Tuesday, April 12, 2005

“It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” proclaims a newspaper ad for a luxury down comforter. We might believe that about a puffed-up blanket, but we do not believe it about ourselves. For too many of us, what counts is on the outside.

The wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles laid bare our obsession with externals. The invective hurled at the newly-to-each-other-weds may be unprecedented. Casting to the winds all pretense of “reporting,” several network anchors and commentators unmercifully trashed the couple. Had the bunker wedding of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun been televised, it might have received better coverage.

Released from the requirement to be dignified and respectful at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, MSNBC replayed the 1991 wedding of Charles and Diana. Adding invective to insult, one of the cable network’s royal watchers commented Cherie Blair, wife of the British prime minister, “looks like my cleaning lady.”

CNN carried a sound bite from a British villager who called Camilla, the newly minted Duchess of Cornwall, a “bloody trollop.” One British tabloid depicted Charles and Camilla with horns protruding from their heads. Others were not as “kind.”

This wedding exposed our hypocrisy as few events have in recent years. We reacted to it as if we had been caught with our hands in a cold cream jar. Our grandmothers once admonished us, “Beauty is only skin deep.” If so, what is the epidermal depth of homeliness or simply looking plain?

A woman came up to me recently and said, “I know who you are.” I replied, “No, madam, you know what I do; knowing who I am will require your getting to know me.” She had confused what I do with who I am. She defined me by externals and not inner things, such as character.

Beauty has replaced character. It is the goddess of narcissism. The late Diana, princess of Wales (a title she keeps, even in death), behaved badly, but she mostly gets a pass from the self-absorbed and worshipful public because she was beautiful on the outside. People magazine quickly discovered putting Diana on its cover always sold a lot of magazines, and so it featured her gorgeous visage on numerous occasions.

Hollywood actors with little character but much glamour are our cultural icons, especially if they are women with super-sized breasts, whether surgically enhanced or not. It doesn’t matter, because we stopped appreciating reality sometime in the ‘60s when drugs became “My Sweet Lord.”

Charles and Camilla behaved badly to their former spouses and were poor examples to their children. But who among us can cast the first stone? This isn’t really about them anyway. If it were, we could all throw stones, or pies, and enjoy ourselves.

It is about us; that is why so many of us loathe their image. They remind us of our own ugliness. It is why so many magazines and TV shows carry news about “celebrities,” people who are mostly known for being known, who have not done much worthy of more than passing notice. Idolizing their false images helps us deal with self-consciousness about our own.

Why do we celebrate celebrities who behave no differently from Charles and Camilla? Because celebrities are beautiful. Adultery, divorce, cohabitation — all of it is forgivable, even enviable in them, so long as their beauty and glamour elevate our sense of self-worth. If a plain or homely person behaves “badly” (whatever “bad” is these days), it’s off with their ugly heads.

The wedding of Charles and Camilla is a play within a play. The real storyline is acted out by us, not them. They are but a mirror. When we see ugliness, instead of the beauty we had thought was there, we condemn the mirror.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the ugliest one of all? And the mirror replies, “You are, baby. You are.”

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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