One of the purposes of this writing space, for me, is to draw out the real implications of what seem, initially, to be really rather mundane phenomena. Or to draw connections between what seem to be disconnected cultural obsessions – for example, my claim that immigration border-anxiety is at work in our periodic obsession with celebrity crotch-shots over the past two years. The death of Tammy Faye Messner – a.k.a., Tammy Faye Bakker – is an occasion for a lot of thoughts. I’ll just offer a few here…
Now, I’m fully aware that Messner was a real woman who suffered a terrible, painful death from cancer. So, I don’t want to seem insensitive to that, and I’m not really interested in thinking about the borderline between her as a spectacular production and her as real, suffering person. But I am concerned with those she victimized, and how that victimization makes me wonder if we should be so casual about her death.
The real reason for thinking about her death, then, is this: she’s the freakin’ the headline on CNN.com as I write this entry.
For what is she famous? In some ways, she’s the old lady version of Paris Hilton: famous for being famous. Which is a strange thing to be, though, if Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle holds true (and its reinterpretation in Jean Baudrillard’s notion of simulation – I hear you, Jay), we might well ask if it isn’t actually the norm against which real meaning ought to be measured as an aberration. Alas. That is another essay.
Her initial fame, of course, came from her time on the Christian PTL Network. The whole game came down when her husband, Jim Bakker, was caught up in a series of cash and sex scandals. If you were around at the time, you know what I mean. But I also remember that moment and what it meant for “the rest of the nation.” By “the rest of the nation” I mean those of us previously unaware of this strange scam Jim and Tammy Faye were pulling off: begging money for prayers and making millions off the whole game. It was really stunning. It was as if, for the rest of us, the chuckle we got on Sunday mornings seeing these folks was exposed as hideously naive and cut-off from a huge number of our fellow citizens. I mark that event as the religious right’s first burst onto the national scene.
The money-sex scandal brought it all out and they looked to be the scam artists we all suspected. None of the trademark tears could make a difference. Jim was off to prison. Tammy Faye became a cultural joke to the point where, honestly, it just seemed too easy and wasn’t all that funny.
And then she dies. And her death leads (or is it “ledes”?) on CNN.com, without even a hint of critical distance or irony or self-awareness. No, her death was (or is currently being) treated as a significant social event. Seriously. The lead headline. Wow.
It made me think of how, late in his life, Richard Nixon was rehabilitated – against any sense whatsoever – as a kind of “elder spokesman” of the political class. Or how Henry Kissinger, who’s been shown beyond much doubt to be a first-class war criminal, still makes appearances as a “well-respected” expert on foreign affairs.
While I don’t mean to equate these three examples (Nixon and Kissinger are shames of a nation, after all), they all illuminate an important consequence of the age of the spectacle. If we relate to the world and even ourselves as images rather than realities, then that relation is structured by a real, felt forgetting. Real, material consequences and realities keep memory alive. Images are just that: images that relate to other, often dispensable or interchangeable images. So when Tammy Faye dies, an old and still familiar image reappears and tells an image story. We don’t hear the scam and the theft, you know, the actual criminality that defined her as a person for decades. We only hear a strange “charm,” whether sentimental or humorous, of a decorated face. That image.
Just as we (apparently) heard only wise old men as Nixon entered his last years and even now with Kissinger. Kenneth Lay was a strange exception to this, but I think his case is one of dying too early. Perhaps after a couple of decades we would have remembered him as “that guy in the middle of a huge news event” rather than, as was the case when he died, as someone who ruined so many folks’ lives. We do forget so quickly in this country.
I worry about this forgetting. Sure, Tammy Faye’s place in our world is small, unlike Nixon’s and Kissinger’s. But forgetting means guilt and accountability give way as the past is reinvented or re-imagined (emphasis, of course, on the “image” part of re-imagining). At that moment, we become implicated in the past, because we’ve failed our responsibility to memory of injustice – however small – in the name of those who suffered. Putting Tammy Faye on the back page, if anywhere at all, when she died would have been its own kind of remembering. A way of letting the reality of her scams and their injustices resonate upon her passing.
Tammy Faye’s presence as the lead story on CNN.com is a symptom. And a symptom of something pretty icky. Surely we can do better.