Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Very Latest in Death and Nostalgia

I know exactly where I was when I found out Robin Williams was dead. I was at home, having just posted on Facebook. Another friend had just heard about it on the news and posted what she had heard. Seconds later, Robin Williams’ death was “virally trending.”

I was hit hard by this news, and I know many people were, nationally and internationally, but particularly in California and especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Mr. Williams was raised and where he honed is incredible talent. This news was on the heels of other celebrity deaths, and followed by other celebrity deaths, as well as the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, MO.

All in all, it was a very depressing week. Everything in social media filled a spectrum from “death and depression” to “cute animals” to “don’t judge what you don’t understand.” The newspapers were not far behind that mode of “trending,” focusing on failures of all sorts (building failures, political failures, police failures; in short, failures of judgment in all forms).

When I went to the grocery store, I could not help but notice that the magazine racks were filled with retrospective magazines on Elvis Presley (died, August 16, 1977), Jerry Garcia (died August 9, 1995), Bob Hope (died July 27, 2003), Princess Diana (died August 31, 1997) and others. Robin Williams will be the next honoree of one of these, I am sure. And I have to say, this is very sad. We loved these people who led very public lives, but the inability of our culture to let go after celebrities have died is really unhealthy.

We are being manipulated by this constant parade of celebrity deaths, and we don’t even realize it. If you think about just those stars listed above, you realize that most people 14 years old and younger have no idea who those people are, don’t know their contributions to culture, and what’s more, aren’t interested in finding out. Why should they?

But for those of us who do know and remember these people, the fact of their mortality is a reminder to us of our own.

Friedrich Nietzsche posited that our harboring of nostalgia is a way of using the past to forge an idea of the future. Never mind that any nostalgic view of the past is utterly inaccurate and could never pass muster today, much less be put to work tomorrow.

“But wait!” as the young set says, “that is exactly what is happening!” And, to a great extent, it is true. Nietzsche would be railing against the same things, if he were alive today, as in those years when he was alive and his thought was in full flower. And that is very, very sad, indeed.

What most people don’t realize is this is a psychological and philosophical condition, called by Nietzsche ressentiment. The condition is characterized by defeatist feelings, cynical attitudes, belief that institutions and individuals are hostile and indifferent; this condition results in expressions of fundamentalism on all levels, as if returning to a mythical past, characterized by either extreme authoritarianism or anarchy, would be the solution to every problem.

Look at the unrest in our world. You can see it in every tabloid, not to mention in the more legitimate news media. Celebrity wars. Male culture bashing female culture. Heterosexual culture bashing homosexual culture. Race wars, religion wars, wars of greed and ambition, ad hominem wars of indifference and stupidity are being waged all day, everyday, everywhere. We say to our dead heroes, “rest in peace,” while fervently praying for a peace we cannot hope to achieve on this planet while we are in the grips of ressentiment, where every gesture is negatively judged, where the innocent are blamed for the bad things that happen to them, where corruption seems to trump all those human values we claim to uphold, where we decide to join ghettos, rather than learn to live with in harmony others and the environment, so that we can get together to solve real problems.

When I see on Facebook side-by-side images of Hitler and a liberal politician, with nearly matching quotes, I think, wow! This is really sick! Can the person who shared this really believe the sum of that life is equal to the sum of this one?

Not only is it crude. Not only is it simplistic. It is malevolent. Unfortunately, I think some of the people who post these things really do believe them; some are highly educated people, but they are frustrated by something they cannot even properly articulate. There is a festering of impotent rage in our generation, and to a great degree this rage is an inherited legacy. “Teach your children well” to some people meant passing on a rageaholic culture of negativity to the next generation. As Nietzsche pointed out, this is an individual’s act of revenge upon society.

Having grown up among people who were trying to make the world a better place, one that is color-blind, equitable, and harmonious, I must admit this is disillusioning and disappointing. What kind of a world have I brought my children into? What sort of people are these that build a life and behave in it such that machines and money mean more than the lives of people?

The media that daily pumps out such negative drivel exists to bring us down, to keep us cowed, to amaze us with our own stupidity, to get us all fighting with each other. That must be the intent, otherwise, why publish it? If we are all fighting with one another, then it is easy to bring out the guns and fill up the prisons, is it not?

Faith is an empty word unless it leads people to build a temple to Love, inhabited by people performing good deeds and working at breaking down barriers, to nurture and feed the hungry, to employ the willing and able, to build people (all people) up to something better than what the past offered. I don’t know much, but I am sure we cannot rest in peace until we conquer our natural tendency to self-destruction. We cannot honor the dead when we are such a tortured mess of ambivalence and misanthropy that we cannot honor the living by doing right by them.

I see the very latest in the world of death and nostalgia, and I do not like it. It makes me feel shame for the whole human race. I do not want to go down that path—for the way is down, indeed.

I hope you feel the same way. I hope you will add yourself to movement and uprising. It could be that I mean “a movement” or “an uprising” – but what I am saying is do not go down. Go up, and bring someone along with you! Let us all rise to our very best potential, however we can. That is honestly the only way to honor the experience of life and all the wonderful people that have lived it.