Interesting column from David Sirota about people criticizing Chris Christie for lowering state flags after the death of Whitney Houston:
Of course, when singer Frank Sinatra died and New Jersey’s flags were flown at half-staff, this kind of outrage was nowhere to be found — despite the fact that Sinatra himself was a drug abuser (the drug in question beingalcohol). Likewise, the outrage was nowhere to be found when Elvis Presley died of a drug overdose in 1977 and flags all over America were flown at half-staff. Indeed, as the Rockford Register Star’s Chuck Sweeneynotes, that event prompted an order for “all city flags in Memphis (to be) lowered to half staff”; compelled former President Richard Nixon to “ask Americans to fly their flags at half staff in honor of Elvis”; and got then-President Jimmy Carter to issue a statement saying, “With Elvis, a part of our country has died.”
What, then, explains the difference? Why would there be a hostile reaction to the way New Jersey memorialized the drug-abusing Houston, when there was no such hostile reaction to the way the drug-abusing Sinatra and Presley were memorialized?
The answer, of course, is rooted, in part, in racist and sexist double standards.
When famous white men engage in illicit activities, American culture allows them to nonetheless retain their street cred, their wholesome image and their public honor. In some instances, in fact, the illicit behavior contributes to their mystique and their legacy — it is seen as acool part of who they are. This is exactly why one of the iconic images of Sinatra is him in a tux with a highball in his hand — because a white, male-dominated culture accepts — and even at times celebrates — the blemishes of fellow white men.
By contrast, when famous women — and particularly famous women of color — engage in the same behavior, the same swath of America that celebrates the Presleys and Sinatras often reacts with indignant disgust. Hence, the backlash to Christie daring to minimally honor Houston — a reaction that shows a white, male-dominated culture which accepts the imperfections of white males simultaneously refuses to accept the imperfections of “the other.”
Importantly, such a double-standard isn’t just amplified by men. In this case, some of those criticizing Christie’s decision are women. But that merely shows how pervasive the double standard really is — it’s so widespread and so accepted that it’s operating at a subconscious level across demographic divides.
To be sure, it’s fair to raise questions about whether any entertainer deserves the same form of state-sponsored memorial as soldiers, elected officials, first responders and other public servants. Such principled and necessary queries make us contemplate a culture that overly deifies famous people, regardless of why they are famous — and challenging that celebrity-worshiping theology is important.
However, if we are going to accept entertainers being recognized and memorialized by our civic institutions, then we ought to apply one standard. Either icons should be recognized regardless of their lifestyle choices, or they should not be recognized because of their lifestyle choices. Applying two standards to two sets of icons — and applying those standards selectively against women and minorities — converts solemn memorials of the dead into more ugly expressions of racism, sexism and other pathologies that still plague America.