The end of every year features the media compiling lists of famous people who died, and whom certain journalists and critics have deemed worthy of being memorialized. I read through Time magazine’s list of several dozen politicians, chefs, singers, actors and writers who had shuffled off this mortal coil in 2013, and I was reminded for the umpteenth time that we had lost folks such as Lou Reed, Paul Walker and Cory Monteith, and never would we have any new movies, albums or tabloid covers with their faces on them.
Virtually all of the celebrity obituary anthologies included the same people, whether they came from Entertainment Weekly, The Daily Beast or GQ. It eventually dawned on me that all of these lists were terribly incomplete: Instead of featuring the most important people who had recently passed on and improved our world, the lists instead glorify people who need fame the least. Where was the inclusion of Frederick Sanger, the Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist who advanced our understanding of proteins and nucleic acids, dramatically increasing our knowledge of biology and medicine? Why did no one mention Cuban American playwright Oscar Hijuelos, or Irish poet Seamus Heaney? How come I had heard of the death of Robert Edwards, the co-inventor of in vitro fertilization and winner of a Nobel Prize, only from the BBC and The New York Times, but never from anywhere else?
After some further searches through Google, I learned of the lives and deaths of dozens of accomplished scientists, inventors, artists, writers, soldiers and activists, many of whom I had barely heard of in the past. I felt ashamed that while I unintentionally possessed quite a bit of knowledge about Z-list Hollywood celebrities and media fixtures who were famous for being famous, I could not elaborate much on the epidemiological discoveries of David Barker or the literature of Richard Matheson.
It seemed perversely unfair to me that people who indulge in drugs and affairs and provide work for paparazzi are fondly remembered and praised, while people who labored hard, avoided making public nuisances of themselves and produced great discoveries or works of art receive, at most, a lengthy and appreciative tribute in a newspaper.
The people we remember most say a lot about the state of our society and our values, and the assessments are sobering. Too often we find that the vast majority of people one meets can discuss at length the accomplishments, both savory and unsavory, of people such as Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston. The fact remains that, despite all of their talent and contributions to the world, these people were celebrities through and through.
They may have amazed us with wild dance moves and impressive vocals, but they torpedoed their reputations with drug use, irresponsibility, alleged child molestation and a host of other crimes. Meanwhile, the true role models and hard workers of the world live quietly and receive next to no recognition for their success in staying on the straight and narrow path.
There are many reasons why our world suffers from so many issues currently, but our adulation of celebrities and our firm belief that “entertainers are the popes of our age,” as writer Thedore Dalrymple puts it, is certainly a major factor in impeding any social progress we can make. We place our interest and faith in the people who least deserve to be lauded, while we ignore and marginalize people who have provided us with the inventions, medicines, techniques and pastimes that make ourlives better.
Our world is still easily summed up by “The First Class Passenger,” a short story by Russian writer Anton Chekhov. While it is not Chekhov’s longest or most creative story, it is undoubtedly one of his most relevant works.
An eminent engineer sitting on a train bemoans the fact that while he has built bridges, made scientific discoveries and avoided corruption, he remains obscure, while uncouth and unattractive singers and actors are frequently lionized by the media and known by all people across Russia. Even after receiving awards for his engineering work and publishing academic articles, the engineer Krikunov is hardly ever mentioned by the newspapers, while the actress he had an affair with is praised to the skies.
“Talent, you say? Genius? Originality? Not a bit of it, sir!…People have lived and made a career side by side with me who were worthless, trivial, and even contemptible compared with me. They did not do one-tenth of the work I did, did not put themselves out, were not distinguished for their talents, and did not make an effort to be celebrated, but just look at them! Their names are continually in the newspapers and on men’s lips!” Krikunov exclaims.
“Are Russian navigators, chemists, physicists, mechanicians, and agriculturists popular with the public? Do our cultivated masses know anything of Russian artists, sculptors, and literary men?” When Krikunov’s conversation partner asks him if he is familiar with the name Pushkov, Krikunov admits that he does not. The man reveals himself to be Pushkov and points out that he is also a distinguished academic with 35 years of teaching experience and numerous published works.
Chekohv’s lesson is as biting and true as ever. We remember those we ought to forget, and we forget those we ought to remember.