Celebrity deaths are a few among the many posting opportunities I missed recently... I never said anything about James Brown or Anna Nicole Smith, and I wish I had, because these were cultural icons worthy of note. Another one kicked it today, and I think I'm gonna take the opportunity to make up for lost time.
The man in question was Jerry Falwell. He was quite a shit-kicker in the political and social domain, a die-hard member of the "rude disrespectful uber-conservative" clique that also includes Fred Phelps, Jack Thompson, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. He's gone through a whole spectrum of socially conservative beliefs... and I only characterize them as such because I'm a very level-headed critic. Most of my friends would call them "regressive," "patently indefensible," and/or "retarded." These positions include segregationism early in his career (he supposedly reformed this belief, probably when he realized racist legislation wasn't really going anywhere); dubious positions on Apartheid; that (in his own words) "AIDs is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals"; that secular education is tearing at the fabric of our society; and that 9/11 heralds the apocalypse.
Just today, Falwell died of sudden cardiac failure, or something like that.
Falwell doesn't really represent a noteworthy demographic, because I believe (with hope) that not enough people agree with him to call it a "demographic." However, he definitely represents a subsection of American popular culture, and a disproportionate amount of the American media consciousness. Even as Falwell discredited his own party, he probably always accomplished his goal: he shifted the public discourse back into a domain of "morality" and "social norms" and the need for God as a political icon.
This whole thing actually makes me think of another public figure, less public than Falwell, but much more influential in the intellectual world, and a worthy foil for the present discussion. That's Jean Baudrillard, who died this past March. Baudrillard was for the left what Falwell was the the right: a sort of ideological extremist, a man at the far limit of the attitudes he embodied. Baudrillard was famous for his analysis of simulacra and simulation, and for the idea that representation has taken over reality, and of the experience of it. Glance at his Wikipedia article. It's a surprisingly good discussion of such a complex thinker.
Where Falwell was a great institutionalist, believer in social, moral, and divine regulation of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors, Baudrillard was an institutional iconoclast, attacking (sometimes excessively) the foundations of our identities and beliefs. He saw all the totems of our belief structure -- truth and falsity, good and evil, gender, war, politics, and media -- as arbitrary inventions of a faceless society and an alien consciousness. Baudrillard referred to himself as a nihilist, meaning he saw every given and argued truth as a groundless representation of something we can never reach.
Where Falwell was a reactionary, Baudrillard was a radical. Where Falwell was an epitome of the narrow mind, devoid of any perspective on the world, Baudrillard was the epitome of a jaded postmodernist, a man without faith.
Karma (or nature, or fate, or whatever unconscious mechanism is running our universe) balances the scales of ideology, and once again, the cultural landscape is smoothed out, ever so slightly. I hope these two fuckers are having one hell of a conversation in whatever strange afterlife will take them both.