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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Celebrity culture goes bonkers

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An impromptu shrine sprang up on the city corner where Blanket Man held court. Photo / APN
An impromptu shrine sprang up on the city corner where Blanket Man held court. Photo / APN

This week, the capital has given every appearance of being in mourning for a mentally disturbed street person, what Australians call a "dero" (short for derelict) and Americans call a "bum".

Ben Hana, aka Blanket Man, died last Sunday. Although there's no official word on the cause of death, a lawyer familiar with his case said he had medical problems from heavy alcohol use and malnutrition.

His death and funeral were treated as significant news events. Wellington City Council helped organise the funeral, which was paid for by businessman and philanthropist Gareth Morgan.

A shrine has been erected on the city corner he used to occupy clad only in a loincloth and wrapped in a blanket. Within hours the white walls of the bank building were covered with scrawled tributes and messages of condolence.

Since this sort of treatment is normally reserved for distinguished or inspirational figures and seldom given to caring, selfless, blameless individuals who do good without drawing attention to themselves, it's worth reflecting on what Blanket Man did and didn't do.

He opted out of a conventional existence involving marriage, children and a steady job after what the Dominion Post called "a series of personal disasters, including killing a friend while drink driving". A daughter said, "I don't really know much about him since he became homeless. We all lost touch."

(In passing, one notes that we're bombarded with harrowing television ads in which drunk drivers kill their passengers. The clear message of this taxpayer-funded campaign is that exposing your mates to mortal harm in this manner is unforgivable.)

He then embarked on an existence that could be described as suicide on the instalment plan: drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime, living rough, wandering the streets half-naked.

His claim, or that made on his behalf, to being a colourful character, an engaging eccentric who put a smile on people's faces, seems to have been overstated, if not manufactured. The Dom Post again: "For every anecdote about him giving a cheery wave to a passerby, there are scores about him exposing himself, committing indecent acts in public view, shouting foul-mouthed abuse at passersby and smoking cannabis and urinating in shop doorways. He was regularly in court on drug and offensive behaviour charges."

Even though Blanket Man's life was sad and sordid and no one in their right mind would want their father, brother or son to follow his example, strenuous efforts were made to endow him with socio-cultural significance and elevate him to the status of Wellington's unofficial mascot, rather like Christchurch's Wizard.

Facebook and Wikipedia sites were set up in his honour. In 2009 a pair of Victoria University academics put on a lecture entitled World Famous in Wellington: Blanket Man as Contemporary Celebrity. Among the attributes that made Blanket Man stand out, they said, was "the great tan". Indeed: while poor health and hardship are the downsides of living on the street, let's not forget the upside.

So what's behind this celebration of a self-destructive, essentially parasitic lifestyle? Why this campaign to portray a poor, deluded, damaged individual as something he transparently wasn't?

Typical of the messages left at the shrine was: "Thanks for standing up for what you believed in." However, there's no evidence that Blanket Man believed in anything, except perhaps his bogus iconic status. As Wellington's Community Ministry director Stephanie McIntyre said, "He latched on to that whole notion of a public persona and that became more important to him than being well."

According to Wellington's Mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, Blanket Man "lived life his own way". This of course assumes that people beset by the twin demons of mental health issues and addiction can make a rational decision about the sort of life they lead. Would anyone say approvingly of a heroin-addicted prostitute that "she's living life her own way"?

And even if you are exercising a choice, what if the life you choose is aggressively antisocial or criminal? No doubt there are gang members who define themselves in romantic terms, as outsiders in revolt against convention and the system.

Compassion is admirable, but to portray this pathetic existence as bold or bohemian is misguided to say the least.

Much of the reaction can be attributed to a sentimental yearning to participate in mass expressions of emotion and, secondly, to celebrity culture's tendency to value distinctiveness over distinction.

You also get the feeling that for many of those eulogising Blanket Man on the basis of passing or second-hand acquaintance, it's as much about them as it is about him. Next time they want to feel a warm inner glow, perhaps they should consider doing community work or contributing to charities that help those who are prepared to help themselves.

- NZ Herald

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