Monday, July 06, 2009

Michael Jackson and Anthropolatry

“Mobs torched buses and cars…stoned police on the streets ahead of the funeral. At least two people were killed before his burial. One was a man who was shot by police after their bus came under attack as people raged about not having a last opportunity to see [his body]...Dozens of mourners and police were hurt.”

No, this is not a headline of a Michael Jackson funeral service, as I write this blog one day before his memorial service. That was a news story about an Indian film star by the name of Rajkumar three years ago. This past week, hearing about MJ’s death and the 24 hour non-stop news obsession about his life and death and the live broadcast of his memorial tomorrow, my mind has turned to that day in Bangalore and Rajkumar’s funeral. I can’t help but wonder what will be the headlines after MJ’s memorial extravaganza?

As an anthropologist I am always intrigued with human values and, in this case, the worship or veneration of another human being. In India, where almost anything and anybody could be a god, people will commit suicide because of the loss of a god-like figure. Some, who perceive their celebrity “idols” as endowed with some type of divine gift, often confuse talent with anointing.

Anthropolatry is as old as humanity itself. The Pharaohs of Egypt, a mystic named Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the “enlightened one,” i.e. Buddha, a cult figure named Jim Jones or David Koresh, or a healer called Sai Baba, people, for one reason or another, want to touch divinity. Groups still visit Graceland just to be near the spirit of the another “king,” one named Elvis.

Why are people drawn to other flesh for veneration? Perhaps because we have a desire to see our gods, not just have faith in them. Though we idolize our hero’s we certainly don’t want to emulate their lifestyle. Neither the King of Rock or Pop were great father figures. Mohammed, God’s last great prophet, according to Muslims, had as many as 20 wives and didn’t exactly live a life of peace. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, was married three times, was abusive and convicted of fraud.

So why do humans become devout followers of other humans? No doubt it is because we see in others traits we wish we had or at least admire. Charisma, self-confidence, beauty, intelligence, wisdom, talent or spirituality, humanity is always in search for that which we cannot find in ourselves but hope for in others. When someone becomes “bigger than life,” it doesn’t seem to matter that they are flawed mortals; their star power is a greater force than the reality of who they are as persons. Princess Diana’s funeral/post-funeral coverage overshadows the death of a little nun in India called Mother Teresa. There is a footnote on Friday November 22, 1963. Besides the assassination of JFK, a man named C.S. Lewis dies that morning of a heart attack, one week before his 65th birthday.

Most of MJ’s fans mourn his passing for his musical talent. For others, their grief will be inconsolable as though one of heaven’s deities has been taken away from us, forcing them to live with the void of his presence.