The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber


200px-Anne_FrankJustin Bieber belongs to a class of celebrity that my friend Rob calls, “low hanging fruit.” If it’s an easy target that ye seek, then Justin Bieber is your man. Tacky, stupid, superficial, and marginally talented at best, Bieber makes old school embarrassments like The Backstreet Boys look like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Recently, the tween idol made his bull’s eye even bigger when he graced the Anne Frank House not merely with his presence, but his signature in the museum’s guest book.  Anne Frank’s indomitable spirit, which has transcended the horrors of death and even the Holocaust, so moved Mr. Bieber, that he was  compelled to write:

 Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

Congratulations, John Lennon: history officially forgives you for saying “we’re more popular than Jesus.” And thanks to Justin, we can now truly comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, and realize, finally, what might have been. If only. By imprisoning Anne in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the Nazis ended not only her life, but the possibility that she might realize the fullest height of human potential by becoming a Bieber disciple.

Whatever. Like I said: low hanging fruit. Bieber is a huge and easy target, and probably not worth the time. Then again, my middle school students who have heard at least one of Justin’s songs far outnumber those who’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Perhaps this fruit tree needs a little more shaking.

The advent of the Justin Bieber and Anne Frank (isn’t it weird saying those names in the same sentence?) event reminded me of an equally bizarre moment on NPR’s Fresh Air on December 17, 2012. Three days after twenty-six people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Terry Gross began the program by saying:

Today is our first broadcast since learning about the shootings in Newtown. Our thoughts are with everyone in that community. 

 My guest today is Barbara Streisand.

StreisandOops. Oh well, what are you gonna do? Bump Streisand? Besides, how could anybody have predicted this tragedy when the interview was taped? What, are we not supposed to have fun any more? By allowing these tragedies to reduce our appetites for entertainment and leisure, we’re playing right into the hands of the murderers.

Terry Gross is a thoughtful and intelligent public figure, whereas Justin Bieber…isn’t. But like it or not, both of them missed the big picture by putting the spectacle of entertainment on equal footing with humanity’s insatiable appetite for death and cruelty.

For some reason, this Fresh Air moment haunted me when I learned of the Boston Marathon bombing. Yet another national tragedy left me outraged, but not in the way I expected. Let’s go back to the wording of that Fresh Air intro. “Our thoughts are with everyone in that community.” Months later it came back to me on the Monday of the Boston bombing as I, like everyone else, rushed to social media to find out what was happening and, more importantly, give voice to my outrage and grief. Here’s a small sample of what the America had to say:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston.

Everyone at “Anderson Live” extends their thoughts and prayers to all affected by today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon.

Thoughts & prayers for sisters & brothers in Boston.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in the Boston bombings.

I read and heard that phrase more times than I could count: thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. I played it over and over like a skip on a vinyl LP. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Finally, I experienced the unthinkable: anger, not at the bomber, but at the grievers.

I’m not talking about the victims or their grieving loved ones. I mean people like me: long distance bystanders, members of the shocked public, numbed into impotence and horror. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Is that all we have to offer? Thoughts and prayers? Don’t get me wrong: I do my fair share of thinking and praying. (Although, to be honest, I do a lot more of the former than the latter.)

But all of these thoughts and prayers make me wonder: why are they reserved only for the victims of atrocities from which we are removed? Why is the American public not compelled to think or pray for victims of bombings that we pay for with our own tax dollars?  The United States bombed and killed five people and injured seven more in a drone strike to South Waziristan on Wednesday, just two days after the Boston bombing. Did you read about it in the paper? Did you hear about it on the news? Did Anderson Cooper send his thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers to the victims of those bombing attacks?

I suppose we can justify those bombings as the “war on terror.” Perhaps we can comfort ourselves by the fact that our tax dollars are killing people that President Obama and the CIA have labeled as “enemies” – even though none of the dead or injured received a trial proving their guilt. After all, how many thoughts and prayers can one person muster? I gotta save my compassion for the next tragedy – I’m sorry, tragedy on American soil that’s carried out by someone not wearing a uniform so I can hop on Facebook or Twitter and send out my thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers when I’m shocked by humanity’s barbarous cruelty.

Give a man a uniform (or a remote control bomber) and suddenly “insanity” and “senseless killings” are transformed into “foreign policy” and “collateral damage.” I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but those killed by American drones (estimates range from 1,998 to 3,316) in the past nine years are just as dead as the victims in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Boston. The only justification for withholding compassion for victims on foreign soil is to adopt our government’s rationale for the bombings: these people are our enemies, and therefore deserve to be killed. Huh. I wonder if that’s the rationale that the bomber or bombers used when planning those killings in Boston.

Thoughts and prayers and other useless gestures: they are the last refuge of an impotent public obsessed with tragedies beyond our control. Those paid for by our tax dollars are taken care of by government secrecy and (for the most part) a compliant media. Soviet era Eastern block countries suppressed embarrassing news altogether; in America, we just shove it onto page 7.

What does all of this have to do with Justin Bieber and Anne Frank? Only this: it’s all part of the same collective cognitive dissonance.  21st century Americans have no sense of our own place in the now that makes up our unfolding history. Justin Bieber trumps Anne Frank. Barbara Streisand trumps Sandy Hook. Thoughts and prayers trump meaningful reflection and action to end the violence that we pay for.

This blog has a modest readership at best, but if for some reason you are a survivor or a bereaved loved one of Boston, Sandy Hook, Aurora, or any of the like tragedies springing from our country like hydra heads, I’d like to say this: I am sorry, so incredibly sorry for your losses. I wish that I could bring your loved ones or your good health back. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or yours did to deserve this, and I can only imagine what courage you must be summoning at this very moment. And even though we’ve never met, I pledge my thoughts, prayers, and actions to make our world a place where violence is not welcome. The perpetrators and enablers of private and public massacre are united by a common belief: that all life is equal, but some lives are more equal than others.

How much difference can I make? I’m not really sure, but I am willing to try.  To be honest, sometimes this blog, and my own forays into social media, give me an inflated sense of my own historical importance. Call it imperial hubris. When it comes to fruit, maybe Justin Bieber’s hanging just a little bit higher than we thought.

But we all hang with him.

David Berkson

April 17, 2013

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2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber

  1. Anne Tillinghast on said:

    So interesting to think about! So, when there is nothing to be done, no action to be taken, thoughts and prayers are one thing, an attempt to provide solace and solidarity. When people in influential positions offer thoughts and prayers when there IS something to be done, they could be discouraging others from taking action by implying there is nothing to be done. Like those phony apologies “I’m sorry you were so upset by what I said,” rather than “I’m sorry I said that.” Only in this case it is more: “I’m sorry that our gun laws allow uber-armed gunmen to run loose in your schools. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you try to dodge the bullets.”

    Thank you for this post.

    • Anne,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. It occurs to me that the end of the piece doesn’t articulate a pathway towards action. Nor does the piece discuss gun violence, which – given the week we are having – perhaps it should have.

      I believe that we are seeing so many shootings and now bombings because every American (including me) is either a perpetrator or an enabler of violence of some kind. Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble with the public handwringing, the “how could this happen” rhetoric. I haven’t heard a single prayer uttered for the prisoners on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay – we’re talking about people who have not been tried for any crime, yet have been imprisoned for a decade. Ending violence means looking at our role in ALL violence. I haven’t heard a single voice anywhere call for that.

      Thanks again, Anne.

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