[FoRK] NYT: A Culture of Death, Not Life...

Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) fork at ianbell.com
Mon Apr 11 01:50:14 PDT 2005

The American zeitgeist seems to have refocused itself on an endless 
stream of beatifying dead celebrities, including the Pope (beatified 
himself while he was alive, ironically).  Like vultures picking over 
the corpses of the dead famous (oh, and there really >IS< a show on 
Bravo called "Dead Famous" now) Ann Coulter and Jesse Jackson can be 
counted on to poke and prod every inch of flesh on the rotting 
carcasses nightly on Faux News.

While we don't know who's next up to bat, Jimmy Carter and Charleton 
Heston are big picks in most of the dead pools to die in 2005.  The 
Murdochian orgasm that would spurt from the deaths of either will fill 
our airwaves with enough vitriol and spittle to sell to millions of 
inconveniently thirsty Africans for months.

Here are my top five dead pool picks for 2005 and what I think Coulter 
and Jackson will likely comment:

JImmy Carter
JACKSON:	A man of the people, a man who can be counted on, a man of 
compassion and sincerity.
COULTER:	A f*cking pussy, who didn't have the balls to stand up to the 
Iranians like Reagan did.

Charleton Heston
JACKSON:	A man of the people, a man who can be counted on, a man of 
compassion and sincerity.
COULTER:	A nice guy who believes in freedom and good ol' retribution.  
They steal your car, you blast them in the balls.  They shouldn't 
procreate anyway, they're probably Liberals.  All criminals are 
Liberals.  All Liberals are criminals.  Right?

OJ Simpson
JACKSON:	A man of the people, a man who can be counted on, a man of 
compassion and sincerity.
COULTER:	I have no problem with a man who beats up his wife.  If she 
wants to stop it, go to the gym and work out.  Or buy a gun and blast 
him in the balls.

Joey Buttafuoco
JACKSON:	A man of the people, a man who can be counted on, a man of 
compassion and sincerity.
COULTER:	His ex-wife Mary Jo clearly wasn't doing a good job keeping 
her man happy, I have no problem with Amy Fisher's own form of Justice. 
  But Buttafucoo's clearly a pussy for trying to reconcile with her.

Osama Bin Laden
JACKSON:	A man of the people, a man who can be counted on, a man of 
compassion and sincerity.  -- Wait, Who?!
COULTER:	Just proof that the war on terror is working and Bush is right 
on course!  So what if he died of debilitative diabetes?  We made it 
hard for him to get decent insulin by invading Iran, Qatar, and 
Kazhakistan didn't we?  Let's kick some more ass and see who else we 
can kill!



April 10, 2005

A Culture of Death, Not Life

IT takes planning to produce a classic chapter in television history. 
"We've rehearsed," Thom Bird, a Fox News producer, bragged to Variety 
before Pope John Paul II died. "We will pull out all the stops on this 

He wasn't kidding. On the same day that boast saw print, a Fox anchor, 
Shepard Smith, solemnly told the world that "facts are facts" and "it 
is now our understanding the pope has died." Unfortunately, this 
understanding was reached 26 hours before the pope actually did die, 
but as Mr. Smith would explain, he had been misled by "Italian 
reports." (Namely from a producer for Sky Italia, another 
fair-and-balanced fief of Rupert Murdoch.) Fox's false bulletin - soon 
apotheosized by Jon Stewart, now immortalized on the Internet - 
followed the proud tradition of its sister news organization, The New 
York Post, which last year had the scoop on John Kerry's anointment of 
Dick Gephardt as his running mate.

Yet you could also argue that Fox's howler was in its way the most 
honest barometer of this entire cultural moment. The network was 
pulling out all the stops to give the audience what it craved: a fresh, 
heaping serving of death. Mr. Smith had a point when he later noted 
that "the exact time of death, I think, is not something that matters 
so much at this moment." Certainly not to a public clamoring for him to 
bring it on.

  Mortality - the more graphic, the merrier - is the biggest thing going 
in America. Between Terri Schiavo and the pope, we've feasted on 
decomposing bodies for almost a solid month now. The carefully edited, 
three-year-old video loops of Ms. Schiavo may have been worthless as 
medical evidence but as necro-porn their ubiquity rivaled that of TV's 
top entertainment franchise, the all-forensics-all-the-time "CSI." To 
help us visualize the dying John Paul, another Fox star, Geraldo 
Rivera, brought on Dr. Michael Baden, the go-to cadaver expert from the 
JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson mediathons, to contrast 
His Holiness's cortex with Ms. Schiavo's.

  As sponsors line up to buy time on "CSI," so celebrity deaths have 
become a marvelous opportunity for beatific self-promotion by news and 
political stars alike. Tim Russert showed a video of his papal 
encounter on a "Meet the Press" where one of the guests, unchallenged, 
gave John Paul an A-plus for his handling of the church's sex abuse 
scandal. Jesse Jackson, staking out a new career as the angel of 
deathotainment, hit the trifecta: in rapid succession he appeared with 
the Schindlers at their daughter's hospice in Florida, eulogized 
Johnnie Cochran on "Larry King Live" and reminisced about his own papal 
audience with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.

What's disturbing about this spectacle is not so much its 
tastelessness; America will always have a fatal attraction to 
sideshows. What's unsettling is the nastier agenda that lies far less 
than six feet under the surface. Once the culture of death at its most 
virulent intersects with politicians in power, it starts to inflict 
damage on the living.

