Friday, July 10, 2009
Mediocrities or Freaks?
I think it was Michael Kinsley who said "a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth."
I don't want to endorse everything King is saying here by a long shot. I wouldn't call MJ a "child molester" -- wasn't he found not guilty in a court of law? And it certainly isn't true that there is nothing good about him. As comments on Michael Jackson the human being, these are way over the top.
But on the wider cultural issue the Congressman has a point.
Tocqueville and Mill worried that the transition from aristocracy to democracy that was then under way would bring a certain change for the worse in the outlook of the average person. Before the revolution, when we looked outward, beyond our village at the greater world, who did we see? There was of course the faceless herd of undifferentiated individuals like ourselves. But we did not find them very interesting. Above this mass, however, there were a few holy or noble individuals who were vividly differentiated: the Pope, the tribal chieftain, the local lord, the king. There was no one else to get our attention. (Ortega claims that "noble" originally meant simply "well known.") We thought of these people as representing ideals of holiness or heroic prowess. (We were wrong about that, of course, but that is irrelevant to my point here.) That was one of the reasons we sometimes sat around the fireplace telling stories about their exploits.
After the revolution, society does not systematically present any one type of person to our view. I used to think that this means that under a democracy we will tend to pay attention to mere mediocrities -- more exactly, to celebrities, ie. people who are well known on account of their well-knownness. Obviously, that is to a large extent what actually did happen.
But this weird MJ obsession of ours does not fit this pattern. He was not a mediocrity at all. No, I think the reason he is getting so much attention is that he was, simply, a freak. Sorry, but there's no nice way to say that without blunting my point. And you have to admit that this is indeed what he was: a seriously weird person. For some reason, we seem to find this endlessly fascinating. We just cannot get enough of his wonderful weirdness.
Here I think King raises the right question. What does this fascination say about who we are, about our spiritual depths (if any)?
If there is some human being or other person (eg., a god) that we want to contemplate day after day, it should be because of positive things about him or her.
Here is another place where I differ from King. He is a politician and government employee, and his heroes are government heroes: fallen military personel and fire fighters. My own heroes are a very different bunch. I think of them as people who make things, whether what they make is a philsophical theory or a better mousetrap. (Come to think of it, the ideal philosophical theory would be a sort of spiritual mousetrap.) These are the creators in the realms of art, science, technology, and industry.
Whether you prefer my sort of heroes or Kings, or have yet another preference, shouldn't we try to pay more attention to them? More and more, that seems to mean letting your TV cool off for a while.