Taiwanese parents got his shot was because so many players ahead of him were injured.
Then, as if storing up his energy for months in anticipation of his big break, Lin lit up scoreboards, followed by sports talk shows and endorsement deals. Eleven days ago, he was a relative nobody. But it seems all it takes is leading your team to a six-game winning streak, posting 38 points against Kobe Bryant and snagging a buzzer-beater three-pointer against the Raptors to get the public’s attention.
So long Tebowmania; enter “Linsanity.”