The death of Michael Jackson, a famous pop star who invited young boys to sleep with him (though apparently no sexual activity took place), has ravaged the regular programming in every news channel, from CNN to MNSBC, including the staid and ultraconservative FOX news. A person just arriving from Mars would probably think that one of our most important philosophers, writers, scientists or politicians had just been assassinated. Great would be their surprise to learn that the cause of so much excitement is a simple entertainer who fed the world’s tabloids with a succession of scandalous behaviors. They would, justly so, wonder at the kind of culture that places so much importance on the absolutely equivocal role model exhibited by Mr. Jackson.
I resist (not much) the urge to blame the media for their obsessive behavior: All they do is feed the sensationalist hunger of the American public in order to boost their ratings and as a consequence their bottom line. But I must ask why so many of us follow with what amounts almost to desperation the lives of athletes, movie stars and entertainers? Why do we care more about their dark side – for example Mel Gibson’s drunk driving, Miley Cyrus’ racy pictures, A-Rod accused of taking steroids, Paula Abdul alleged affair with a contestant – instead of focusing on their talents? Is there a dark side within us that compels us to gloat when others get in trouble, thus reducing the difference between us and them?
Another important question addresses the American culture itself, if there is such a thing as a national culture: Is this appetite for celebrities’ latest scandal unique to America or do other countries share our affliction? After all, we can readily see that many American customs are already imitated by people in other nations, especially within the younger sector. They enjoy fast food, they wear designer jeans, they listen to our pop music and they introduce words like “cool” into their own language. But nowhere is the frenzy for gossip and idolatry (celebrity) as intense as in this country.
We are certainly a unique phenomenon in the modern world, more so when Obama became our 44th President. We are also the mightiest military power the world has ever seen, although many social scientists have been predicting the fall of the American “Empire” and the end of our planet-wide predominance. They cite our materialistic way of life, a trend that may change with the present economic recession. They also mention our lagging educational system, our ever increasing obese population and our fascination with the trivial aspects of our celebrities. Have we lost the spiritual and intellectual depth that made this nation a world-wide symbol of freedom and democracy?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that “It is culture, not politics, that determines the success of society.” (Cultures Count, Huntington, Samuel and Harrison, Lawrence E). If he is right, should we worry about the next generation raised under false material values? As a teacher in high school, I despair with my colleagues when we fail to instill the love of reading in our teens. Most are more concerned with buying the latest electronic gadget than with acquiring a solid general culture that will help them be successful. Are American families still able to communicate and model exemplary values in their children if their main role models are presented on television? Some recent polls indicate that the vast majority of American people believe that we as a country are on the wrong track, which reflects a growing malaise that our cultural values are changing for the worse. Their concern may also be due to the recent emergence of new world powers, such as China, India and Russia. We fear what we don’t know and what the phenomenon means for world peace.
Our obsession with personalities such as Michael Jackson’s reflects a profound flaw in our cultural values; I will also blame the media after all for not showing more leadership in their choices of role models. Their social influence is enormous among our young. How many American children admired and imitated Michael Jackson, one of the most visible androgynous role models in pop culture? Do we show the same passion for George Gershwin, one of the most illustrious American composers of classical music? Of course not, and that’s what worries me.
Born in Switzerland many years ago and now living in Brownsville, Tx, where I teach special education in a local high school. I love my job and the challenges involved in making a difference for so many bright kids who struggle to overcome their disabilities.