I’m willing to bet that this following repeat, written in the wake of the death of noted film critic Pauline Kael in 2001, was the first and last time Kael and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt were ever mentioned in the same piece of writing.
SEPTEMBER 6, 2001: Fetishizing the Dead
Let’s talk a second about fetishizing the dead. I got a letter today from a reader of mine who thinks NASCAR is a real professional sport (it is, actually, although so is arena football, so make of that what you will), dismissing Pauline Kael, the subject of a previous entry, as merely being a woman who complained about movies for a living and thus not worthy of being written about. This is direct payback for my comment in a previous Whatever about Dale Earnhardt having been a guy who made left turns for a living. His point being, it’s not nice to be mean to other people’s heroes, especially the recently dead ones.
I won’t get into the “my dead idol is better than your dead idol” debate, because there’s no way to win that little bit. Earnhardt means very little to me, but I’ll allow he means something to others. And I’ll cheerfully admit that the ratio of Dale Earnhardt fans to Pauline Kael fans is something on the order of 1000 to 1, so they’ve got the numbers on their side, even if I suspect raw IQ figures come out about equal. However, to the Kael fans’ credit, none of them are likely to put a sticker of Pauline Kael with a halo and wings on the back of their pickup truck, with a notation underneath that reads “God Needed a Movie Critic.”
It’s not that Kael or her fans are better than Earnhardt or his fans. But at least Kael’s fans aren’t likely to be so damned tacky about remembering her. No laser-etched coins. No lawn flags. No splinters from the true cross. No friggin’ commemorative wrench sets, for Christ’s sake. At most, Kael’s fans will buy a book of her writing, if they don’t already own it, which, given who Kael fans are, seems unlikely.
This is, I admit, almost entirely a class thing. Working class heroes are almost always fetishized after their deaths: Earnhardt being the most recent example, but Elvis being the secular pinnacle of the art (followed closely by Diana, princess of Wales, the fetishizers of the dead equivalent of Barbie). Whereas the dead among the purported intellectual class get tasteful obituaries in the short run and thick biographies later. I quite obviously prefer the latter over the former, if for no other reason than they take up less room.
Of course, not that it always works out this way, either: John Lennon started out in the tasteful intellectual camp but slogged his way into the crappy tchotcke camp. And Elvis is slowly working his way up the ladder, as the snobs begin to grudgingly admit there was something to the man besides his fat sequined period. They’ll meet somewhere in the middle, and won’t that be fun. I don’t expect either Earnhardt or Kael to budge, however, from their respective positions on the fetish pole. Who wants a book on the semiotics of Earnhardt? Or a commemorative Kael pencil and legal pad set?
As I mentioned in the earlier Whatever, if you’re an Earnhardt fan and you want a flag, or a bumper sticker or a laser-etched coin, fine. Have it if it makes you happy. But I do think you ought to think about why it’s being offered to you — the people feeding you this crap are doing so not because they want to commemorate Dale (or Elvis, or Diana, or whomever), but because they know that you’re willing to spend good money on it. You’re buying crap. Not that there’s a market for laser-etched Kael coins, but if there were, and someone I knew bought one, I’d call him a damn fool for doing it, too. People should remember the dead for what they mean to them, not for the merchandise to be had after their demise. Save your money and remember your heroes in your heart and mind, not in your wallet.