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Flag tribute to Whitney Houston: Too little, too late?

By Jason Marsh, Special to CNN
February 18, 2012 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
A flag flies at half-staff outside the funeral home where a private viewing for Whitney Houston was held Friday in Newark.
A flag flies at half-staff outside the funeral home where a private viewing for Whitney Houston was held Friday in Newark.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Flags are flying at half-staff in New Jersey to honor Whitney Houston
  • Gov. Chris Christie's decision to honor singer in this way received some criticism
  • Jason Marsh: Whitney Houston may not have fit definition of those normally honored this way
  • He says the honor shows remorse for failing to support her in her troubles

Editor's note: Jason Marsh is the founding editor-in-chief of the online magazine, Greater Good, published by the The Greater Good Science Center, which focuses on the "science of a meaningful life" and is based at the University of California at Berkeley.

(CNN) -- Is Whitney Houston a hero?

New Jersey citizens -- and Whitney fans and haters alike -- have been debating this question since Gov. Chris Christie announced he would fly the state's flags at half-staff for the singer Saturday as mourners attend her funeral in Newark, New Jersey.

Christie's decision has been widely criticized -- 77% of USA Today readers called it "inappropriate" in one informal and unscientific poll. But he has strongly defended the order, hailing Houston as "a daughter of New Jersey" who should be honored for her "cultural contributions."

For decisions like this, there is a federal "Flag Code," which stipulates only that the flag be flown at half-staff to honor deaths of certain public officials, adding that governors can honor members of the government or military from their state.

Opinion: Whitney Houston's glorious voice

But regardless of what the official code says, the standards around flag-flying have been fuzzy for years. Most of Christie's prior orders to lower the flag have honored service members killed in combat, yet he issued the same order after the death of Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. Frank Sinatra received the honor years earlier.

So there's some precedent here for musicians, and Houston's astronomical album sales certainly make the case for her cultural influence. Her ascent from humble Garden State roots to pop superstardom offers a source of pride for Christie and other New Jerseyites. And flying a flag at half-staff could provide a form of collective mourning, a way to rally a community around things they share -- like a hometown hero whose music touched countless people throughout the state and around the world.

Is all that enough to merit an honor usually reserved for people who've performed tremendous services -- and made incomparable sacrifices -- for their country? True, Houston's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is by far the most acclaimed (and best-selling) recording of the national anthem by a pop singer. But should that enter her into the ranks of American heroes?

Indeed, giving this honor to Houston seems to illustrate what psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo have called our increasingly "watered-down" view of heroism. Franco and Zimbardo argue that we pay a cultural price when we praise athletes and celebrities as "heroes": We lose sight of the strong moral qualities that should define heroism, and we lose touch with what it takes to nurture more demanding forms of heroism.

"By diminishing the ideal of heroism," they write, "we keep ourselves from confronting the older, more demanding forms of this ideal. We do not have to challenge ourselves to see if, when faced with a situation that called for courage, we would meet that test."

Through their research, Franco and Zimbardo have come up with their own criteria for what constitutes a hero. For one thing, heroism entails some type of quest, for example to save a life or to uphold a principle. It also involves real sacrifice or risk, including a risk of one's own life.

Who meets these standards? The 30 service members for whom Christie has lowered the flag clearly do. Whitney Houston clearly does not.

In fact, the sad truth is that for more than a decade, Whitney Houston sat on the end of the moral spectrum opposite from presidents and war heroes. Her struggles with drug addiction and her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown tarnished her public image. She became an object of scorn and derision.

And, ultimately, I suspect that this is part of the reason we're seeing such effusive tributes to her now.

Yes, some critics of Christie's half-staff decision say it sends the wrong message to give this level of recognition to someone with a history of substance abuse. But I can't shake the feeling that the official, government-sanctioned respect Houston is getting in her death is on some level a reaction to all the insults she endured in her life.

When Houston's life and voice fell apart, many of her onetime fans and longtime critics showed little sympathy. The flag flying at half-staff feels like a way not just to honor her virtues as an artist, but to show remorse for how she was treated as a person.

"What I would say to everybody is, 'There but for the grace of God go I,'" Christie said.

But I don't remember any politician embracing her as "New Jersey's daughter" after she did her embarrassing "crack is wack" interview with Diane Sawyer, after she checked into rehab, or after Brown was charged with physically abusing her.

In that light, a flag flying at half-staff seems more like an apology than an honor -- an act of contrition for spurning a women who suffered addiction and abuse. Behind the tributes lies guilt and, too late, some compassion.

Christie says he believes people are questioning his decision because of Houston's drug problems.

But maybe it's partly because of her troubles, not in spite of them, that she's being honored.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Marsh.

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