Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The case of heroes.

A friend of mine shared this on her facebook wall today:

I'll be the first to come out as anti-war.  In my younger days, I identified as a pacifist, and while I no longer think such a concept is feasible or sustainable, I still vouch for peace and hate the glorification of war.  Violence can be necessary, and makes for excellent stories, but in reality it should never be celebrated.  I also am not much of a supporter of troops.  I don't hate them, but I don't feel that they need to be celebrated for serving in wars and conflicts that I believe to be unjust.  These are minor points, however, and I'm more interested in addressing a meme that this particular post exemplifies.  For the sake of this argument, I'm going to speak from a standpoint that supports our troops wholeheartedly.  I can't find an exact term for the meme, so I'll call it the "celebrity over soldier" meme.

The "Celebrity over soldier" meme is this idea that springs up every time a celebrity dies.  Someone decides to point out the great tragedy that this person is mourned while soldiers die and are ignored.  I understand the sense of outrage, especially if you know someone who serves or has served in the military, even more so if that person has suffered in the line of duty.  They served valiantly and protected us, doing something truly great for our country, yet they are forgotten over some random actor, singer, or politician.  Yet if we detach ourselves from the situation and observe the phenominon of mourning from an objective distance, it may be more clear.

Our mourning has no bearing on the objective importance of the death.  When my pet cat died over a year ago, I cried deeply for hours.  When a student in my high school, two years my junior, committed suicide, I felt panic over the notion of death but no tears.  The magnitude of my grief over this mere feline, an animal I would weigh as less important than that of a young human life, was far greater.  We do not mourn because tragedy has befallen someone else.  We mourn because tragedy has befallen us.  Is my cat, whose ashes still rest on my mantle, in any pain or suffering now?  Does he need my sympathy or sadness?  No, my sorrow was for myself, to live without him.

For a celebrity it is much the same.  Some may take it to extremes, but for most the grief is simple.  Celebrities are famous because they have made themselves a part of our lives in some small way.  Whitney Houston's version of "I will always love you" is a classic, and many have been moved by her music.  For me, the death of George Carlin in 2008 was a sad event, as I adored both his standup routine as well as his work in Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, among others.  We mourn them because they contributed something directly to our lives.  We may have their old material, but there will never be anything new.  They were a known quantity, and now they are gone.  We mourn for ourselves.

A dead soldier, heroic though his death may be, is a relative unknown.  There are hundreds of thousands of soldiers serving actively in the US and abroad, and we do not know them individually.  While we have holidays to celebrate their service, we do not know the names of every single soldier.  From a purely objective standpoint, we have not personally lost anything in their death.  If we did not at the very least know of them in life, mourning them in death is disingenuous.

Their service is not to be discounted, of course, but their death does not detract from our way of life; if anything, it promotes our way of life.  They fight to protect us and our interests, and it is that sacrifice that allows us to mourn for celebrities whose deaths mean they will no longer entertain us.  It is not sad, or wrong, or stupid for us to mourn the loss of Whitney (although honestly I think anyone who spends more than a few minutes thinking, "oh how sad" about any celebrity may need to rethink their priorities of what's important in their lives).  Those soldiers died to give us security, a security that means we can worry more about entertainment than whether we'll see the sun tomorrow.  That should be honored, certainly, but not mourned.  Mourning dead soldiers we never knew cheapens their sacrifice and makes their lives important only in their death.