Somewhere in the haze of my Catholic school upbringing, I remember a line from one of the Gospels (Matthew, I think, and if I'm right it's only because the drama club worked so hard on our knockout production of "Godspell") about how, when you do a good deed, you should keep it secret and not shout it boastfully from the mountaintops and in the temple. These days the mountains have "Hollywood" written on them, and the temple is showbiz, and telegenic saints can't stop telling us how much they're doing for the victims of the gulf hurricanes. "Today" built Habitat for Humanity houses in Rockefeller Plaza to ship to Biloxi, Miss. "Good Morning America" adopted an entire town. In prime time, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" couldn't ask for a more perfect tragedy on which to practice its especially boisterous healing. And, on the face of it, that should be a laudable thing, good enough for first lady Laura Bush to join the well-meaning but possibly dense Ty Pennington and his "Extreme Makeover" crew for an episode in storm-damaged Biloxi.
Celebrity culture has been building toward piety overload for years, in which no good deed can occur without a camera crew. As Los Angeles Times television critic Paul Brownfield shrewdly put it a few weeks ago: Charity on TV "is never just about helping. It's about being seen helping. And in order to be seen helping you need to parade the victim onstage too. This continues to be the most grotesque, and voyeuristic, aspect of the feel-good genre . . . that moment when the camera probes the face of the have-not to record their reaction (overwhelmed is accepted, but overwhelmed with tears is preferable) . . ."
Amen, brother. We sometimes worry that celebrities impart unsavory lessons to the kids about skimpy clothes, naughty lyrics and illicit nightclub behavior. But if I were in the protecting-children business, I'd be worried that celebrities are also teaching the kids that an act of charity isn't complete until one has bragged and emoted about one's selflessness. That is, after all, what celebrities do best: feel great about themselves.