The deification of Kobe Bryant has left many people dumbfounded–but not from grief. A friend in Los Angeles called me this morning and shared a rant:
My workplace is having Kobe Bryant Day. We are all supposed to wear purple and yellow in mourning. This makes me really uncomfortable. I’m sorry the guy died, but I didn’t know him. I don’t follow basketball. He had nothing to do with me, my life, or my job. He didn’t die because of a selfless act of public good. He died because of bad luck and his decision to skip LA’s traffic.
Since Bryant died, mourners have swarmed the Staples Center where the Lakers play, erecting mountains of pictures, candles, flowers, balloons, and cards. Fans have erected giant posters where others may scrawl their thoughts. Vendors fill the streets hawking Kobe Bryant memorabilia. No doubt tattoo artists are inking Bryant’s face on arms and shoulders by the hundreds.
Downtown Los Angeles has become one giant Kobe Bryant shrine.
Meanwhile, celebrities and talking heads have been wailing, rending their garments, and throwing ashes on their heads in performative grief.
Anyone who points out the double standard between the attention on Bryant’s death and the deaths of others has met with a hailstorm of condemnation. Major General John Evans wrote on Twitter:
I think my detractors here made my case for me – no one life is any more important than another – regardless the celebrity. Look forward to them Retweeting the story about SPC Moore to demonstrate their conviction.
— MG John R. Evans (@CG_ArmyROTC) January 27, 2020
General Evans and others may be missing a key point: the circus around Bryant’s helicopter crash has little or nothing to do with Bryant. It has to do with a secularized society’s increasingly unhinged relationship with death.
In a culture gripped by nihilism (the philosophical conviction that existence is meaningless and useless), death takes on tremendous mystery and significance. One might suppose the opposite would happen, but not so.
The succession of public deaths–whether school children murdered by a mass shooter or a sports star cut down in his prime–monopolizes public attention and reignites quasi-religious rituals and soul searching.
The honored dead are transformed into idols of innocence, thence into minor personal gods in the postmodern pantheon (c.f. Michael Jackson, Pablo Escobar). The public transmogrifies these notable deaths into something personal to THEM, a sacrifice THEY have made to the universe’s destructive force.
Worship of the dead is nothing new. The distinction between the ancient worship of the dead and the present worship of the dead seems to be only shelf life. Dead Roman emperors were often worshipped for generations; but modern deceased idols get replaced yearly or even monthly, like obsolete iPhones, as new versions become available.
On occasion, the culture renews old idols because of a popular book or movie, only for them to slip quickly into obscurity again (c.f. Freddie Mercury and Sharon Tate).
The modern American fascination with death surrounds us. Halloween now rivals Christmas in the extent of its observance. TV shows and movies about murder, zombies, vampires, dead celebrities, and serial killers fill our entertainment space. Were a human or extra-terrestrial wholly unfamiliar with modern Western culture to happen upon us, he could be forgiven for concluding that sex and death preoccupy most of our waking thoughts.
The Biblical prophets cautioned against the pagan practice of excessive mourning and deification of dead mortals. Their wisdom seems to be validated once again.
Focus on loss of life after a while pulls attention from the source of life. Death becomes God, and the notable dead become Death’s saints. The search for significance in Bryant’s and similar deaths distracts from the search for significance in one’s own life.
Were I among Kobe Bryant’s close friends or family, I would find all this fanfare profoundly disrespectful. A human being with flaws and talents has been co-opted to an unwell culture’s morbid fascinations and insecurities.
What might be a more fitting farewell? Shakespeare probably said it best:
“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”