A little over forty-eight years ago, on the morning of November 25, 1963, a casket containing the body of President John F. Kennedy left the White House on a horse-drawn caisson and traveled slowly to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. It was accompanied on foot by members of the funeral procession, including the president’s widow. After the funeral mass the procession resumed, crossing the Potomac to Arlington Cemetery, where President Kennedy’s body was interred.
Virtually everyone in the country who was not present at these events watched them on television. The occasion resulted in any number of photographs that remained iconic for decades afterwards: The flag-covered casket resting on the catafalque in the Capitol; the tiny Kennedy children standing hand-in-hand with their mother; a veiled Jacqueline Kennedy behaving with suitable gravity and decorum, bearing up stoically, weeping when appropriate, and walking slowly in the procession behind her husband’s body; the Kennedy brothers standing solemnly at the graveside; little John Jr. saluting his father.
In the years afterwards, of course, all those icons were demystified, one by one. Except among the most hardcore romantic liberals, the Kennedy myth disappeared. At the same time, as irony and cynicism became predominant in popular culture, respect for solemn ceremony and public decorum declined.
To look back on the footage and photos from November 1963 is to gaze through a window into a different world. As L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Fast-forward to December 2011.
Yesterday I read a news story from Texas about one of those all-too-common domestic tragedies: a man shot his wife and four children before killing himself. The response of the surrounding community to this horrific event is shown in the photograph below.
Tableaux of this nature have become de rigueur in the wake of incidents involving violent death. Whether inflicted by other human beings, caused by accidents, or brought about by natural events, the violence provokes the same response: flowers, candles, and teddy bears heaped at or near the site of the tragedy.
This form of public mourning was already in evidence in the aftermath of 9-11. It has become even more frequent over the course of the past decade, with piles of teddy bears guaranteed to appear as soon as the circumstances of the event become publicly known. The greater the death toll — or the more horrific the method of slaughter — the larger the heap of stuffed animals, candles, flowers, and cards. In the wake of the July 22 massacre in Oslo, the pile of commemorative bric-a-brac appeared to cover acres of public space.
To investigate this phenomenon any further runs the risk of appearing mean-spirited and curmudgeonly. It is certainly difficult to deny the sincerity of the feelings expressed by the mourners through the medium of teddy bears and floral cards. One presumes these memorial heaps are created by people who generally mean well, who are overcome by their emotions and can find no more suitable method of dealing with them.
But how did we come to this? How did our public reactions to tragic events become so insipid, so maudlin, so inescapably trite?
At some point between the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the death of Princess Diana in
1996 1997, the accepted form of public mourning shifted away from formal ceremony using time-honored rituals. The solemn state funeral gave way to Elton John and stuffed animals. The Book of Common Prayer was discarded and replaced by schlock, kitsch, and hackneyed sentimentality.
Inspiring oratory has all but disappeared from public occasions. Politicians and preachers deliver bromides. We are regaled with clichés and bombarded with truisms.
We are, in a word, awash in banality.
Then there are the candlelit vigils. The worst tragedies bring out masses of people who carry candles in public spaces after dark and leave them on walls and sidewalks where the TV video crews can capture them for the late-night news. The more deliberately vile the slaughter, the larger the vigil.
This is one of the most meaningless rituals of our time. A terrorist blows up a bus full of school children, and the standard response is to light a candle and stand in a public square for the television cameras.
Does that make sense?
What makes it a meaningful action?
It was not so long ago that abominations such the mass murder of children provoked a different reaction from the general populace in Western countries. Instead of candles, torches were carried, along with whatever weapons came to hand. Under such circumstances local political leaders were hard-pressed to prevent the dispensing of rough justice.
But not any longer. We are more civilized now. We light candles and heap up flowers instead.
One does not have to approve of vigilante action to recognize that the pitchforks-and-torches response is more rational and more sane than the candlelight vigil. Knee-jerk sentimentality in the face of deliberately-inflicted mass slaughter is evidence of a deep mental dysfunction at the collective level. Our societies seem to have lost the ability to respond effectively to forces that threaten them.
