The meaning of River Phoenix's death

December 09, 1993|By Mona Charen

THE death of actor River Phoenix, at the age of 23, would ordinarily occasion only sadness and sympathy for his family and his fans. But in the Los Angeles Times, Heart Phoenix, the actor's mother, has offered her own views on the meaning of his death -- an essay of such tendentious nonsense that it requires a response even in the face of maternal grief.

We are all accustomed to the bereaved families of drug abusers finding meaning in the deaths of their loved ones by dedicating themselves to the fight against drug abuse. At first, it looked as though Heart Phoenix was headed in that direction. The death of her son River at a Hollywood night club, she confirmed, was the result of recreational drug use.

But Ms. Phoenix veered immediately into the Never Never Land of left-wing kookiness. She hopes, she writes, that River's death "will focus the attention of the world on how painfully the spirits of his generation are being worn down. They are growing up with polluted air, toxic earth and food, and undrinkable water. We are destroying our forests, the ozone layer is being depleted, and AIDS and other diseases are epidemic. . . .Drug abuse is a symptom of an unfeeling, materialistic, success-oriented world where the feelings and creativity of young people are not seen as important."

Oh dear. So that's how it is. Young people at Hollywood night clubs are not indulging in drugs because they lack self-control. They aren't drowning their poor self-esteem in a bath of hallucinogens. No, they are making a statement about ozone depletion.

As for the feelings and creativity of young people being ignored in our materialistic society, River Phoenix was hardly one to complain. The sums he fetched each time he expressed his creativity on film would feed whole towns for a year.

Nor is it even remotely true that our water is undrinkable, our land toxic or our air unbreathable. The life expectancies of people in the developed world are at historic highs -- and rising. Well within living memory, food-borne illnesses killed thousands. The air in industrial cities used to be so polluted that the trees turned black.

Today, everywhere in America, you can turn on the tap and drink clean water without fear. You may not like the taste (I don't), but you won't double over. Our food supply has never been so plentiful or so safe.

Sure, there are episodes of food poisoning like the e coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. But Department of Agriculture people say that the great danger now comes not from impure food but from poor food handling on the part of consumers and retailers. We've become lax about food safety precisely because refrigeration, preservatives and other modern techniques have made many food-borne illnesses obsolete.

Yes, we have some air pollution. Did River drive a car?

It is sheer fantasy (albeit one to which the vice president of the United States subscribes) to paint the modern world as hopelessly sullied. But more important -- and again, one hates to upbraid a grieving mother -- the notion that large forces like global warming and pollution are responsible for individual actions is exactly the kind of thinking that unhinged this country during the 1960s and continues to work its effects today.

River Phoenix was an adult. He was responsible for his actions. Leave aside the stupid ozone hole. Phoenix did a terrible, ghastly thing by polluting his own brain with chemicals -- to say nothing of the example he set.

Heart Phoenix is worried about the rivers and streams, about the Exxon Valdez, the Gulf War ("a bloody war over oil") and Chernobyl. I've got a list of my own. I'm worried about thousands of shootings in our cities and schoolyards, 1.5 million abortions every year, the seemingly unstoppable growth of government, a 25 percent illegitimacy rate and the endless supply of violent, trashy, vulgar ooze produced by the entertainment industry of which River Phoenix was a part.

That stuff pollutes the minds and souls of the people who see it. And that pollution is much more important, more frightening and far harder to reverse than the carbon monoxide in our air.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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