Ten years ago I tried to extract Michael Jackson from the hell of a tabloid life. Nothing hurt him more than being referred to as Wacko Jacko, something he always told me originated in the British tabloids. And it is worth mentioning, now that we have commemorated the second anniversary of his death, that the mountain of pills he regularly swallowed and which eventually killed him was an effort, more than anything else, to neuter the pain of being treated as a joke. Michael believed he had a serious message to share, that children were both special and innocent and the world had a responsibility to prioritize them and preserve their goodness. But he also understood that with the two boys alleging that he had acted indecently, though never convicted, his credibility had been irreversibly shattered. He was therefore doomed to a life of empty celebrity incarceration when, in truth, he so badly wished to use dedicate his renown to a cause larger than himself.
This lesson – that fame is nice but credibility is everything – has strong resonance for modern-day Britain, a country I arrived in at the tender age of 22, where I spent 11 years of my life and became a man, and where six of my nine children were born. Britain was once the most serious and influential nation on earth. It gave the world the Magna Carta and Parliamentary democracy. It produced William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton. It peacefully freed its slaves decades before America and led the charge in saving the world from Hitler.
But those accomplishments seem a faint glimmer today as British society, once the most highly educated and sophisticated on earth, seems to have traded in seriousness and credibility for out-of-control celebrity. Having at times in my life made the mistake of prizing recognition over gravitas, I am not here to judge. Lord knows, I served as Michael Jackson’s Rabbi and revolved, at times, in constant celebrity society, I experienced how good it felt to feel famous. But having seen what the tabloid life did to Michael, I now run from it like the plague.
While living in Britain and serving as Rabbi to the students of Oxford University, I slowly noticed the change taking place in Britain. I still remember the day the Oxford Union – once the most celebrated debating society on earth – invited Kermit the Frog as one of their speakers. It was 1994 and the announcement still raised hackles. But this was before Britain became synonymous with the origin of reality TV like Big Brother, Project Catwalk, and many other programs that were imported into the US. It was before stories of John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole, and Ryan Giggs trumped by far the reporting on Britain’s laudable efforts in Libya. Serious newspapers were not yet published as tabloids and a strict line still seemed to separate thoughtful journalism from scandal saturation.
But all that seems to have changed now, with tabloid celebrity becoming the dominant headline in Britain. It is easy for me to bemoan the fall of British gravitas. Perhaps as an American who had the privilege of living in Britain’s most fabled university town for more than a decade I had too glamorized a view of Britain’s history. But still I have to ask, is it possible that the nation who was led, just half a century ago, by the world’s greatest statesman and orator is now reduced to no one who can strut the world’s stage aside from William and Kate?
As a lover of debate I used to sit in awe as I watched young Oxford students and British politicians at the Union eviscerate each other with a command of language that had little parallel in anything I had witnessed in the United States. It inspired me to speak and write better. But I was sadly not all that surprised when I asked a recent Oxford graduate who was the most memorable speaker he has heard at Oxford over the last few years and he responded, “Martin Sheen.”
Yes, we Americans have our trash TV and our celebrity scandals. We have politicians who self-destruct with disturbing scandals and supermarket tabloids who assure is that Elvis is still alive and is now married to Princess Diana. But that world still seems cordoned off – for the most part – from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Harvard, and Yale. The UK, however, has allowed some of its leading institutions to go tabloid and obsess over sensationalism.
Britain was once the most revered culture on earth. This was not merely due to the strength of its Navy or the fact that it was sovereign over one quarter of the earth’s surface, a fact of colonialism that rightly disturbs many in Britain today. Rather, it was primarily due to the high quality of its education, its world-renowned thinkers, and the striking quality of its ideas. And it is a tradition that Britain must once again reclaim if it is to significantly play on the world’s stage yet again.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ was the London Times Preacher of the Year in 1999 and is the international best-selling author of 25 books, including ‘An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism.’ (Duckworth) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.