Once admiring those departed in a quiet way too deep for applause, we now honor the dishonorable, equating quality with celebrity.
At college commencements, graduates hear a speech touting those who made a difference. Death is similar, teaching those who live. Taking stock, we sum up and compare. Admiring others, we define ourselves.
Recently, singer/actor Michael Jackson died at 50. A CBS-TV affiliate asked what it meant to me. “Absolutely nothing,” I replied. By contrast, it meant everything to popular culture — edgy, trendy and cosmetic inside and out — which deemed the deceased a deity. Having lost their moorings, many lost their mind.
On July 7, climaxing what one paper dubbed “an orgy of obsession,” 31.1 million watched Jackson’s nationally televised memorial service. What exactly did they mourn, save voice and vulnerability? Visibility, like Kurt Cobain? Notoriety, like Anna Nicole Smith? Empty vessels esteem lovely to hear or look at — ignoring a black hole at their core.
Service viewers mimed those covering it, tying narcissism, moral relativism, and race and gender mania. By contrast, Congressman Peter King more or less aptly termed Jackson a “pervert, pedophile, and child molester.” Having hoped to be remembered, Michael will, but not in the way he expected, or hoped. Unlike groupies, most recoil at a child dangling from a ledge.
Seals and Crofts sang, “We May Never Pass This Way Again.” Jackson’s hysteria already had in 1997’s death of Diana Spencer, 36, Princess of Wales, and a lover and a drunk chauffeur who crashed in a Paris tunnel. Her two sons, 15 and 12, had been left in England, Mom chasing her latest fling. Like Michael, frivolous and superficial, it always came back to her.
Our culture deemed Di a heroine. An earlier age used a word that rhymed with stamp, preferring to admire those who serve, not shock. Harry Truman fought Communism. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced us to sail where no craft had gone before. Dwight Eisenhower showed Alexis de Tocqueville’s “America is great because America is good.” Each valued decency, a stoic duty, not marquee as transient as Endust on wood.
After Lincoln’s murder, thousands silently lined the funeral train. A century later, Robert Kennedy stirred respect from even enemies. In 1945, Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Black and white film confirms the change. Much of Washington lined Pennsylvania Avenue, hands over hearts, to view the caisson. Here and there you heard a sob. A young girl peered through a gate, sweet and pensive. A famed photo shows a woman in floral hat, dress likely from JC Penney, looking on, oozing character, regal in her plainness.
Culture prized modesty, formality, a certain diffidence: We were not all cheap exhibitionists in that still-waters-ran-deeper time. Twenty years later, Winston Churchill died, having helped FDR save the English-speaking world. In the book “Warlord,” Carlo D’Este tells of more than 300,000 people filing past the coffin in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Thousands more — teacher, laborer, soldier: like Churchill, worth admiring — lined the cortege’s route through London to Tower Hill, “where the cranes along the dockland all bowed.”
The coffin was put on a launch, sailed up the Thames to Waterloo, and put aboard a train for home. On board, “one of Churchill’s long-time aides saw a man dressed in his old Royal Air Force uniform standing on the roof of a small house, saluting;” wrote D’Este. “In a field a farmer stopped his work, doffed his cap, and bowed his head.” Decent people, living decent lives.
In half a century, culture has plunged from hailing men “who saved our lives,” quoting philosopher Isaiah Berlin, to unseemly grief for an unfit mother and alleged child abuser. History renders a verdict on each generation. Once admiring in a quiet way too deep for applause, we now honor the dishonorable, equating quality with celebrity. Our jury, as they say, is closed.
Curt Smith is the author of 13 books and former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Smith writes twice monthly for GateHouse Media’s Messenger-Post Newspapers. E-mail: email@example.com.