Christopher Hitchens is right about one thing — the media go nuts when somebody famous dies. Sure, report the news. Eulogize if appropriate. But don’t go on and on about somebody who is neither a member of the reader’s/viewer’s family, nor even a casual acquaintance. It’s just too much. (Today, it’s George Carlin, who, thanks to his having gotten us to snicker at dirty words, is now a "comic genius" and a "necessary iconoclast," whatever in the postmodernist world THAT means.)
This is a point of contention — mild contention, but contention nonetheless — between Robert Ariail and me. Robert comes into my office saying, "I know you don’t like these, but I was thinking of having (place name of deceased celebrity or newsmaker here) at the gate with St. Peter, and…" And I will groan or say, "Well, if you must, but don’t ask me to like it…" Personally, I want cartoons to be funny, and have a political bite. I’m not into maudlin.
So I can sort of dig where Mr. Hitchens is coming from. The difference between him and me is that he just can’t stand to let other people BE maudlin, and get on with his life — live and let live, would be the usual phrase. He has to complain about it. Just as he gets furious that other people believe in God, he can’t sit still until other people get over losing Tim Russert.
As usual, his piece in Slate is quite readable. But as commentary, it definitely breaks the "leave well enough alone" rule for getting along in civilized company. He makes like there are three "Russert miracles" he feels constrained to debunk, but I don’t think the first two really bothered him, especially since he LIKED Russert and had written nice stuff about him himself (he even got a tad maudlin). It’s really just the third one that ticks him off:
Last on the list of miracles (and do please beware anything that comes in threes) was the apparition of a huge and beautiful rainbow arcing over the Potomac as the mourners came up to the Kennedy Center rooftop for a reception. In the words of NBC News executive Phil Griffin, "After the magical experience of this service, to come out and see the rainbow and Luke at the bottom of it made the last dry eye weep." It was further pointed out that the last song at the memorial service had been "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Tim’s son, Luke, was quoted as asking, "Is anyone still an atheist now?"
Not pausing to answer that question, I think this media myth-making, however tongue-in-cheek some of it may be, helps our understanding of why people are theists. After all, just remember why we mourners of that day were gathered in the first place. One of our friends and colleagues had been struck stone dead by his coronary arteries, in the prime of life, at just the moment when he had been celebrating his son’s graduation. He had had everything to look forward to. For my part, I was distressed by all this, and sorry about it, which is why I donned a tie and went along to bow my head. But now I read that, because of room-temperature political politeness and the vagaries of the weather, I was supposed to have been grateful for the bereavement? What if it hadn’t been an election year? What if the network couldn’t have contacted a rock star? What if the sky had been merely sunny or had filled with lightning? Surely our mass media would adopt a tone of polite condescension if it was reporting on such primitive attitudes in the backlands of Alaska or Peru or Congo.
In other words, what got him was the usual thing.
But regarding the rest of it — I do take his point. I just try to be tolerant, and not rail against these things. What’s the point, other than to make other people in the world less happy, or less comforted, or whatever?