The exploitation of grief in the age of celebrity
There is a paradoxical tendency wired into the American ethos to venerate sacrifice, loss, and grief and yet, in the end, to exploit it, often to dubious ends.
The myriad victims of war too often provide a catalyst for the cultural and political phenonomena that distract us. And it’s not a great insight to note that these currents in the national continuum are now cojoined, almost indistinguishably: in our ordinary lives, we are, in fact, hardly touched by the touchstones and personalities of our culture and its actors and enactors, no more than we are in any direct way by our politicians; yet our discourse and preoccupations are pervaded by them.
The latest, and unexpectedly long-lived, focal point has been the appearance of the Khans at the DNC convention last week. Their comments, offered civilly and yet forcefully, made emphatic by the silent mournful presence of Mrs. Khan, were made to protest and highlight the insensitivity of the Republican nominee and its inherent defilement of the death of the Khans heroic son in the Iraq War ten years ago. Their point was about Trump’s vile degradation of a whole people, believers in a religion, but the issue has become utterly something else because of the typically maladroit narcissistic reaction of the offensive mogul. We cannot ignore either the contributory efforts of the media, the established political apparatus, and the chattering masses to amplify the increasingly garbled points of conflict and to feed the flames that have now engulfed a full week’s worth of daily news cycles.
It hasn’t been lost on the reporting machine, or those jaundiced observers of the sordid machinations of the entire political apparatus the similarities, though there are vast differences as well, between the current unfolding situation, and the efforts of Cindy Sheehan, also a Gold Star parent, who lost a son in Iraq, and used her status as an enabling tactic to attract more attention to her efforts as a full-time anti-war activist, camped on the Bush ranch in Texas, where the President at the time, would repair as a retreat and a respite from the increasingly restive public and media as the war dragged on long past his “Mission Accomplished” aria as alleged coda to that conflict.
One difference is, of course, that President Bush had already successfully run for re-election a year before, and Cindy Sheehan, collaborating with the Democratic establishment, is alleged to have been promised an end to the war if she agreed to work on behalf of the party in its pursuit of regaining the House in 2006.
There is obscurity of motives and duplicity going all around in both stories, and doubtless others, though none spring to mind as prominently as these most recent events centering on the status of ordinary American citizens who have made what many consider the ultimate sacrifice of life in terms of the loss of a loved one.
I suggested that this is an endemic feature of our culture, and indeed it seems to be, but I would guess as well that it has its roots in other cultures, other contries, other civilizations in history, if it is not, in fact, an intrinsic and unresolved potential tragedy in every family. The very first story in the Bible, after that of the expulsion from Eden, is of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel by his brother in his wrath. We can only infer the immensity of the impact on the original mythic parents of all of mankind, as it is not described, and the ensuing chapter in the Bible, an account of the “line” of Adam, begins with his son Seth—whose birth was a divine grant clearly in compensation for the loss of Abel.
There is no such silent solemnity as a mute regard for the grief of parents losing a child in our culture.
We, at our worst, tend to spotlight such mourning, no doubt, in some perverse way to show our reverence, but as well, and inevitably, to exploit it one way or another.
The novelist Philip Roth, with a sensitivity and a sensibiity at once grim and mocking—how else can we react sometimes to such monstrous behavior as we see regularly, but with humor to penetrate and dispel our dumb horror?—alluded to the phenomenon. He did so first, in an extended satiric introduction to a speech he gave in 1960 he called “Writing American Fiction,” in which he mainly spoke of the challenge to the imagination of any fiction writer by reality itself, as evidenced in the kind of story that graced every tabloid newspaper, even as it still does today, and the way it is treated by sordid attentions paid by that press and its readers.
He did so again, en passant, with a passage in his infamous novel that showcased and lampooned the psychopathology of American life, Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969. Here is a passage. The stakes have gotten higher, clearly, than the award of kitchen appliances to this most shameful category of exploited victims—their possible willing and mindful participation notwithstanding.
“A Gold Star Mom,” says Ralph Edwards, solemnly introducing a contestant on “Truth or Consequences,” who in just two minutes is going to get a bottle of seltzer squirted at her snatch, followed by a brand-new refrigerator for her kitchen … A Gold Star Mom is what my Aunt Clara upstairs is too, except here is the difference—she has no gold star in her window, for a dead son doesn’t leave her feeling proud or noble, or feeling anything, for that matter. It seems instead to have turned her, in my father’s words, into “a nervous case” for life. Not a day has passed since Heshie was killed in the Normandy invasion that Aunt Clara has not spent most of it in bed, and sobbing so badly that Doctor Izzie has sometimes to come and give her a shot to calm her hysteria down…
—Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969