The camera may not steal the human soul, as some aboriginal peoples believe. But the camera may steal one's intelligence, as British politician George Galloway recently demonstrated by pretending to be a four-legged feline on television.
Galloway, the flamboyant left-wing socialist and antiwar critic also known as "Gorgeous George," has always been a bit of a showstopper - reputedly fond of fancy suits and limousines as he pursued egalite for the masses - but he has outperformed himself this time. What could he have been thinking?
For decades now, Galloway has been in the thick of things in the Middle East, especially with Iraq and Saddam Hussein, though it's sometimes tricky following his trajectory with Saddam. In the 1970s, he was critical of Saddam's human rights abuses, and he later criticized American and British support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war.
Then in 1991, apparently having switched sides, he opposed the Gulf War and vehemently opposed sanctions against Iraq. During a 1994 meeting with Saddam, Galloway famously told the tyrant: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."
More recently, Galloway appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee to deny charges that he had benefited from Iraq's oil-for-food program. Now widely viewed as a Saddam apologist - or a hero, depending on one's point of view - Galloway regularly articulates arguments embraced by the antiwar left.
And then last week, apparently, he lost his mind.
The performance in question was via a television game show called "Celebrity Big Brother," where people you've never heard of - or vaguely recall from some long-ago past - enter an isolated house for a lockdown and let the public watch whatever it is they do. The goal is to not be evicted by viewers. The last man standing wins a large cash prize.
In last Thursday's episode, the show's orchestrators decided to test whether human beings can communicate with animals. I'm not sure how that translated into Galloway's making like a cat, but there he was looking like someone ready to be hustled up to the attic away from the startled gazes of curious neighbors.
Down on all fours, Galloway - politician, provocateur, polemicist - purred while pretending to slurp imaginary milk from the cupped hands of one Rula Lenska. Of course you remember Rula - Luce Habit in "Queen Kong"? 1976? Perhaps this memorable line will nudge your memory: (START ITALICS)"Sanga banga wanga danga! Him? No! But I pay you much to see Konga."(END ITALICS)
That Rula Lenska.
It's hard not to be catty at times like this, but really. Say what you will about the two men Galloway frequently reviles - President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - but you never have to worry that either Bush or Blair will abandon all dignity for a moment in the spotlight.
Granted, world leaders - as opposed to the random politician - don't have to pose as house pets to grab an audience's attention. Still. If you can't get heard on the merits of your arguments, perhaps your argument isn't worth hearing.
Whatever Galloway may have had in mind, to put it charitably, there may be a lesson somewhere in here for the rest of us, and it has to do with fame, narcissism, self-awareness and that blasted camera. When the red eye of the camera seeks us out, we do lose something of our "selves," if not our very souls.
Trained from childhood to "smile for the camera," we are easily disarmed by the desire to please the lens, to flatter the viewer by our cooperation, or in Galloway's case, allegedly, to charm an audience. His spokesmen claim Galloway was trying to reach Britain's young audience with his antiwar message.
At the same time, the allure of fame and celebrity has become a near-pathological obsession in the postmodern world. Thanks to the Internet, videocams and the blogosphere, everybody's famous - or almost.
Andy Warhol was more prescient than he could have imagined when he predicted decades ago that everyone someday would enjoy 15 minutes of fame. If you don't mind being viewed as a desperate has-been or a wannabe willing to play the fool, you're virtually assured of millions willing to watch.
But if you intend to be taken seriously, best think of poor ol' George Galloway and contact your local Humane Society. The world has plenty enough attention-starved stray cats already.