Half a century ago during Cold War America, one of the lessons children were taught was not to be a show-off. Trying to attract attention to yourself was considered bad manners and undignified; to be scolded for being a show-off was tantamount to being called a fool.
In today's celebrity world, where Andy Warhol's prediction of 15 minutes of fame for every American proved prophetic, such lessons are about as relevant as that other erstwhile imperative: "Young ladies, keep your knees together!"
Everyone, it seems, needs, wants and begs unapologetically for attention. Strutting one's stuff, or confessing one's sins, or venting one's spleen on television, on radio, in the streets, before the cameras is almost a rite of passage.
As Nicole Kidman's character says in the 1995 film, "To Die For": "You aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV."
Then there was Pat Tillman. And the parents of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. And countless other silent, unknown Americans who live their lives, sometimes heroically, without fanfare.
It is impeccably ironic, of course, that these same people who have chosen roads of privacy, dignity and humility are unable to escape the very media attention they have shunned. But better we should focus our sights on someone for all the right reasons rather than the alternative. Haven't we had enough really of the O.J.s and Monicas of this world?
Tillman, as most know by now, is the Arizona Cardinals football player who turned down a three-year $3.6 million contract and chose instead to join the U.S. Army. He wants to become a Ranger and fight for his country. Why? We can only guess, as Tillman has declined interviews.
Not only is Tillman not talking, but he has asked his friends and family to follow suit. He says he doesn't want his decision to appear to be a publicity stunt. Thus, the 25-year-old arrived by bus at Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training like every other recruit.
No one special. No lights, no cameras. All action.
In Los Angeles, the parents of Daniel Pearl have decided against any more
television appearances. After reluctantly appearing on a few shows to help promote a collection of their son's newspaper stories and a foundation in his name, the couple has withdrawn from public view.
"We want to keep our privacy," said Ruth Pearl. "We don't want our pictures in the paper. We want to deal with our grief in private. We don't want to be talking about it."
Imagine that. No talk. No pictures. Just privacy. Why it's downright un-American. But the Pearls don't believe they have an obligation to share their grief with the American public. They were disturbed, they said, by some of the questions posed to them by interviewers such as Larry King and Oprah Winfrey.
King, for example, asked Mrs. Pearl: "You know the feeling of a child gone … what was it like for you?" And Oprah asked: "How does it make you feel now that videotapes of his murder are circulating on the Internet, and people are pulling it up and trying to see it?"
On the tape, Pearl is shown describing his Jewish heritage, followed by footage of him being decapitated. What did King and Oprah expect them to say, or were they hoping for a climactic, emotional breakdown?
In another day, not so long ago, such questions would have been considered intrusive, inappropriate, impossibly rude. Decent people simply didn't ask personal questions of others, much less insist that they display their deepest emotions for detached, random observers.
Yet Americans have come to expect such questions and to feel entitled to the answers. The public display of emotions -and the vivisection of people's personal lives -has become so commonplace that nothing is considered offensive or off-limits. We have sacrificed dignity at the altar of freedom of speech and confused self-control with censorship.
It is not coincidence that freedom's bastard triplets -pornography, profanity and promiscuity -have flourished in the same environment that redefined voyeurism and exhibitionism from censured behaviors into cultural sacraments.
Being a show-off is still tantamount to being a fool, even if we have forgotten it. And living a quiet life of dignity, according to once-honored rules of decorum, is so rare as to be newsworthy. Let's hope it catches on.