Whatever X, Day XVI

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.

27 Comments on “Whatever X, Day XVI”

  1. It could be worse: if NASCAR was like the Catholic Church then Dale would have been dried, chipped, and distributed as relics to tracks all around the country.
    (Disclaimer: I say this with love as a practicing Catholic)

  2. And it was interesting to see Dale Earnhardt’s fans transfer their loyalties intact to his son after his death, mostly I think because of the family connection, rather than his son’s talent.

    (Disclaimer: My cousin is a retired Nascar driver. I mean no disrespect)

  3. This reminds me of the end of “Waiting for Guffman” when Guffman trots out his Das Boot lunchboxes etc.

  4. I wonder if another distinction, related to class and intellect, might be the level of comprehension of the hero’s accomplishment. For example, most of Kael’s fans can imagine emulating the process involved in her reviews (watching the film, thinking about it, dissecting its themes, etc.), whereas the fans of Elvis, Dale, Diana, etc. see their accomplishments as almost mystical, certainly something none of them could aspire to, despite the fact that the raw accomplishments (singing, driving, marrying well) are certainly common ones.

  5. In the interest of full disclosure, if you go before I do, my retirement plan is to sell commemorative Scalzi bacon with pictures of cats on the label.

  6. The one thing I take away from all this is there will be no market for commemorative Andy Dick crap.

    Unless it celebrates his demise. Then I’m opening an eBay storefront, baby!!!

  7. I had a similar experience in Summer 1995 when Mickey Mantle and Jerry Garcia died at the same time. Any time I mentioned the different media reaction — and my own modest loss at the death of Garcia — some yahoo or another at school felt the need to indicate that Mantle was somehow objectively more important. Very strange need to defend their lost hero.

  8. Alex,

    I will agree with you re: Princess Diana. Her “fans” almost certainly view her on the same level as Belle, Ariel and Jasmine; mythical, untouchable.

    But as to the fans of Elvis and Dale, I would disagree. Your statement that the majority of their fans cannot comprehend their achievements I view as an insult, and the worst kind of insult, an inadvertent, pitying insult. How far you must be above those retards playing in the muck and admiring the accomplishments of a singer and a driver. I bet they don’t even understand how easy it is to sing and to drive!

    C’mon, man. Aren’t we a little self-congratulatory today?

  9. @The Pathetic Earthling

    That’s because Mantle indeed was objectively more important.

    (Disclaimer: I’m a Yankee fan)

  10. PeterL 11: Mickey Mantle was some kind of sports guy, I take it?

    I always thought “the Mickey Mantle” was referring to the fact that Mickey Mouse was worn out, and Disney never really found another character of like prominance to pass the Mickey Mantle to.

  11. Seriously, Mantle was quite elderly when he passed on, and his baseball career was definitively over. Garcia, on the other hand, had he lived could have given much more to the world. The loss of a career cut short is different from the passing of a long-retired icon, however revered.

  12. Has anyone here run across Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, St. Dale? I”ll try to provide an Amazon link, just in case, but it’s not only about the “cult of celebrity” that the Amazon description mentions. It’s about exactly what we’re talking about here–the tendency of people to need/create “secular saints.” It’s also a good read, in my opinion, even for a reader who knows nothing about NASCAR and cares less.

    http://www.amazon.com/St-Dale-Sharyn-McCrumb/dp/0758207778/ref=pd_bbs_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221581217&sr=8-1>St. Dale

  13. As someone who is playing Pink Floyd all day because of the passing of keyboard player Richard Wright, I suppose I shouldn’t get into this. I even changed my desktop wallpaper to the cover of Animals. I kinda doubt I’ll be finding any memorial merchandise; I don’t think Wright’s estate will be too strapped for cash.

  14. F1 fans are of a higher class. If we want something that commemorates Ayrton Senna we get an Acura NSX.

    I kid. While not as pervasive as Dale crap – in America at least – there is still plenty of Senna related kitsch out there to be had. Well, at least he could turn right.

  15. @Xopher #13

    As influential and socially relevant as the Dead were (and still are), that doesn’t diminish what Mickey Mantle was and what his accomplishments (and his many detriments) were to the public. Of course Garcia could have created more music, but the bulk of his legacy will be what he did earlier in his career and that production is still relevant today even if he wrote it and performed it long ago. And that is the same with Mantle. His accomplishments and the feelings of awe and amazement they engendered are no less relevant to a vast number of people even though he wasn’t creating new memories on the field. And while I admit that Garcia may indeed prove to be the more lastingly relevant celebrity, I do think that at the time of their respective deaths Mantle’s weighed more heavily on a larger number of people.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that Deadheads are just sore losers when it comes to competitive mourning.

  16. “Who wants a book on the semiotics of Earnhardt?”

    Well, I would absoultely buy a copy.

    Eris: I have purchased, but not consumed (they were a gift for a co-worker), Earnhardt commemorative Kit-Kat bars and Earnhard commemorative Easy Cheese (not a gift for a co-worker, I just bought it for sheer kitch value).

  17. Excellent points.

    Would I be broaching one of those taboo subjects by asking if the events (and subsequent reactions) 5 days after you wrote this have changed or reaffirmed your assertions here?

    I mean if you want to talk fetishizing (mass) dead, look beyond the simple plethora of WTC merchandise and look at the RNC continuing to use 9-11 as a drumbeat for their cause.

    (standard liberal caveat: I lost a friend that day, too.)

  18. In the wake of DFW’s death, this seems weirdly… appropriate is the wrong word, because I think he was just as well respected in life than he will be in death. But, I find it rather interesting that you posted it just a few days after the event.

  19. “I kid. While not as pervasive as Dale crap – in America at least – there is still plenty of Senna related kitsch out there to be had. Well, at least he could turn right.”

    Well Dale also had to turn both left and right in at least two races each year.

    George

  20. It’s hardly about death and remembrance at all, in my opinion, it’s more about modern self-selected tribal identification and the badges that signify it. People really get into collecting those things . . .

  21. Thpppt. That’s all this stupid NASCAR fan can come up with. Grief is a very personal thing. Who cares if you think one way is tacky and another way is tasteful. Why insult people over something like this? Sure commemorative tool sets are financially motivated, so? Like a coffin maker is in it for some other reason? Like a florist isn’t in it for the money. Puleez. They bury the casket with you and the flowers wilt. But hey if it makes em feel better what’s the harm to you?

  22. I try not to question people’s grief.

    I remember when Princess Diana died, I nearly hurt my eyes with all the rolling. All this idiotic fuss about some rich lady that none of these people would ever meet!

    But then a month later John Denver died and I was depressed for days. I wasn’t what you could call a huge fan (though I did like him a lot), but his records were part of my childhood and I was very sad when he died. And then I remembered how sad I’d been about Frank Zappa, and Freddy Mercury, and Jerry Garcia. I decided then not to diss on people’s mourning for celebrities anymore; it was hypocritical.

    But… even so, I do think there’s a difference, sometimes. In the same way that some people are famous for being famous, some people are mourned for being mourned. I have no doubt that some people mourned Dale Earnhardt because he had genuinely touched their lives… but I’m equally sure that some of them bought the laser-etched coins and other tchotchkes because their tribe was buying tchotchkes and it seemed like the thing to do.

    Sending a message that you’re expected to care deeply about something, that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t–and how will anyone know how much you care if you don’t buy this crap?–is a really good way to sell crap. And yeah, I do think some of the Dale Earnhardt mourners–and the Princess Diana mourners, and the Anna Nicole Smith mourners, and so on–bought that line of bullshit. Not all of them, though.