Today a man died and the world watched. He captivated the world’s imagination first through his talent, and later through his increasingly bizarre persona, and the chronic secrecy with which he veiled himself. By the end of the day there will barely be anybody in the Western world who won’t have heard this news, and probably not a great number of people in other parts of the world either. People will say many things about him in public. Most will be nice, and will overlook the sordid. Some will be sarcastic and unkind. I may even sitfle a snicker at some of these. There will be mountains of flowers, cards and weeping fans. There will be memorial services, and his music will be played ad nauseum for the next couple of weeks. People may remember but will not talk much about the fact that he was accused of inappropriate relationships with children, that he was an emotionally and socially damaged individual, and that he has forced his own three children to live largely as reclusive prisoners throughout their childhood. People may reflect on the fact that he too had his childhood taken from him at an early age, in an industry where a talented and precocious child will be swallowed whole and destroyed without the slightest twinge of concience.
Today, about thirty thousand men, women and children will succomb to complications of the AIDS virus, a disease which effectively disables a person’s immune system, leaving them vulnerable to any disease, however mundane, to invade their bodies and slowly break them down until their shell can no longer support life. Most of these people will die in underdeveloped portions of underdeveloped countries. Some of these people will die alone, in anonymity, or under a blanket of stigma associated with the disease. Some will receive a small memorial service and some flowers. The families of many will not be able to afford such things. Nobody beyond their immediate families and friends will know of their names, know where they are buried, or remember them. Their stories will never be told. The mark they left during their passage on earth will not be known.
Today, hundreds of people will be violently killed in tribal violence in Darfur, Southern Sudan, northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They will die alone with the malice directed at them and their names and fates may never be discovered. Today dozens of people will die in shootings, bombings and air-raids in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We may hear of their fate as a footnote on our evening news report. Today, thousands of children under the age of five will die in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and a dozen other sub-Saharan African nations because they don’t have access to a sufficiently nutritious diet, clean water, and public health care. The youngest may not even have names, and they may be remembered even by their parents as nothing more than a number. “I have six children, and three who died”.
Death is an inescapable part of the world we live in. It is a passage to something new. Some believe it marks the start of a journey to a second life, or to a rebirth here on this earth, and may find cause for hope. Others believe it is the end of the seething brew of cerebral chemical reactions that define who we are as people, and that our molecules simply return to the physical universe from which they were once bonded. The process of death itself may be painful, it may be frightening, sometimes it can even be beautiful. Mostly, when we mourn it, we mourn for ourselves who are left behind by it, and the loss we must move on with in our own lives.
Death brings cause for reflection. It is why we celebrate it with services and wakes, why people in offices across Australia and the rest of the world will make small-talk over coffee-machines and water-coolers about the passing of Mr. Jackson for the rest of Friday, and why, two weeks from now, we will be begging our news providers to please, for the love of all that is precious, stop talking about Michael Jackson.
And so my question for you today is this. What is it that makes the death of a single musician cause for global reflection? Why will one man be the subject of thousands of hours worth of broadcasting time, while the deaths of today’s 30,000 AIDS victims, or the hundreds of people who will die in violent warfare, or the thousands of children who will slowly succomb to disease, will probably not be mentioned? What does it say about our society, about our media, about the authority in our lives, and about our priorities, when we will remain comfortably oblivious to the death of innocents, but publically mourn the loss of a single man as though he represents something about us. A man who suffered terrible social and emotional problems. A man whose last two decades of life appeared, from the outside at least, to merit great sadness and pity in as much as they clearly drew scorn and harsh mockery. A man who probably placed the wellbeing of several children, including his own, in jeopardy. A man who, materially-speaking, had everything a human being could possibly have imagined or aspired to in wealth and fame, and yet lived in tragic isolation and died young. Is this man our spokesperson? Our role-model? Does he represent what is important in our culture? And is our inability to reflect on the suffering of thousands a symptom of ignorance? Of callousness? An unwillingness to be challenged to change? Or will we simply, as we do so often, shrug off the question and say, “yes, well, that’s just how big media is and we can’t expect them to change”?
I don’t write to criticise. I don’t mourn the death of Michael Jackson personally as, to me, he meant nothing. I felt sympathy for him while he lived, and I feel sympathy that by the time his life ended prematurely, there is little about him to suggest he had found peace. There is nothing here to gloat over or to celebrate. But I take it as an opportunity to reflect, as death has wont. Likewise, I don’t criticize people unaware of or unable to grapple with issues of international poverty and humanitarianism. This is my paradigm and I don’t inflict it on others. But I do encourage people to think, to challenge themselves, and to risk asking big questions and so expand their own horizons and ways of thinking.
Note: Many people who read this blog left comments on my Facebook profile a few weeks ago when I raised a similar, less wordy question about the crash of AF447. They were thoughtful, intelligent and measured, and for those responses I thank you.