In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens writes of the contrast between the media’s attention to the death and funeral of Michael Jackson and that given to the 40th anniversary yesterday of the moonfall of Apollo 11. Headed "Celebrity Culture vs. The Right Stuff," the article confidently predicted that, a hundred years from now the name of Neil Armstrong will still shine brightly among the roll of America’s heroes while that of Michael Jackson will be long-forgotten. The fake moonwalker can hardly hope to live in the nation’s memory as the real one will.
I wish I could believe this too, but I’m very much afraid that it will be the other way around. In a characteristically brilliant and provocative article in The Times of London two weeks ago, Daniel Finkelstein explained why Michael Jackson may be the more significant figure in the long run as well as the short.
Why, given his status, did Jackson’s death make such an impact? Why was it covered wall to wall in upmarket newspapers as well as downmarket ones? Why did it attract more serious attention than the passing of Elvis and John Lennon, both of whom were undeniably more culturally important? The answer is not that newspapers and others got their assessment of Jackson wrong. It is that in the nearly 30 years since Lennon’s death society has changed fundamentally. The culture war that has been raging for 50 years or so has come to an end. And popular culture has won.
What he means by this is that, since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, politics has been largely a struggle between those who uphold the legacy of the 1960s, like Bill Clinton himself, and those who deplore it.
The trials and tribulations of Clinton can be best understood by seeing him as a generational politician fighting a knockdown battle against those who hated the 1960s and all it stood for, as he himself acknowledges in a pugnacious defence of that decade in Tom Brokaw’s Boom! A History of the 1960s Generation. No more. The battle is ending, the smoke is clearing. The wildest, stupidest ideas of the 1960s New Left have died out. And so too, slowly but surely, are the generations who came before the gap. . .The fact that across class, across race, among those of vastly different educational and material backgrounds an essentially innocuous showman like Michael Jackson can be big news is just one little sign that the culture war is done. We’re all pop fans now. Happy Xmas. War is Over.
But this can be true, I believe, only so long as we forget that there are also other kinds of wars. A couple of weeks ago, The Washington Post published a letter from Martha Gillis which used the same imagery as Mr Finkelstein and began like this: "My nephew, Brian Bradshaw, was killed by an explosive device in Afghanistan on June 25, the same day that Michael Jackson died. Mr. Jackson received days of wall-to-wall coverage in the media. Where was the coverage of my nephew or the other soldiers who died that week?" She went on to tell readers something about her nephew, including the facts that
He was a search-and-rescue volunteer, an altar boy, a camp counselor. He carried the hopes and dreams of his parents willingly on his shoulders. What more than that did Michael Jackson do or represent that earned him memorial "shrines," while this soldier's death goes unheralded? It makes me want to scream.
Ten days later, the Post published an op ed in the form of a letter to Lt. Bradshaw’s family from two members of the Georgia Air National Guard who had flown his body home and who described the impromptu but moving service with which his comrades in arms accompanied it to the airplane. They wanted to reassure the family that "though there may not have been any media coverage, Brian's death did not go unnoticed." It may be that our side, the side of Neil Armstrong and Bret Stephens and Brian Bradshaw, have lost the culture war, but in little out-of-the-way places we still practise our faith.