In immunological terms, we no longer produce antibodies that will engulf and destroy deadly invaders.
The Teddy Bear and Candle Syndrome is part of a larger process of cultural degradation that has proceeded unimpeded over the past half-century. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, time-hallowed customs and institutions have been eroded and have disappeared.
One may posit various causes for the deterioration of our common culture. The patient efforts of the Frankfurt School and its “long march through the institutions” are often cited as a major source of cultural destruction. And the near-disappearance of publicly expressed religion has taken its toll — without the spiritual insights and rituals of religion to contain our grief, we are left without meaningful guidance in our behavior.
The largest portion of blame, however, may be assigned to the emergence of new communication technologies. The ubiquity of television — which performed such an important function for Americans during their solemn mourning on November 25, 1963 — eventually dissolved most of the cultural glue that held our social traditions together. It opened up the younger generation to stimulation and excitement at a level never previously known. It created, through both advertising and general programming, a yearning for the glamorous and exotic sensual world repeatedly depicted on the glowing screen.
The medium itself changed between 1950 and the end of the century. In its early years television was like visual radio, with announcers and actors standing in a static setting and talking or acting in front of a relatively fixed camera. Over the decades, however, the cutting and pacing of television images became steadily more frequent and frenetic. During their most formative years, young minds were presented with these rapidly changing visual and auditory stimuli for hours every day. Neurological studies have shown that the fast-paced cutting actually causes changes in the physical structure of the brain. Children raised under such circumstances grow up processing information in a different manner than they would without television. This long-term effect is independent of the content of the programming — it depends solely on the medium itself.
New interactive means of communication have been inserted into this fertile mental environment over the last twenty years. Cell phones, texting, notebook computers, hand-held devices — all of these media have increased the fragmentation of communication and further shortened the interactions between people. Lengthy and thoughtful exchanges with others become less frequent, and commonly-experienced events are replaced with networking and “cocooning”.
None of these changes has removed the need for emotional satisfaction and catharsis, however. Human nature has not been abolished. When terrible events strike, there are no longer any common rituals to help contain the disturbing emotions that arise. The suffering individual turns to those sources of information with which he is familiar — television, Facebook, Twitter, and so on — and finds his way into the crowd converging on the public square or bomb-blast site, holding a teddy bear and a candle. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the new rituals have poured into the emptiness left by the departure of the ancient ones.
The form of these new rituals is dictated by the feminized zeitgeist, which demands the inhibition of all expressions of negative or violent feelings. The shaking of fists is out. The laying on of flower bouquets is in.
We have become a teddy-bear people.
The cheapening and coarsening of public culture long predates the arrival of television, of course. Writers between the wars frequently bemoaned the commercialization and materialism of their times. In his 1938 poem “A Week to Christmas” (Part XX of a much longer poem, “Autumn Journal”) Louis MacNeice wrote disparagingly of “gimcracks in the shops”. Presumably he was thinking of a toy shop such as this one, on Wine Street in Bristol, photographed during the Christmas season of the same year:
If the poet were carried forward in time to the Christmas season of 2011 — which began not in December, but in October, and includes virtually no references to Christ — would he be astonished at the level of further gimcrackery to which Western culture has descended?
Would he realize that, culturally speaking, his own time was halcyon compared with our own?
Would he understand that the Socialist sentiments he shared with his fellow interwar poets bore a large share of the responsibility for the destruction of Western culture — which is now all but complete?
So here we are, closing out the Year of Our Lord 2011 with reindeer and snowmen and Santa Clauses and all the other gimcracks.
Here we are with heaps of teddy bears and candles whenever another gunmen kills eight or ten people in his former place of employment.
Here we are with tattoos, piercings, ghetto gear, texting, reality TV, “get over it”, and “whatever”.
It’s no wonder that Islam is making such inroads into the Western world. Our spiritual vacuum can scarcely be filled with stuffed animals and flowers.
But nature abhors that vacuum, so it will be filled with something.