The late Whitney Houston was afforded the dubious honor of having the American flag flown at half-mast for her funeral today.
There is no doubt that Whitney Houston was a singular talent. She could sing like nobody's business. Her voice was equal parts sweetness and sass, powerful yet melodic; an acoustical Olivier in terms of artistic delivery and nuance and the ease which she presented both. Her beauty was, for a time, exotic and almost incomparable; her poise and grace on stage belied her modest New Jersey upbringing. But for all her artistic achievements, for all her celebrity, Ms. Houston was one of us; a flawed human being.
What demons drove her to addiction to drugs, alcohol and by all accounts abusive marital relationship we, the public, may never know. But suffice it to say that this is a story that has been seen before in public bas relief: Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, James Dean, John Belushi, Elizabeth Taylor, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson...The true nature of her death is, as of this writing, unknown other than presumed drowning. Yet it is no secret that prescription drugs were found in her hotel room and with such sparse evidence, the collective court of the Internet has espoused its belief that drugs and/or alcohol were directly or indirectly involved.
It is a sad occasion for those lives across the globe her voice touch, but nowhere near the devastating despair that must be touching her immediate family and friends. That loss is immeasurable. We are left with the gift of her recordings and one last star turn in the forthcoming film "Sparkle".
As to why it is a "dubious honor"... are all these achievements and considerations worth having the flags at half-mast?
According to the requisite codes regarding flag etiquette, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was wrong to order flags across his state. Section 7(m) of the Flag Code states, in pertinent part:
By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff, and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia... The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
Nowhere are provisions made for celebrities, nor provisions for the Governor of any state to do so. Whitney Houston was neither a politician nor served in the armed forces. Similarly, Steve Jobs, another civilian, was accorded the same courtesy...also against the national flag code regulations. Whereas in the last ten plus years, thousands upon thousands of servicemen and women in our armed forces have died daily, without media coverage or a half-mast flag signifying their sacrifice. They are, at least in the collective popular mind, our modern unknown soldiers.
Yet, again, one cannot discount Jobs' contribution to our way of life with the technological revolutions he spearheaded, nor can we obviate Ms. Houston's artistic contributions to the pop culture landscape. Sure, she profited by those contributions but it can be argued that they did not give her complete solace of spirit. However, her music allowed people to forget their problems at least for a moment. Her voice had been heard in proms, weddings, dance clubs, movies...and at even just "one moment in time", her voice and by extension her "soul", touched the heart.
Whether Governor Christie's gesture was heartfelt or a political move is unknown but immaterial. Legally, it was wrong and to many a slap in the face in terms of what that gesture represents. But humanly, after a day of rumination, I've come to consider it a gesture acknowledging the fundamental human experience. She was a mythical Siren made flesh, but that god-like gift did not extend to her being. She struggled like the rest of us. It is an acknowledgement that even the seemingly best of us can fail. It is also an acknowledgement that her gift touched us, made us smile. Does it make it any less egregious? In our culture, where celebrity can be gotten with the release of an infamous sex video, absolutely not. But if we choose to "honor" those people then there are certainly other ways of doing it (such as the blue lighting of The Empire State Building upon the passing of "Old Blue Eyes" Frank Sinatra, as Americans an entertainment institution can be but still not accorded a half-mast flag).
Regular readers of my blog will recall my encounter with "John", a World War II veteran who regaled me on a Saturday morning with stories of his service and the personal sacrifices made in the line of duty and afterwards. In the coming years, he will pass on. His story closed, his sacrifices but to a select few, unremembered. It is highly doubtful that flags will be lowered to half-mast for him.
Yes, Whitney Houston's death is a tragedy. Any loss of life, whether that of prince or pauper, is a diminishment. But reserve the half-mast gesture for those who the provisions were made for; those multitudes that, sadly, have earned but will not receive that acknowledgement.