Overstatement of the Decade

From Andrew Sullivan:

The untimely death of the great Whitney Houston cannot but provoke intense sadness.


The deaths of more than 25,000 children in the Somalian famine and brutality cannot but provoke intense sadness.

The ongoing enslavement of 27 million people worldwide, many of them women and girls in sexual bondage, cannot but provoke intense sadness.

The bloody repression in Syria cannot but provoke intense sadness.

(They would also provoke intense anger, but Andrew’s statement isn’t limited to sadness).

Cue George Will, from 1997, on the reactions to Princess Diana’s death:

When it is the celebrity of the deceased that triggers behavior that gets identified as “grief” and “suffering,” what words remain to describe what occurs in, say, a pediatric oncology ward?

Enough.  She had a great voice.  She sang some really silly songs.  She destroyed herself, with an assist from entertainment industry culture.  That is all.

UPDATE:  But if you must, here’s a song about it:

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

17 thoughts on “Overstatement of the Decade”

  1. I don’t see why there needs to be a sadness competition. No doubt Sullivan is sad for the other people you mentioned too.

    Also, there’s no cause of death yet. We shouldn’t be judging her. It could have just been an accident. And addiction can happen to anyone. I still feel kind of guilty for harboring unkind assumptions when FloJo died. And I liked her a lot more.

  2. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan was making a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, statement about the American public.

    As an observation about the American public, I think he’s correct — Houston’s death will provoke more sadness than all of the thing’s you mentioned combined.

  3. Reminds me of Stalin’s immortal line: “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

  4. I think her music was better than you do, but yeah, your general point is accurate. We are now on our third day of all-Whitney all-the-time on CNN. Enough already.

    1. Doesn’t your TV remote have a power off switch? Or a channel changer?

      Obviously, people have a connection, even if it’s one they made up in their heads, to a celebrity such as Whitney, and her untimely passing makes them sad. That doesn’t change anything for the other horror stories in the world, but for most people, they just have no personal connection. That’s a shame but a fact.

      I never met Jeffrey Zaslow and only exchanged e-mails with him once, but reading his stories in the WSJ and especially about Randy Pausch, I guess I built a similar “personal connection.” Frankly, his sudden passing bothered me more than I expected, and for me, it was more of an event than what happened to Whitney (never much of a fan). C’est la vie.

  5. Oh, come on, Jonathan. Are you trying to get page views or are you seriously this ignorant?

    The death of a human we know personally evokes EMOTIONAL grief. The death (or suffering otherwise) of large numbers of people we don’t know evokes “LOGICAL grief”, but it doesn’t hook into empathy and our emotions in the same way — humans just aren’t built that way. To claim otherwise is, quite simply, to lie. As I said — for better or worse HUMANS ARE NOT BUILT THAT WAY.
    As for not knowing Whitney Houston, well, the whole point of celebrity it that it creates a sort of ersatz personal knowledge.

    I myself have precious little interest in her death, but I am not surprised that there are a large number of people who all, for different reasons, from lusting after her younger self, to admiration at a black woman doing well in the world, to wrestling with their own addictions, feel that, in some way they have lost someone they knew personally. And to berate them for being upset is not much different from complaining, to a person weeping at their spouse’s funeral: “What is wrong with you? I didn’t see you crying yesterday for the suffering of Syria?”

  6. Wow. Just wow.

    I don’t care for her music in the least, though I recognize she had a phenomenal singing voice. I know there has been a lot of media coverage, and I can understand a bit of burn-out. And I’m not particularly saddened at the news personally. But damn! That’s gotta be about the most dickish thing I’ve read all week. Having a bad day Jonathan?

    Did I miss something – has the toxicology report come back already? Maybe I’m misreading, but there seems to be a fair amount of speculative judgment in that post. She “destroyed herself”? In all the news reports I’ve seen on the subject, I haven’t seen a thing to suggest the death scenario from “Shooting Star” is in any way descriptive of the circumstances of her passing. Last I heard they found no illegal drugs in the room.

    You could be right. She might have destroyed herself in the way you infer. You can say “I told you so” if that turns out to be the case. But that doesn’t change a thing for those who grieve. I thought it was an awfully cold statement to put out there in public.

    That said, I will be glad when they quit playing snippets of “I Will Always Love You” over and over. That song makes my head hurt!

  7. Remember what your mother taught you. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

  8. Really? All Sullivan said was “intense sadness,” not “the most profound sadness ever felt” – or something like that. When someone like Whitney Houston dies there is a sadness for what might have been. Sure, one can say her wounds were mostly self-inflicted. But the demon of addiction is one that afflicts millions in the US and those of us who have lost a loved one to such addictions can relate to Whitney’s struggle. You overstate his comment to make a point about other things over which we as a society should feel sadness. However, your point would be better made if you had found some other way to make it rather than de-legitimizing another’s emotions.

  9. You know, I tend to agree with you. And I even agree with Will’s sentiment–but he used it with a horrible example, of a young woman killed in an auto accident with her life ahead of her who was inspirational to millions of people here in the UK and worldwide because she was trying to carve out a life for herself after being used as a breeding cow by the Royal family, and who left young children behind. The point about the childrens’ oncology ward is well-taken–too bad Will couldn’t have used it in a more appropriate context. He obviously forgot that Diana was one of the first politcal figures to hold and hug a child with AIDS, and in a hospital ward too. It was one of the seminal events in changing public attitues about AIDS patients.

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