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(June 22, 2005)

          Oh, no, Ben Stein has written his last E-online “Monday Night at Morton’s” column! Whatever shall I do? And it was so wrenching for poor Ben to give up the gig. As he wrote, “I loved writing this column so much for so long I came to believe it would never end.” Perhaps Ben felt he was destined for eternal life. If so, imagine his disappointment. My heart goes out to him!
          For those who did not read Ben's poignant farewell in late 2003, “How Can Someone Who Lives in Insane Luxury Be a Star in Today’s World,” well, I was among you! But people keep e-mailing the damn thing to me as an example of um, integrity and high moral concern, so I was compelled by integrity and high moral concern to comment.
          First off, Ben lamented that Morton’s just isn’t what it used to be---“not the star galaxy it once was”---so it was time to move on. Got to swim with the big fish, after all. Besides, Ben said, Hollywood stars used to be his “heroes,” but they aren’t any more. He “no longer thinks Hollywood stars are terribly important.”
          Gosh, what a crushing realization! Ben, that must have been quite a letdown for you, especially at your advanced age. Hope you got through the trauma okay. Richard Lewis can probably recommend four or five good therapists.
          As for me, I’m one of those peculiar, maladjusted people who never thought “Hollywood stars” were “terribly important” to begin with. I’ve always felt they were largely a bunch of decent actors and egomaniac phonies who thought they were “terribly important” because the public and media and guys like Ben Stein treated them like they were “terribly important.”
          And I’ve certainly never held “Hollywood stars” as “heroes,” for goodness sake. With the possible exceptions of Buster Keaton, King Kong and Rin-Tin-Tin.
          Ben did, though. His column was essentially all about the big stars that Ben Stein was having lunch with. Yet he seems to have had an actual catharsis, or an epiphany (to use popular “Hollywood star” parlance) before his last “Monday Night at Morton’s.” As he wrote:
          “The noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay but stand on guard in Afghanistan and Iraq and on ships and in submarines and near the Arctic Circle are anonymous as they live and die. I am no longer comfortable being a part of the system that has such poor values, and I do not want to perpetuate those values by pretending that who is eating at Morton's is a big subject.”
          What a brave, moral stance, Ben! This must have been quite a shock to all the people who have read your column and thought it was a “big subject.” You must have anguished over their certain disillusionment.
          Of course, I have to wonder. . .How was it you didn’t notice these “poor values” before, Ben? The country, after all, has been sliding into a cesspool of greed and idolatry for decades. Wonder what tipped the scale for you? Did Morton’s Chicken Caesar switch to bottled dressing? (Assuming Morton’s has a Chicken Caesar. I’ve never been there.)

They aren’t singing like Hillary Duff, you see, or eating a burger naked like Paris Hilton, or sharing their love life with Oprah like Tom Cruise, or even appearing on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.”

           Here's the real crux of Ben’s column:
          “A real star is the U.S. soldier who was sent to disarm a bomb next to a road north of Baghdad. He approached it, and the bomb went off and killed him. A real star, the kind who haunts my memory night and day, is the U.S. soldier in Baghdad who saw a little girl playing with a piece of unexploded ordnance on a street near where he was guarding a station. He pushed her aside and threw himself on it just as it exploded. He left a family desolate in California and a little girl alive in Baghdad.”
          Bravo, Ben. Great that you suddenly figured out that “Hollywood stars” aren’t “heroes,” and that heroes are actually, well, people who perform heroic acts. Dandy! Again, I’m one of those eccentrics who has known this all along, but that’s beside the point.
          All right, I am a bit sarcastic. Frankly, I am suspicious of you, Ben. I find your position trite and corny at best, and possibly even well, um. . .hypocritical.
          You see, Ben, you are a big “Hollywood star.” You live in “insane luxury,” (at least by Riposte standards) as you wrote of others. You are one of them. Yes, yes, I understand that you weren’t always this way. I’ve read your distinguished bio on your website, and I know you used to be a star only in terms of the east coast power-elite right-wing establishment ilk. I know you were a Nixon speechwriter, widely published commentator, author of many successful books, etc. I even bumped into you once or twice when you worked at the Herald-Examiner in L.A., although I confess that I had no desire to bump into you a third time.
          And I know that after you moved to L.A., you adroitly parlayed your long, deadpan face and droll monotone into film and TV iconography. Yes, Ben, you are not merely a star---you have become one of those “icons.” Your face is instantly recognizable, known to millions. By the views you held until recently, you would have been a “hero” by your own reckoning.
          Oh, and I must mention that I’ve even seen your show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” which I found an odious display of idolatry and greed disguised as a game show. You know, those same “poor values” you were writing about!
          Why you went Hollywood, Ben, I don’t know, but I guess the words “fun” and “easy money” had something to do with it. That’s okay, too. Hope you are having a slam-bang time. I’m sure it’s the last thing you ever expected out of life.
          But I just don’t think that suddenly striking a pose in a Hollywood gossip column saying that it’s all unimportant, after all these years and paychecks, rang very true. After all, even in your final column, you did some downright heroic name-dropping, noting your schmoozing with Samuel L. Jackson and Warren Beatty. Still, it is tempting to give you the benefit of the doubt after reading a saintly statement like this:
           "I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters."
           Wow! One can only add that Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Jane Goodall, and Jimmy Carter have a good lead on you in  this department, Ben. You're well into your 60's, aren't you? Still, better late. . .
          And of course, the point about stardom, however laudable in theory, just doesn’t wash. The soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere---the terrified, well-intentioned, naïve kids who don’t want to be there, the ones who do, the professional warriors---aren’t stars. They never will be. They might be heroes, some of them anyhow, and they might do wonderful things that the general public admires, or never hears about.
          But they aren’t singing like Hillary Duff, you see, or eating a burger naked like Paris Hilton, or sharing their love life with Oprah like Tom Cruise, or even appearing on “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” They’ll never be stars like you, Ben, because this country finds them boring.
          There is a star-making machinery at work here, Ben, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, and it is really the most powerful industry on the planet. You do something “interesting,” get on TV, and you become the instant focus of world attention---whether you are that pop-eyed runaway bride (soon to star in a reality show, no doubt), or some airhead on “American Idol.”
          Or Private Lynddie England, the most famous soldier of the Iraq war. (I rest my case.)
          Whatever holds public attention, in other words, wins Ben Stein’s money---and everyone else’s.
          It’s machinery that you, as a "Hollywood star," are part of, Ben, and a product of, and that you help support and perpetuate. No amount of moral posturing in that silly E-online column can change that.
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