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As newly minted celebrity, 'Terri' makes political icon

By: Tom Beaudoin

San Jose Mercury News

March 27, 2005


The Terri Schiavo case is impossible to imagine apart from the fevered and flourishing American cult of celebrity. This way of forming our moral sensibilities requires occasional fantastic cases around which people can rally, making it suddenly possible for the nation to be moved to moral action. Before Schiavo, of course, Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan served as the platforms for those who have anointed themselves managers of American Christian morality. But the predominance of our media culture has brought the Schiavo case to a new plateau.


One sure indication of Schiavo's positioning as celebrity is that people who have no intimacy with her, whether her advocates or the merely curious, refer to her in the first person. This presumed and easy intimacy is one of the fantasies within the American celebrity cult. People feel entitled to know intimate details about celebrities and to remonstrate publicly about "Arnold,'' "Paris'' or "Britney.''

And so Schiavo immediately became first-personalized: "Terri deserves to live.'' "Give Terri a chance.'' Just as the professors' privilege of calling students by their first names is bound up with a certain academic power over students, there is a power imbalance when able-bodied observers call Schiavo "Terri.'' This is one of many subtle ways that politicians, and their evangelical and conservative Catholic supporters, claim the privilege of morally superintending her life and, by extension, the rest of ours.

Using Schiavo's first name symbolizes the power that allows her self-appointed guardians to question the courts, her husband, even the judgment of her doctors. (The news that members of Congress with medical degrees called Schiavo's doctors' diagnoses into question from thousands of miles away was almost as stunning as the image of the president rushing back to Washington to try to save her life). The politician-doctors attached their political status to her conferred celebrity, exploiting her twice over -- and gaining further credentials for their moral management of America.

The "celebritization'' of moral responsibility forces complicated moral questions into the black-and-white framework prized by many Christians. Suddenly, our judgments become a matter of fidelity.

"What about Terri's happiness?'' we are asked. That's not so different from other commands in the form of questions: "Isn't Charlize Theron brilliant?'' "How can you not respect P. Diddy?'' We can make such simplistic judgments only about people we do not know well but to whom we are expected to make a strong emotional connection. Our stars. But it is one thing to take pleasure in the harmless argument about a band: "Doesn't the Darkness rock?'' It is quite another to be forced into the either-or of "Don't you care about Terri?''

Celebritizing morality is one of the ways the powerful manage the governed; it's especially effective because those who are being led appear to take some pleasure from joining in public outpourings of emotion. At least since the cases of Cruzan, and especially the little Cuban boy, Elián González, there is a disturbing trend in America of making people who can't speak for themselves the objects of mass moral concern.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Schiavo case is generating almost the same degree of headline-grabbing, church-dividing, cultural-chattering attention as that recent celebrity from Nazareth in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ.'' Like the grisly details about Schiavo's physical condition, which are being released to (and nauseatingly replayed by) the media in a bid for sympathy and moral simplicity, "Passion'' offered buckets of blood and pain in an attempt to draw people into the fold. The violence done to Jesus was "celebritized.''

The evangelicals and their Catholic allies talk about the quest to save Schiavo as part of their mission to instill a "culture of life'' in America. But the truth is that if we were truly to be confronted by the challenge of supporting a "culture of life'' in our society, our privacy would be invaded, not Schiavo's. We would be dared to accept the costly grace of deep self-examination about whom we're willing to save, and why.

What about the poor, immigrants looking for fair wages -- even people with eating disorders as Schiavo may have suffered? The moral problems raised by their situations make more complex and direct demands on all of us.

Celebritized morality has a hard time finding a foothold in those issues, because the relevant faces (many of them black and brown) are not always susceptible to celebrity and because they have no friends in high places.

What sort of moral problem does it take to interrupt President Bush's vacation and bring back members of Congress from Easter recess? Unfortunately, suffering that resists celebritization cannot pull our present leadership out of its moral gridlock.

TOM BEAUDOIN is an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and the author of "Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy.'' He wrote this article for Perspective.
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