Cultural arbitration

As everyone knows (and keeps going on about), 2016 has been a pretty rubbish year. A couple of history making polls with Brexit getting up and Trump being elected, on top of an absolute swathe of cultural icons biting the dust.

In this last week or so there’s been of a last-minute rush as if to beat the 2017 deadline. George Michael died on Christmas day, then Carrie Fisher to worldwide hand-wring, followed by the death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, 24 hours later. It’s had a lot of people reaching for tissues, as well as the platitudes, and you can’t open anything on social media at the moment without being subjected to eulogies, tributes and general moaning.

I haven’t written much about the many deaths this year, mainly because everyone else has. I wrote something on Ali because he was a part of my cultural upbringing. There are others I might have written of – I was a great admirer of Bowie for example, and Max Walker likewise was someone I grew up around. Otherwise, though I’m as saddened as anyone, I find myself less surprised than most seem to be.

There’s a general belief that it’s been an extraordinary death toll this last 12 months, but simply from a statistical perspective it’s likely to continue. What’s happening is that the icons of our cultural age – roughly the last 50 years – are getting towards the end of their life. It hits harder because they’ve had such visibility for so long, more so than any previous age, and because they strike cultural chords. As in real life there will always be some – like Michael and Fisher – who die before their time. It seems rough, but it’s true also. We can expect more than this.

I know that sounds fatalistic, but it’s realistic really. And to be blunt, I’m a little weary from encountering perpetual tributes to these people. I understand, but there becomes a point that I feel the need to point out that good people die everyday, they just don’t have the celebrity. They leave behind people who loved them dearly, and mourn them fiercely. They’re just not as well known.

And I’m tired of people moaning about what a shithouse year 2016 has been. For liberals like me it has been, but you can bet there are plenty out there thinking it one of the best years ever. I dislike grizzling. I understand it up to a point and then I think it’s too much. Shit things happen, that’s life, you just have to deal with it and look forward to whatever comes next.

Something happened the other day in relation to the death of Carrie Fisher which I think is symptomatic of much these days. If she did nothing else Carrie Fisher would be forever famous because she was Princess Leia. As it happens she was also an intelligent, witty and entertaining woman who suffered the highs and lows and came out of it a wise survivor. She was easy to like, and easy to admire.

In the wake of her death social media was awash with tributes, mostly from the general public, but some from those who knew or who had worked with her.

One such tribute was from Steve Martin. He wrote – quite fondly I thought – of how when he was a kid Carrie Fisher was one of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. Later when he met her he discovered she was also a woman of wit and intelligence.

In hindsight it’s not surprising that this innocuous tweet came to be seen as offensive by the self-appointed arbiters of cultural taste. Social media is their natural habitat and boy do they like to sound-off.

Steve Martin’s crime was that he diminished Fisher as a person by making reference to her as a sex symbol to the boy he was. Of course he was much more sophisticated than that, but for the arbiters that’s what it boiled down to. Fisher, they argued, was much more than a schoolboy’s wet dream. She was an accomplished woman who deserved to be remembered for that.

I have a couple of issues with this, at least.

In the first place Martin’s tribute was respectful and gentle-humoured, and something I think Carrie Fisher would have been smart enough to appreciate. And in fact he emphasises the point that she was much more than what his boyish fantasies were capable of understanding. There was nothing rude or offensive in what he wrote, and there’s something wrong when some superficial intelligence can get up on a soapbox and dictate what we should feel about it.

That’s the other point. These feelings were true to Steve Martin. You can agree or disagree with them, but none of us can deny his right to feel them. We look at something, read a book, see a movie, meet someone, dream about a movie star, and so on, and the response is ours. It’s our possession, not anyone elses, not the book we read or the author who wrote it, not the movie directors, not the person we meet at a bar or see up on a screen. What we feel we carry inside ourselves, and becomes part of ourselves. It’s not anyone’s place to tell Steve Martin his memories are invalid, because they’re not.

No-one has the right to tell you what your response should be. Our response is our response, and most of it is visceral. Further to that – and this is a big problem these days – no-one has the right to tell us what we should think or feel. These arbiters who seem to know better than anyone else don’t have permission to dictate our feelings or opinions.

Speaking for myself I dislike being told what I should think or feel, dislike the sanctimony and cultural superiority that goes with so much of this opinion, not to mention the assumed expertise. All of which makes it condescending, if not plain wrong.

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