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.