The High Cost of Fame

Mike Daisey, the brilliant monologist whose embellished accounts of his investigations into the miseries of Chinese factory workers in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs got him into so much trouble a couple of years ago, offered some collegial advice to Brian Williams in Slate. “I feel sorry for Brian Williams,” he wrote. “Not because I think war stories deserve embellishment, or that famous men should be able to tell tall tales on television. Instead, I have sympathy because I know what it feels like to be put through the public wringer for this particular sin: telling the American public a story that isn’t exactly true, and pretending that it is.”

It made for interesting reading in juxtaposition with the Jon Ronson piece in the NY Times magazine, about regular people who are publicly shamed and shunned on Twitter. It’s adapted from his new book, I think. Ronson focused on Justine Sacco, the publicist who Tweeted what she thought was an ironic joke about white privilege while she was flying to South Africa, and who got off the plane to discover that she was the object of a digital firestorm that would cost her her job and her reputation. The guy who lit the match (and who subsequently suffered some digital shaming of his own) has written an interesting mea culpa).

Of course Brian Williams isn’t a regular person or a journalist for that matter; he’s a brand. He made millions because television-watchers thought they liked him (though of course they didn’t really know him at all). If they still think they like him when he comes back from his sojourn in the wilderness, if they still tune into NBC to watch him and his sponsors’ commercials, he’ll be fine. If not, he gets to keep his money and his daughter still has her career. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

A week or so ago, there was a huge kerfuffle on the Internet about an African American comedian who was racially victimized by a cafe in Berkeley–the same cafe, ironically, where he had celebrated his birthday a few hours before. The story was that he’d stopped to talk to his white wife and some of her friends who were sitting at an outdoor table, when a waitress pounded on the glass, mouthed something that he lipread as “Scram!”, and motioned for him to leave.

“I as a black man was being told to ‘GIT!’ like it was 1963, Selma, Alabama, and I was crashing a meeting of The New Moms of the Confederacy,” he wrote. The waitress, who insisted that she had been told that a street salesman was harassing customers, was duly fired; the restaurant promised that there would be a public dialogue. I don’t know how the story concluded, or whether the waitress was a racist or not. But it reminded me of a terrible mistake that I once made here in Brooklyn.

Shortly after we moved into this neighborhood, a homeless man offered me his services as a leaf sweeper. We negotiated a fee, and every week or so, he’d show up and sweep the leaves off the sidewalk in front of our house. When he finished, he’d ring the doorbell and I’d give him $5.00.

One day my son told me there was a guy outside sweeping leaves. I was in the middle of something, so I gave him $5.00 and told him to give it to him. My son came back and told me that the man had refused the money. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” he added. So I got up and looked out the front window and saw that the man was one of our neighbors.

I rushed outside. “I thought you were the homeless guy that comes around,” I told him, and then I got even more embarrassed. “So you think all black people are homeless?” I imagined him thinking. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to destroy me. “Author of THE NEW HATE thinks black men are put on this earth to do his chores,” he might have Tweeted. For all I know, that’s what I did think in the chthonic depths of my subconscious, and the thought of that makes me hate myself even more than I usually do. Justine Sacco’s South African family had been ANC members, they were humiliated by their daughter’s infamy and she spent a lot of time worrying, she told Ronson, that she really was the monster that so many strangers were so avid to believe she was.

Though I do think it’s ironic, as Chris Rock put it, that Brian Williams is just about the only public person who’s had to pay any price for lying about the Iraq war, I don’t particularly care about what happens to him. After all, he knew what he was getting into when he cashed his first paycheck. I do worry a lot about the little people who never sought their fame, though, and it troubles me how eager everyone seems to throw the first digital stone.

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