It wasn’t really about Gerald Ford: the feeding habits of social vultures

February 10, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

After Gerald Ford died, we had non-stop ceremonies, processions, rituals and headlines.  Except for his family and close friends, though, most of us didn’t really know him.

What did Gerald Ford’s death mean?  A few days before the funeral, a state worker told me that a former president died and that “everybody gets the day off.”  I suspect that there was very little mourning done by state workers on this day off. 

The social vultures smelled the national spotlight, though, and they descended to partake.  After all, did you ever hear of anyone overdosing on notoriety?

Almost nobody discussed Gerald Ford in the months and years before he died. He was ignored until he died.  There is no logical reason why Ford’s death should make his life interesting. If his accomplishments were worthy of discussion at all, they would have been compelling topics while he was alive.  My suggestion:  The nonstop public rituals following Ford’s death were not really about Ford.  They were opportunities to gather together in Machiavellian fashion to pursue our own needs and wants.

I know that this sounds counter-intuitive, but please hear me out.  Almost every time you see tremendous energy being put into rituals or festivities, it’s not about the thing that people claim that it is about.  Whenever you see such great social energy being poured into anything, it’s about relationships among the living.  It’s not the thing on the stage.   We feed off of corpses, especially famous corpses, whether they be Gerald Ford, Princess Diana or Jesus. 

Think of weddings, for instance, especially the angst people experience deciding who gets invited and where they will sit during the reception.  That’s where the energy goes.  The bride and groom are almost incidental, especially if they are young and as-yet unconnected, socially speaking.

For most people, celebrating the Fourth of July isn’t really about Independence from England—most people don’t even think of England on the Fourth of July.  I don’t hear anyone shouting: “Thank God I’m not British!” 

As if it isn’t obvious enough, the materialistic orgy we call Christmas is not really about Jesus.  Instead, these gatherings of large numbers of people are excuses to discern and test each others’ loyalty toward one another, often through the exchange of material goods.  The corpse, the flag and the crucifix are not real players in these swirls of activity, though they are at the center of the activity.  They function like the eyes of social hurricanes.

For most people, participation in large public events is about trying to get invited, trying to get a piece of the action and trying to be seen. It’s especially about being seen with others who one perceives to be important. Private affirmations of loyalty are cheap compared to these public displays of camaraderie.  Everybody uses their wiles to proclaim, through their attendance (and their manner in which they present themselves), that they are somebodies.  I’m not suggesting, by the way, that people are conscious of these motives that drive them.

When a celebrity is the center of attention, it really cranks up the social sunlight.   There’s nothing like the rich and famous to bring out more of the rich and famous. And, of course, us non-celebrity wanna-be’s would have a hard time resisting an invitation.  Getting close to fame is a narcotic.   It’s about who is publicly deemed to be an ally and who is not.  It is about whether one is cool or not. Hey, I got to sit right behind [Mr. Famous Person].  It’s about who gets to shake the hand of whom and who gets to sit at the front of the church, or who got an especially close into the casket.  It’s about who is included and who is excluded. Fame is entropic; get close enough and you, too, will glow.  Then you can run off to tell your friends that you rubbed elbows with people you normally see only on TV, doing your best to act like it was no big deal to you.  That’s what other celebrities try to do–they, too, act like it’s no big deal as they drop names right and left.
Formal public gatherings are social leks. 

[ “Leks” are gatherings of males of certain species of animal for the purposes of competitive mating display, held before and during the breeding season, day after day. The same group of males meet at a traditional place and take up the same individual positions on an arena, each occupying and defending a small territory or court. Intermittently or continuously, they spar individually with their neighbours or put on extravagant visual or aural displays (mating “dances” or gymnastics, plumage displays, vocal challenges, etc.).]

We don’t like to think of big formal public events in this way, of course.    It is too unbecoming of sophisticated people to act in such a self-interested way.  “No . . . We were there for the deceased president, or at least for his family,” they will insist.

Participation in large public rituals is always about social validation.  Such validation is critically important because we are unswervingly social beings.  We are nothing without each other, despite what we want to believe.  Being somebody has always been a life and death issue, ultimately related the ability of people to acquire resources.  When we associate with important people, we improve our chances of obtaining important resources.  It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, you know.

One must really be receiving a payoff to go to big public events, because the cost is so high.  Small children know this and shout out the truth.  Public ceremonies are inevitably tedious and boring.   And it’s not just that we have to invest substantial time to attend.  We invest our energies in many other ways in preparations for large public gatherings.  Getting that expensive haircut. Buying that expensive outfit.  Giving up lots of things that would really be more fun, like riding a bicycle, going to a movie or having sex. 

The media really savors events like the death of Gerald Ford. The media drools over these events because the events themselves are easily covered.  The organizers publish schedules of the parades and funerals ahead of time; all a reporter needs to do is show up (and bring that photographer!).  The media loves civic displays following deaths of famous people because the festivities include celebrities, and the media know we love celebrities. We love them more than we love the people we live with, we think.

But what the media loves most about funerals of celebrities is that stories about these funerals can distract us from real problems. Why not follow the corpse around for five days But, remember, the stories are not really about the corpse.—read those stories and you’ll see the unrelenting name-dropping.  The corpse doesn’t do anything interesting at the funeral (if it were otherwise, what a story that would be!).  Instead, we reminisce, read poems, sing songs, pull flags down to half mast and talk about what a great guy the dead man was, this man who we didn’t find interesting prior to his death.

False issues are constantly distracting the media from covering real issues. That’s the way the media likes it, because laudable news reporting is expensive; investigative news and careful analysis of complex happenings takes hours and hours of dedication highly skilled people. Unfortunately, there are so many false issues (actually, the number is unlimited) that the mainstream media–the corporate media–has unending opportunities to never-actually-get-around-to-covering real issues. In ten years, the media will have specials on the 10th year anniversary of the death of Gerald Ford.

Was the death of Gerald Ford worth a headline or two? Yes. But then it was time to move on, at least for all those people who don’t fear the lack of distractions.

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Scholar says:

    I didn't have any special attachment to Ford, or significant knowledge about him (a bit before my time, I guess). I was however, thrilled to be taking a day off to "celebrate his life", since the office was closed and I would get paid for *holiday* time.

    Later that week, I found out that the "celebration" would be taken out of my *vacation* time, and was not counted as a holiday. (Turns out the company I work for didn't recognize the holiday, despite MY specific office being closed for that exact reason). So, Ford's death "affected" me in a unique way. Interesting to note how quickly my sentiment about Ford changed too, once I heard that my "holiday" turned into *vacation*.

    I had better start saving my vacation time for when GHWB dies.

  2. Devi says:

    I'm going to need at least a month to celebrate that holiday. Guess I'll start saving now, too!

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