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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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July 1, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 12

  Dike-savers, film-makers and librarians
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Forget George Bush and John Kerry: Michael Moore is the new celebrity on the block. And one more person, as well, whose name we don't know at all.

One thing we're good at in the United States is celebrities. But we didn't invent "celebrities," we only multiplied them. In ages past, "celebrity" had a different hue and tone than it seems to have taken on in our own time.

A young Dutch boy who put his finger in a hole in the town dike in order to save the lowlands from flood, for instance, made celebrity status a kind of household item, universally attainable -- universally expected -- of each of us.

In the first place, the boy was an unlikely hero. In the second place, the story raises serious questions: Do such people really exist? Would anyone actually kneel down in the freezing rain, alone against the elements, unlikely to succeed, and more committed to the safety of the town at a moment like that than to their own as this one person did. In fact, should anyone do such a thing? Wasn't it foolish? Wasn't it highly improbable?

Here was a person, young, invisible, powerless, whose quiet greatness, in the end, made a difference for the whole population. It wasn't the burghers who had saved the city, after all. It wasn't the clergy who had worked the miracle. It wasn't the rich and powerful who saw the danger.

The child is a literary celebrity of awesome proportion. And why? Simply for doing the obvious, that's why.

Celebrity status, it can be argued is a function of popularity, of name recognition. It comes when everyone knows your name, recognizes your pictures, knows your work. But if that is a working definition of a state of life totally foreign to most of us, then in our own time Michael Moore has surely emerged as a celebrity. Plain, grubby, awkward, shuffling, down-at-the- heels Michael Moore. Strange.

The question is why. How does something like that happen? Is it hype? Meaning the conscious decision of a media group to promote one person, one book, one song, one film over another in order to "make" a winner or a star. Or is it luck? Or an accident maybe? Or a quirk of fate, perhaps? Or, perish the thought, a payoff? And if none of those, what?

The question, in this culture of pop stars, glitz and swerve, has got to be an important one. After all, no one I know is arguing that Moore got there by entitlement.

He didn't inherit his position, for instance, as in the case of shirttail relations of baronial families.

He certainly didn't get it by virtue of his credentials. Suave scion of Oxford-Cambridge, Harvard-Yale dons he is decidedly not.

Weight-lifting physique, body-building bravado and photogenic profile is clearly not the answer.

So what is it? How do we account for the fact that a stumbling figure from an industrially bleak part of northern Michigan suddenly appeared on the world stage, an iconoclast in a world that now adores at patriotic shrines.

Michael Moore is playing major theaters from New York to Los Angeles and every major talk show in the country, he says, because of one librarian.

Take notice. The answer may point to a latent sense of Americanism that may save this country yet, all the political unilateralism, all the trumped up jingoism to the contrary. The answer, you see, has something to do with people like us, with people like the child who put his finger in the dike when nothing was expected of him at all.

According to Moore, his book Stupid White Men, also a critique of present U.S. government policies both here and abroad -- the book which made him a "name" that was here to stay, if not an icon -- was never meant to see the light of day. Harper-Collins, the potential publisher, wanted the book "toned down." The need at that time, the message implied, was to satisfy a newly emerging flag-waving, neoconservative, Bible-thumping readership who fresh from the demise of the Soviet Union wanted U.S. dominance around the world, cheap oil and no taxes. Most of all, they wanted no criticism of any of them.

Moore refused to rewrite the text. Harper-Collins refused to publish it in its unedited form.

So, Moore shuffled off, the unpublished manuscript under his arm, looking for an audience.

If you can't get a book published for people to read, the only other option is to stand up in public and read it to them yourself. So Moore did.

What Moore didn't realize that night, he recounted in an interview clip for "60 Minutes," was that there was a librarian in the small group to which he read. She went home, went into an Internet chat room of librarians around the country and told the story of what she saw as a modern-day parallel to book burning.

Suddenly mail began pouring in to Harper-Collins from librarians all over the country.

And, as they say, "the rest is history"-- under a Harper-Collins/Regan Books imprint.

From where I stand, it seems to me that the United States actually has two new celebrities: Michael Moore, a kind of standard one, and a librarian someplace whose name we do not know but whose heart and nerve and soul we all recognize. It's a shame not to have that information, but after all, we also don't know the name of the young Dutch dike-saver. And, do you notice, we've never forgotten him either. In fact, as long as that's true, clearly there's hope. Clearly, there's still a great deal more hope for us than we even imagine. Anyone, it seems, can be an anonymous celebrity. Even you and I.

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