When those leaders, led by the Bush brothers, wallow in this culture, 
they do a bait-and-switch and claim to be upholding John Paul's vision 
of a "culture of life." This has to be one of the biggest shams of all 
time. Yes, these politicians oppose abortion, but the number of 
abortions has in fact been going down steadily in America under both 
Republican and Democratic presidents since 1990 - some 40 percent in 
all. The same cannot be said of American infant fatalities, AIDS cases 
and war casualties - all up in the George W. Bush years. Meanwhile, 
potentially lifesaving phenomena like condom-conscious sex education 
and federally run stem-cell research are in shackles.

This agenda is synergistic with the entertainment culture of Mr. Bush's 
base: No one does the culture of death with more of a vengeance - 
literally so - than the doomsday right. The "Left Behind" novels by Tim 
LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins all but pant for the bloody demise of 
nonbelievers at Armageddon. And now, as Eric J. Greenberg has reported 
in The Forward, there's even a children's auxiliary: a 40-title series, 
"Left Behind: The Kids," that warns Jewish children of the hell that 
awaits them if they don't convert before it's too late. Eleven million 
copies have been sold on top of the original series' 60 million.

  These fables are of a piece with the violent take on Christianity 
popularized by "The Passion of the Christ." Though Mel Gibson brought a 
less gory version, with the unfortunate title "The Passion Recut," to 
some 1,000 theaters for Easter in response to supposed popular demand, 
there was no demand. (Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that at 
many screens the film sold fewer than 50 tickets the entire opening 
weekend.) "Passion" fans want the full scourging, and at the height of 
the protests outside the Schiavo hospice, a TV was hooked up so the 
assembled could get revved up by watching the grisly original on DVD.

  As they did so, Mr. Gibson interjected himself into the case by giving 
an interview to Sean Hannity asserting that "big guys" could "whip a 
judge" if they really wanted to stop the "state-sanctioned murder" of 
Ms. Schiavo. He was evoking his punishment of choice in "The Passion," 
figuratively, no doubt. It was only a day later that one such big guy, 
Tom DeLay, gave Mr. Gibson's notion his official imprimatur by vowing 
retribution against any judges who don't practice the faith-based 
jurisprudence of which he approves.

  This Wednesday the far right's cutting-edge culture of death gets its 
biggest foothold to date in the mainstream, when NBC broadcasts its 
"Left Behind" simulation, "Revelations," an extremely slick prime-time 
mini-series that was made before our most recent death watches but 
could have been ripped from their headlines. In the pilot a heretofore 
nonobservant Christian teenage girl in a "persistent vegetative state" 
- and in Florida, yet - starts babbling Latin texts from the show's New 
Testament namesake just as dastardly scientists ("devil's advocates," 
as they're referred to) and organ-seekers conspire to pull the plug. 
"All the signs and symbols set forth in the Bible are currently in 
place for the end of days," says the show's adult heroine, an 
Oxford-educated nun who has been denounced by the Vatican for her views 
and whose mission is underwritten by a wealthy "religious 
fundamentalist." Her Julie Andrews affect notwithstanding, she is an 
extremist as far removed from the mainstream as Mel Gibson, whose own 
splinter Traditionalist Catholic sect split from Rome and disowned the 
reforms of Vatican II, not the least of which was the absolution of 
Jews for collective guilt in the death of Jesus.

It's all too fitting that "Revelations," which downsizes lay government 
in favor of the clerical, is hijacking the regular time slot of "The 
West Wing." Perhaps only God knows whether it will prove as big a hit 
as "The Passion." What is clear is that the public eventually tires of 
most death watches and demands new meat. The tsunami disaster, 
dramatized by a large supply of vivid tourist videos that the genocide 
in Darfur cannot muster, was so completely forgotten after three months 
that even a subsequent Asian earthquake barely penetrated the nation's 
Schiavo fixation. But the media plug was pulled on Ms. Schiavo, too, 
once the pope took center stage; the funeral Mass her parents conducted 
on Tuesday was all but shunned by the press pack that had moved on to 
Rome. By the night of his death days later, even John Paul had worn out 
his welcome. The audience that tuned in to the N.C.A.A. semifinals on 
CBS was roughly twice as large as that for the NBC and ABC papal 
specials combined. The time was drawing near for the networks to 
reappraise the Nielsen prospects of Prince Rainier.

  If there's one lesson to take away from the saturation coverage of the 
pope, it is how relatively enlightened he was compared with the men in 
business suits ruling Washington. Our leaders are not only to the right 
of most Americans (at least three-quarters of whom opposed 
Congressional intervention in the Schiavo case) but even to the right 
of most American evangelical Christians (most of whom favored the 
removal of Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube, according to Time magazine). 
They are also, like Mel Gibson and the fiery nun of "Revelations," to 
the right of the largely conservative pontiff they say they revere. 
This is true not only on such issues as the war in Iraq and the death 
penalty but also on the core belief of how life began. Though the 
president of the United States believes that the jury is still out on 
evolution, John Paul in 1996 officially declared that "fresh knowledge 
leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a 

We don't know the identity of the corpse that will follow the pope in 
riveting the nation's attention. What we do know is that the reality 
show we've made of death has jumped the shark, turning from a soporific 
television diversion into the cultural embodiment of the apocalyptic 
right's growing theocratic crusade.

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