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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Hubris of Self-Destructing Stars


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The only thing people enjoy more than watching a celebrity’s rocketing ascent to international fame is watching an aging celebrity’s flaming plummet to the hard, cold ground of disgrace and obscurity. It is both a warning against hubris — believing you’re too famous to fall — and a reminder that the same people who made you popular can turn on you. Most celebrities nod in understanding at Harvey Dent’s observation in The Dark Knight Rises: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Some, like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, committed heinous acts to obliterate their achievements. But social media has provided a weapon for others to commit instantaneous career suicide and destroy any good-faith legacy they spent a lifetime building. Like Howard Hughes, whose contributions to aviation and filmmaking were overshadowed by such eccentricities as collecting his own nail clippings in jars, these figures are obscuring their own careers.

Rudy Giuliani once graced the cover of Time as “America’s Mayor” for his post-9/11 demeanor of calm authority. But the aura began to dim a few years later, and he head-butted the final nail into the coffin of that noble legacy Nov. 18 as he blathered on in a cringeworthy news conference about unproven conspiracies while black streaks streamed from his hair. This came only a few weeks after he was captured by a hidden camera in the latest Borat movie with his hand down his pants while lying on a bed in the presence of a teenage girl. (Giuliani insists he was tucking in his shirt.)

Sadly, Giuliani is not alone in his stumble from grace. Few are more beloved than J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books make up the best-selling series in history. Yet her anti-trans tweets may not only damage the Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, they could end up tainting her entire literary legacy. Even the stars of the movies — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Eddie Redmayne — have spoken out against her position. John Cleese’s tone-deaf defense of Rowling left many fans bitterly disappointed, tarnishing his reputation.

It would be tempting to dismiss this self-mutilation as merely the triggering of overly sensitive “cancel culture.” But some of this public braying does immediate harm to the foundation of society. Giuliani’s attacks on the integrity of the 2020 elections, without any substantive evidence, has undermined the democratic process. A post-election poll indicated that 77 percent of Republicans think Joe Biden won because of fraud. Since no credible proof has ever been shown, this opinion can only be held because they practice flat-earther, anti-vaxxer cult-think: Someone in authority told me what I want to hear, so it must be true. Unfortunately, they include celebrities as “authorities.” (Yes, I’m aware that I am a sports celebrity, but I have been writing books and articles about history, culture and politics for 30 years to establish my credibility.)

Actors seem especially intent on self-implosion. Roseanne Barr had achieved the near impossible, sabotaging her career not once but twice. After she left her top-rated sitcom, she faded into irrelevance with out-of-left-field political musings. Seeking to connect to the Trump demographic, ABC gave Roseanne new life, but her character was killed off after she went on a racist rant. James Woods, winner of a Golden Globe and Emmy, was once considered a dynamic actor. Now, after his caustic social commentary tweets, he’s viewed as the cranky geezer who won’t let you get your ball from his yard. Jon Voight, once a shining star among actors, recently posted a rambling video calling the political left “Satan” and promoting conspiracies about the election, reducing him from brilliant Oscar winner to cultural dumpster diver. Black Panther actor Letitia Wright posted a link to a YouTube video questioning the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccines in general. After a tsunami of social media backlash, she wrote: “My intention was not to hurt anyone. My ONLY intention of posting the video was it raised my concerns with what the vaccine contains and what we are putting in our bodies. Nothing else.” At best, that’s naive, and at worst, disingenuous. If someone wants to raise concerns — that’s legitimate — they need to do basic research: Find facts, statistics and qualified authorities. Because the reality is that when she posts, readers believe she endorses the false conclusions — and that can’t be undone.

Social media companies have begun slapping warnings on some messages that are false, incite violence or cause harm to society. But this needs to be done with more consistency and vigilance. Studies indicate that when readers see these warnings, they are less likely to read or believe things. However, as another study showed, there can be a backfire effect in which content that isn’t flagged, even when inaccurate, is perceived as true.

Many Americans imbue stars with political and social intelligence they just don’t have. Great success in one field can lead to the delusion that all your thoughts are great. It doesn’t help to be surrounded by fawning people whose job it is to agree with everything you say. The irresponsibility of tweeting irrational and harmful opinions to millions, regardless of the damaging consequences to their country or people’s lives, proves that those stars deserve the harsh backlash. Unfortunately, the long-term result may be that their professional legacies could become brief footnotes to the memory of their collection of mason jars filled with their excreted opinions.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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