Yesterday's unexpected announcement that singer Michael Jackson had died immediately resulted in an intense media frenzy which reveals a great deal about modern American culture.
Obviously, any individual's death is a sad event, but why is Jackson's death such a massive news story? Three of the country's leading historians, Ernest May, David Herbert Donald and John Hope Franklin, have passed away in the last few months, but there was no media frenzy for any of them. Henry King, an attorney who prosecuted Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and was described as the "George Washington of international law", died last month and no news station mentioned a word. Judith Krug, the librarian who founded Banned Books Week, passed away in April and no media outlet noticed. Nor did any major news outlet note the passing, earlier this year, of astrophysicist Mario Acuña, who designed experiments for several planetary exploration missions and was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.
For that matter, how many ordinary citizens who worked as community leaders, volunteered in local hospitals, bravely served as firefighters or police officers, or lovingly raised children as stay-at-home mothers died yesterday, with no more mention than a short obituary in the local newspaper?
The fact that Americans are apparently much more moved by the death of an entertainer than by the deaths of arguably much more deserving citizens is a manifestation of a very real problem: America is being entertained to death. The fixation people have with the personal lives of entertainers shows that we are now more concerned with amusing ourselves than we are with becoming better individuals or with addressing serious national issues. The American obsession with pop entertainment has become a steady dripping of acid that is slowly dissolving our national soul.
Of course, there is a tremendous difference between art and entertainment. Art is an aesthetic manifestation of truth and beauty, whereas entertainment is an effort to distract and relax the brain. Some musicians create art, while others merely entertain. Revealingly, those musicians whose music has the greatest artistic quality generally ignored by the readers of the tabloid press. It's the entertainers they're obsessed with.
Pop entertainment is to modern America what bread and circuses were to the ancient Romans. The Romans were so lulled by free food and so fixated by gladiatorial entertainment that they ignored the corruption within the Roman government, the bankruptcy of the treasury, and the barbarians smashing through the imperial frontiers. Consequently, their civilization collapsed. Similarly, many modern Americans are too busy watching reality television or discussing the latest Hollywood rumors to be bothered with anything requiring them to actually act as responsible citizens.
A glance at the average magazine stand provides clear evidence of this. For every thoughtful and informative periodical like The Economist or Scientific American, the reading of which might actually make one a better-informed and more well-rounded citizen, there are literally dozens of magazines focused on the personal lives or hairstyles of entertainment celebrities, with no redeeming or useful content whatsoever. It's enough to make a Jeffersonian recoil in horror.
Of course, we need entertainment to rest our brains and provide a reprieve from our professional and civic work. Recharging our batteries, so to speak, is an end for which entertainment is a means. But in modern American, rather than being a reprieve from work, entertainment has become a replacement for it. Our lives should be devoted to improving ourselves and our society, but truthfully our lives seem devoted to entertaining ourselves. Rather than serving as a means to an end, entertainment has become an end unto itself.
The average American can tell you the names of any number of pop entertainers, but has no idea who their representative in Congress is. The average American can tell you who won last year's Super Bowl, but has no idea who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize. If Thomas Jefferson could see how our society has evolved, he would frankly tell us that our priorities are the exact opposite of what they should be. And if America is ever to be the nation Jefferson dreamed it could be, we will have to get our priorities straight once again.
A well-informed and well-educated citizenry is a prerequisite for a free and prosperous society. We no longer have that, and the pop entertainment industry is largely to blame. We need to put down the copy of People and pick up the copy of The Economist. We need to turn off our televisions and reopen our books. We need to cease our psychological dependence on pop entertainment and again dedicate ourselves to self-improvement and good citizenship. If we don't, we risk going the way of the Roman Empire, with our civic identity gradually dissolving until we wake up one day and discover that our country has fallen apart.