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Celebrity Privilege is Not Celebrity Immunity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Tracy Rickman and Don Mason
April 23, 2018

Celebrities have long benefited from the practice of privilege bestowed upon them by fans, followers and the public. Through the years, the idea of privilege has morphed into a sense of immunity from wrongdoing, even from crimes that are considered immoral and criminal. News of celebrities wielding a sense of immunity in the face of evidence to the contrary has and is filling hundreds of media hours of coverage. While the current decade has been monopolized by people like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and other movie-related personalities, there have also been sports figures such as OJ Simpson that have expected or have perceived perceptions of immunity from crimes in the name of their celebrity status. Although football stars Michael Vick, OJ and Aaron Hernandez were found guilty of crimes and were incarcerated, a stigma remains: their celebrity status, in some situations, gave them a platform to speak to the public and reconcile their crimes. While offenses are ignored or sentences are reduced, does the public jury of their un-peers see celebrities in a different light as compared to those less prominent people in our society?

The result of the public treating people as demigods has resulted in the expectation that celebrities hold special privilege in society. Celebrities flaunting laws and social mores are immunists — a person who believes their actions should influence society to the point they have no fault within the societies they interact.

The business world has also experienced industry superstars that have used their celebrity status to knowingly commit crimes. The managerial and leadership staff of Enron, Bernie Madoff and those involved in the sub-prime meltdown of 2005, not only saw their activities as bold and ingenious, they demonstrated little if any contrition for their criminal behavior when caught.

The realm of public administrators is not immune to reprehensible behavior. Allegations of immoral and criminal behavior have been leveled against people at the municipal, state and federal levels of government. This includes more than one sitting president in America as well as other democratic leaders like the former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.

Adding to the phenomenon of celebrity immunity is the social practice of referring to many of the celebrity immunists as heroes and morale leaders in society. Often the victims of these immunists are attacked through social media campaigns designed to draw unwarranted attention to the victim while shielding the celebrity from the perception of wrongdoing.

Actions of these false heroes takes away from the noble exploits of real celebrities become heroes like Patrick Tillman, a professional football player who left the fame of the gridiron, and his brother Kevin, who left a promising career in professional baseball to enlist in the army where they became Rangers. Patrick was later killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Actions of the Tillman brothers revealed actions that placed the needs of society above their own quests for fame and fortune. Immunists on the other hand, exploit their fleeting fame to exploit the societies they live in.

The adage of rank has its privilege, a practice where senior military officers enjoyed perks such as a chauffeured car and a bigger residence is being confused with the practice of a celebrity expecting to be treated as a demigod because of a particular talent they possess.

Public administrators have a legal obligation to ensure they do not infringe on the special trust and confidence of the public they serve. However, public administrators have fallen under the spell of celebrity immunisim as seen in the short-lived careers of Anthony Weiner and his desire to serve the public in a trusted position of public leadership. Celebrity immunisim has also been amplified by group think as seen with Robert Rizzo and his team of public administrators in the City of Bell, California and in the charging of five Flint Michigan officials with manslaughter for their mismanagement of the water crises.

Despite the highlighted cases in this article, celebrity immunity will continue to exist in the foreseeable future as a significant portion of the world exists in a reality-TV-world fueled by social media. Leaders, managers and administrators (the differences between the three will be saved for a future article) need to take caution that hubris in their own value and purpose to an organization does not radicalize them into becoming immunists. As public servants, administrators need to appreciate the special trust and confidence bestowed upon them by the public.

Could it be, in the future, this concept of immunists leads us to seek a more critical society? In other words, should we look for this concept and phenomena to work against those celebrities? Should we seek change based upon celebrity fatigue and the overwhelming number of people coming forward to declare they have seen and heard enough of this special treatment, special consideration and special actions supporting ill behavior being committed by media-supported popularity. Regardless of how we may define this celebrity status, a day of judgement may be close at hand. The Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter and The 99% movement are indications that the society at large is watching.

Authors: Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Tracy Rickman and Don Mason are all faculty in the Public Safety Division of Rio Hondo College in Whittier, CA.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to Celebrity Privilege is Not Celebrity Immunity

  1. Robert L. Morrison Reply

    April 24, 2018 at 7:00 am

    A great article and something to ponder. Public servicee is a privilege and needs to be looked as such. On the other hand we live in a democracy with the private and public sectors sometimes at odds.

    One thing I recommend is that the public sector needs to offer the salaries and benefits of retirement to attract those with the skill levels needed and then be held to the highest standards. The spoils system should be placed well behind us.

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