JWR Roger SimonMona CharenLinda Chavez
Jacob SullumJonathan S. Tobin
Thomas SowellWilliam PfaffRobert Scheer
Don FederCal Thomas
Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / March 27, 1998 / 29 Adar, 5758

Chris Powell

Reggie White

Spectacular fumble by Reggie White exposes celebrity cult in politics

WISCONSIN STATE legislators deserved what they got the other day from Green Bay Packers football star Reggie White, who unexpectedly treated them to a whirlwind review of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

White had been invited to address the Assembly for 10 minutes about his recent trip to Israel. Instead, in the name of exalting human diversity, White said blacks are "gifted in what we call worship and celebration" and so at church are often "jumping up and down because they really get into it"; Hispanics are so "gifted in family structure" that "they can put 20 or 30 people in one home"; whites "know how to tap into money"; and Asians are so creative that "they can turn a television into a watch."

All this stereotyping, White concluded triumphantly, "forms the complete image of God" -- except, he added pointedly, for homosexuals, since homosexuality is both a choice of behavior and "one of the biggest" sins.

White is black, and so his comments quickly prompted audible wonder throughout the country as to whether he would suffer the fate imposed on certain white sports celebrities, like Fuzzy Zoeller and Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, for indulging in similar stereotypes. That Zoeller and Snyder were no more malicious and far less encyclopedic in their stereotypes than White was didn't prevent damage to Zoeller's career and the destruction of Snyder's; in their cases, not just good taste but political correctness had to be assuaged, and political correctness seems not to be offended by bigotry or stereotyping when it is manifested among members of minority groups.

But in a free country there can be no stamping out the stupidity of racial and ethnic stereotyping -- as when it is advanced seriously, as it was advanced by White -- or stamping out the humor of it, as it may be portrayed in a Mel Brooks movie. Indignation about people's mere opinions and attitudes already is threatening to replace munitions as the country's leading product, and there are far more important things to get upset about.

The Wisconsin Assembly's only acknowledged homosexual member, state Rep. Tammy Baldwin, suggested as much after White's speech. "Part of being an elected official is being able to deal maturely with sentiments one disagrees with and continue to fight for the people one represents," Baldwin said.

The real problem here may be not anyone's belief in racial and ethnic stereotypes but, once again, the cult of mere celebrity, and particularly the indulgence of the cult by people who are elected to know better. For if the Wisconsin Assembly really wanted insight about Israel or the Middle East, surely it could have summoned, say, a distinguished professor from the state university a few blocks down the street in Madison rather than a football player just back from a brief tour.

The Wisconsin Assembly is not alone in this cult. Even as White was deservedly embarrassing his hosts, a committee of Congress was letting itself be instructed by movie and television actors about the necessity of doing more to combat this disease or that, as if celebrity had conferred some sort of expertise there too, more expertise than, say, a license to practice medicine. (As the famous commercial for a drugstore remedy said, "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV.")

Of course celebrities may be recruited for appearances like these for good purposes, but as Reggie White's spectacular fumble suggests, no one should be surprised when the good purpose is trivialized or made ridiculous instead.

JWR contributor, Chris Powell, is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.


2/23/98: Abe Ribicoff's talent was to make being politically shrewd look classy

©1998, Chris Powell