One of the funny things that happens when a famous person dies is that wherever they were born suddenly makes a point of reclaiming their lost son or daughter. I am fairly certain that were I to become world-famous and then die unexpectedly, the city of Easton, PA, would be proud to claim me as one of their own, even though I have not lived there for many years. Likewise, the area where I live on the Jersey Shore is the birthplace of folks like Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson, and the local towns love to remind you of it, even though those guys haven’t visited in a long time.
So it figures that when singer Whitney Houston died last weekend, the city of Newark and the state of New Jersey would make their claims to her. But what came as a bit of a surprise to some was that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the flags lowered to half-mast for Houston. The governor defended the move, saying that Houston was a daughter of the state, and that her towering cultural achievements merited such an honor. Critics pointed out that perhaps the flag should be lowered only for recently lost servicepeople and first responders. A good point, and indeed, Christie’s office confirmed to me when I called them that they had, in fact, lowered the flag 31 times since Christie took office in January 2010 to mark the fall of any service member killed in action or any police officer killed in the line of duty.
Christie also has said that Houston’s tragic drug use, which almost certainly contributed heavily to her death, if it didn’t cause it outright, was not enough to disqualify her from posthumous honor. I agree with the Governor there; who among us should be quick to denegrate the dead? But there is a difference between denegration and witholding certain honors, and it is a distinction that I fear is becoming lost in an age of instant fame, a need for undeserved acclaim, and hyperbole.
Houston was an incredible artist who broke gender and racial barriers, entertained millions and left a lasting cultural imprint on the world’s most powerful culture itself. Having said that, she did not cure cancer. She did not take a bullet for her fellow citizen. She did not serve in office. And she did not put the needs of her town or her state or her Republic before herself. These are the things for which we might consider lowering our national flag, for it is supposed to be – and must always remain – a rare honor for rare people who have done rare things that have strengthened the fabric of our great Republic. Houston was great. She was not flag-lowering great. And that is alright; there is honor in being an artist. And she did give something to us all through her work that transcended paying to buy her albums or see her shows. (Her legendary National Anthem performance in 1991 is proof enough of that.) But as we celebrate the great individuals for whom Presidents’ Day is named – one is the father of our Republic and the other is the savior of it – let us not be so quick to bestow honors to those who simply do not qualify for them.
We would do well to avoid the trap that our great friend, the United Kingdom, has fallen into, with knighthoods going to those who, hundreds of years ago, would not be considered fit to carry a sword, let alone receive the touch of one atop the shoulder. We must not bend to the desire to cheapen our accolades; we must maintain our standards. Not so that we may curmudgeoningly say no, no, no to those who we might honor for greatness. But so that when there really is one who deserves the highest honor we can give, there will be no question as to whether or not it is deserved. This goes beyond the flag; it is something we should apply across our lives, to the standards we set for ourselves at the workplace, to the standards we set for our children in school, and to the standards we set for each other as citizens and neighbors and friends.
Only then, under such circumstances, when we see the lowered flag, our first impulse will not be to question it. But it will be to remove our hat, lower our eyes, and be thankful for the work of those who are no longer with us. And that, my friends, is the way it ought to be.