13 June 2008

Why Do You Care?

Tim Russert died today, and the outpouring of sympathy from all corners has popped up around the internet.

He did what he did, and he did it about as well as any of his contemporaries, for that he should be admired, and given his age and seeming vigor, it's a bit of a shock, but why do people care when someone they don't know, never met, and never were going to meet, meet their end?

I think it's something to do with our wiring, the false intimacy of mass communication, and a small degree of 'glad it wasn't me'-ism.

It's our wiring in that we are at heart, and by evolution a tribal creature. We are very good at recognizing faces, and putting names to faces, and when people lack that skill, they stand out and cause a generalized since of ill ease to those around them. It's an innate enough skill that nearly all babies seem to begin picking up that skill before they can even speak those names to the faces they see in their daily lives. Extend that to the tribal level, and people are attuned to not only be able to spot the people that are like ourselves, but also spot the people that are unlike ourselves. It's also a pretty well known phenomenon (and much joked about), that people have trouble differentiating people who have facial characteristics not found in their closer kin group (the 'all [insert group you are not part of] look alike' syndrome). Back when we were nomads, we probably saw no more than a couple hundred faces in a lifetime, kin or not. Even when we began to domesticate our world and ourselves, people may have settled in large communities in the thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands pretty early on during the agricultural revolution, but people didn't travel much outside their own village or neighborhood (except on major endeavors like warmaking or monument making). So up till the invention of print, and then television, people weren't expected to put a name to more than a couple hundred faces in their lifetimes.

Times have changed, though. Think of how many people you could place a name to a face. Is that number 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? If you count the dead, the living, the people you've known from school and work, to all the people you see in media, I bet the average American 'knows' by sight many thousands of people, yet we are still wired biologically like an animal who isn't expected to know more than a couple dozen at any one time. I'd love to see an experiment using social networking sites like facebook and myspace and seeing how many 'friends' recognize their friends and can place a name with a photo, and then add in pictures of famous people from various media and sports, and see how many of those names people can access from memory. Bet most people in the United States and Europe could name far more of the famous than they can of their own social circle.

What's that got to do with Tim Russert? He was in our living room, and he affected a guy from the corner persona, plus he confronted authority figures on a regular basis as our proxy, so add all those things together and for many people, even if he didn't exactly seem a member of the family, he definitely felt like a member of our extended kingroup. On top of that, beyond being the guy who gets to confront 'the man', he wrote a book about fatherhood, and sonhood, so all that maudlin talk about family means that rather than just being a media figure, he's more recognizably also a 'family man' than most media figures. If you are his age, or near it (and a good chunk of you are, being he was a Boomer), then its a powerful reminder of your own mortality, if you are my age and younger, your parents are probably about his age or older, so it gets you thinking about their mortality, which is just as unpleasant.

So, his death has personal resonance not only because he was a name and face on TV, but also because he was a name and face who emphasized family, which makes his passing more poignant than if he was just a ranting talking head who never mentioned his personal life.

The intimacy of television is a lie, he wasn't our kin, I can almost with complete confidence say that no one who reads these words actually knew him (and almost nobody reading these words would have even met him), yet he was someone we all thought we knew in some small way. It's that strange type of knowing that happens with media figures. His death shouldn't matter to you, he was just someone doing his job, and it will be done by someone else in the future. Feel sad for his family, feel sad for the days he won't get to enjoy, mourn him, but remember that you didn't really know him.

1 comment:

Pastor_Jeff said...

You're right ... but I think there's something more to it. I can't say I'm upset (I can't say I even watched him that much), but I find Russert's death moderately significant. His job was to inform and educate the public, and he did that with what appeared to be more intelligence, usefulness, and maturity than is common nowadays.

I think in that sense he made positive contributions to American culture, and for that reason his death diminishes us all a little.

But you might also like this take on responses to his death, via Cal at Done With Mirrors.