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home : columns : columns October 21, 2018

1/16/2018 1:31:00 PM
Sinatra at ground zero
By Craig Rullman

Our American obsession with celebrity is as interesting as it is potentially dangerous. It's also hard to dislodge, as war correspondent George Weller discovered when he defied Gen. Douglas MacArthur's ban on travel to Nagasaki after the Army Air Corps detonated Fat Man, a 21-kiloton nuclear weapon, over the city.

Nearly 1,000 allied POWs were living in Nagasaki, interned as slave labor in the Mitsubishi war plants. Most of them were starving to death, or being beaten to death, or suffering from curable diseases for which the Japanese, who routinely looted Red Cross packages meant for the prisoners, withheld even basic medicines.

And if it was possible to make their tortured lives any worse, on August 9, 1945, they were also living at ground zero.

Seven Dutch and one British prisoners died instantly when the bomb detonated at approximately 1,500 feet over the city, a blast of such magnitude that it seared the shadows of trees and human beings into concrete. Most of the surviving prisoners were just plain lucky, but many of them had also had the foresight, after the Hiroshima bombing - which they witnessed from their prison camps in Nagasaki - to realize the existence of some new weapon of unimaginable ferocity, and had dug what trenches they could for shelter against a similar event.

Weller, encountering some of these survivors when he slipped into the city following the formal Japanese surrender, encountered our American celebrity obsession in an interesting way.

Interviewing Australians, he found they were mostly interested in which horse had won the Melbourne Cup. British prisoners wanted to know if Churchill was still prime minister, or if the government had gone over to Labour. The Dutch POWs wanted to know if Princess Juliana's third child was a male heir to the throne.

But the Americans, likewise starving, brutalized, and now nuked, had more pressing concerns. One of them said: "B-29s dropping us food keep enclosing Saipan newspapers with stuff about some guy named Sinatra. Who is he and what's his racket?"

That kind of abiding interest in mere celebrity hasn't waned much. One might even argue that in its ultimate expression - and celebrity worship has certainly been refined over the years - it handed Donald Trump the keys to the White House. Worse - and proof that we truly are a stubborn and slow-learning lot - it appears poised to do it again, should the very stable genius pass the orb and scepter off to Oprah Winfrey.

Who knows if she'll actually run, but as a policy it's probably better to avoid drawing too much political inspiration from the well of celebrity narcissists.

There are probably sound reasons to avoid leaning on celebrities for much of anything at all, actually. It would seem prudent, at least to avoid falling down a psychiatric rabbit hole, to exercise extreme caution before mimicking the opinions of people who spend most of their time pretending to be somebody else.

Of course, being really good at pretending to be somebody else is also incredibly lucrative, and having a lot of money is still too often confused with the possession of excellent opinions about how better to inhabit the planet.

Sean Penn, for instance, still believes the Chavez revolution was a great move for Venezuela, never mind the resulting starvation, food riots, government-sanctioned murder of political opposition, the collapse of even basic government services, or 4,000 percent inflation. Chavismo!

Exercises in self-adoration such as the Golden Globes, or that nauseating exhibition of preening called the Oscars, where no award-winner would miss a chance to re-educate a rapt global audience, probably help to cement the popular misunderstanding that celebrity, all by itself, lends gravitas to whatever it is that celebrities say.

It doesn't, and sometimes even the most carefully managed and strategically marketed public persona develops a revealing crack.

Winfrey's otherwise appropriate excoriation of sexual harassment, for example, would be a lot more convincing without the embarrassing pictures of her fawning over Harvey Weinstein at cocktail parties, and her opinions on racial relations would ring truer absent her suggestion to the BBC that generations of older people - one suspects she meant mostly white people - will need to hurry up and die in order to usher in the golden age of racial harmony.

Probably the most annoying part of these spectacles is the endless parade of narcissism - which often rivals Trump's in its insistence on celebrity as the natural birthplace of wisdom.

At any rate, back in Nagasaki, those starving and scarred POWs who endured years of terror at the hands of sadists, and who somehow even survived a nuclear thumping delivered by their own countrymen, were at least clever enough to suspect that Sinatra was part of some kind of celebrity racket.

They were smart enough to see it even if - after everything they had learned about the darker heart of human nature - they couldn't wait to get back home, eat a real meal, and dance those horrors away to the sound of his marvelous and modern voice.

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