Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...

I have some terrible news for you all. This has never happened before in the history of the world but Teddy Kennedy's death is going to be...what's the word again? oh...politicized. Yes, scarily enough, weirdly enough, Democrats are probably going to use the occasion of his death to pursue mere political goals. How crass. How weird. How frighteningly demagogic. Can you imagine the nerve of these people?

Its our own little dance of death. Anyone remember the fake outcry at the Wellstone Memorial's political tone? If you missed it, or can't remember, you can read all about it here. Its one of the things that really politicized Franken, and in the linked essay he draws the connection between the way the right wing treated the outpouring of grief and political activism around Wellstone's death to the way they treated Coretta Scott King's funeral. In both cases the left was lectured in how we are to understand the lives of our own members and we were ordered not to celebrate those lives, not to take up the banner of their causes, but to mourn quietly, secretly, almost shamefacedly. But funerals and memorials aren't about something quiet, private, shameful. Death and Politics are both important parts of life. Funerals and memorials are places where we gather to be together and to pursue communal goals. We mourn, but we celebrate. We gather together to remember, and to plan to leap forward.

In America, as around the world there is a natural logic to the political and social use of the funeral. The end of one life is not the end of that person's struggle. Sometimes its the key inflection point, the moment that the solitary struggle becomes public, or the moment that the lone voice, though stilled, is taken up. This is as true for the famous (see e.g. MLK, Malcolm X, JFK, BK, Ninoy Aquino, etc..etc...etc...) as it can be for the lowly member of the crowd--(Neda Soltan).

As inevitable as the use of the funeral, or the memorial, by partisans is the attempt to repress the funeral or the memorial by the forces of reaction. Wherever funerals are an important social setting--a safe place for people to turn out, grieve, communicate, and organize there will be attempts from above or below to prevent any mobilization around the body, or the cause. In Iran, to give just one example, the state decides who is a "martyr" and whose death will be publicly solemnized, and it has for years interfered with families trying to publicize or socialize the deaths of their loved ones if those deaths looked like they would cause trouble for the government. The recent death of Neda was one such occasion. In the US, of course, we have struggled for years over who owns or appropriates public deaths like those of the 9/11 victims, the Katrina dead, and our soldiers.

Its not that Republicans don't use death, and death(s) to score political points or create policy. Jesus Christ, anyone? Not a Republican death per se, but certainly a recurring image in the pageant of right wing martyr funerals. Religious anti abortion rights activists routinely use the imagery of death and the fetus to compel policy changes they favor. Fred Phelps and his family routinely picket other people's funerals to make their political/religious points. And, of course, 9/11 was the greatest political funeral orgy in American History since Pearl Harbor. And the party that ran with the most necrophilic and abusive use of those deaths was, IIRC, tagged with an R. And they are still mourning their loss of the use rights to those deaths. A right which, apparently, goes with control of the Presidency.

I don't fault Republicans for having their own heroes, or for using funerals and memorials as places to gin up support for Republican policies. I don't even fault them for using the imagery of 9/11 and its victims over and over again to rally support for their wars and their depredations. There's nothing wrong with that. Waving the bloody shirt has a long history and its not always the wrong thing to do. I disagree with the policies but not with the notion that we use social occasions to promote social goals. I wish they were honest enough to acknowledge the fact that we all do the same thing: we celebrate that which we think is good, we fight for the continuance of policies that we want to see continued, and we use the lives and the deaths of our members to further those policies. Its human. Its Civil. Its Social. Its Public. These aren't dirty words and they don't dirty the memory of the deceased.

I can't speak for my late Senator on this matter. I can only say that if the day ever comes when my body and my death can serve the political goals I've pursued my whole life I would be heartily glad to hear it wherever I am in the great hereafter. Hell, they can chop my body up and serve it as soylent green if it gets us to national health care for all.

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