Robin Williams and Who We Are As a Society

I caught some flack on Facebook yesterday for a post I wrote stating, or rather implying, that perhaps there were more important things going on in the world than the death of Robin Williams.  Normally, I don’t care much.  But one of the people who took offense to what I said was someone I hold in high regard.  He has long served as a foil for me.  I think we tend to agree to disagree more often than not, but conversations with him always bear fruit as I am forced to think and reflect on my words and feelings when we discuss various topics.  So too with this one.  So this post is my attempt to explain in greater detail where I am coming from.  Because my position, while further refined by thought, is unchanged.

First let me say that Robin Williams uttered (though he did not write) some of the most stirring words I have ever heard spoken.  In the movie Dead Poets Society his character uttered many memorable lines.  Chief among them, for me, were the following.  “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Being a poet myself, I am in complete agreement with these thoughts.  But we must remember something.  Robin Williams was not John Keating.  He was not Mork from Ork.  He was not any of the memorable characters he portrayed over the course of many years.  He was, in reality, a foul mouthed drug addict and alcoholic.  A comic genius, yes I will grant that.  A national treasure?  Perhaps, though I think that may be stretching things a bit.

My friend Andrew asked me if the deaths of people far away from me, whom I do not know, is of greater relevance to me than the death of one of my own children.  I feel like he inadvertently made my point for me in that question.  We did not know Robin Williams.  It is fair to say we knew of him.  We were aware of his existence.  But he was, in reality, a far away stranger.  Much like those 5 and 6 year old kids being beheaded in Iraq right now because their parents had them baptized.  But here is the difference.  Those kids are being killed by a growing group subscribing to an ideology that has set the whole world on fire in the last decade or so.  People are dying all over the place because a group of extremist nuts thinks that God wills it.  In the grand scheme of things, that is news of far greater importance than the news that a 63 year old comedian hung himself.

But what I really want to address is the nature of our society.

We are hero worshipers, plain and simple.  And it does not appear to matter who our heroes are.

I had a number of people talk to me about how Robin Williams entertained us and touched our lives.  Okay.  I understand that.  But let us consider for a moment how important that actually is.

A week or so ago the NFL pre-season football began.  Upon taking the field, Ray Rice, a man seen on video dragging his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator, received a standing ovation.  Why?  Because he entertains us.

Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, is still celebrated in the sports world.

Gene Simmons is revered in the music world.  Articles about Kiss pop up daily on the internet.  Everyone talks about how he’s still going strong at the age of 64.  No one talks about the fact that Gene once said that Kiss has screwed more women than any other band in the history of Rock and Roll, and he has the pictures to prove it.  No one talks about how he has repeatedly cheated on the mother of his children, whom he lived with but refused to marry for some 20+ years.

So we, as a society, make heroes and celebrities out of drug abusers, alcoholics, criminals, men and women of low morals and character, rapists (Tyson), child molesters (Woody Allen) and even murderers.  We celebrate their living, mourn their passing, erect monuments to them both physical and emotional, and post “RIP” to our facebook walls when they die.  Let me clue you in.  Robin Williams did not live in peace, he is not likely resting in peace now.  He is most likely, simply, utterly dead and neither resting in peace or any other state of being.

Besides, the two statements which always go together are that an individual will be missed…because of what they added to our lives.  Whatever Robin Williams added to your life, is still there.  His lines, his quotes, his stand-up routines, television shows, movies…all of these are preserved forever on DVD, Netflix, the internet.  And don’t worry…someone will come out with the Robin Williams memorial box set in short order.  Because, while everyone loves him and is deeply saddened by his loss, there’s no reason not to make a buck off of it…right?

I will submit to you that the passing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager shot dead in the streets of a Missouri town, is of greater societal importance than the death of Robin Williams.  The death of Robin Williams means that the next time we want to laugh, one of hundreds of other comedians will have to rise to the occasion.  The death of Michael Brown, and the handling of the case, sets a precedent and a tone for our society.  It asks, and will ultimately help to answer the question, can the police simply kill you on a whim if they “feel threatened”?  It speaks to the state of race relations, stereotypes, and the limits the citizenry places on the people who work for us.

Michael brown’s death is, in virtually every way, more important than the passing of Robin Williams.  Except of course for the obvious, and seemingly most important fact.

Michael Brown never made me laugh…


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