Death and politics

I heard today that an old friend had suddenly dropped dead, alone in her flat where she was discovered by the police a day or so later. She was a very smart, warm and gifted woman, in her mid 50s. I’ve been told it was probably a heart attack. She wasn’t overweight, didn’t smoke, or (as far as I know) drink excessively or play with life-threatening drugs. It was just one of those things, without significance but for the grief of those who have lost her.

And yet there’s nothing like death to send us scrabbling after meaning, wanting to make sense of our lives, other lives. It’s why the grieving often throw themselves into charity work, trying to help others (often with some kind of connection to whatever caused their loss): this can’t really make our loss meaningful, but what it does I suppose is re-establish us in a place where meaning doesn’t elude us, instead creating value (which for good reason feels meaningful) by doing the best human things we can do, asserting the value of our common humanity.

It’s either ironic or just plain miserable then that our political leaders will clutch at the illusions of geo-political meaning to obscure their personal murderousness. As the G20 summit grinds to a predictable halt (you couldn’t call it a conclusion), as Obama, Putin (and somewhere down the line, the pathetic figure of David Cameron) jockey for global positioning and elsewhere al-Assad and the Syrian rebels do their version of the big boy posturing, it’s hard not to reflect that the powerful have always felt entitled to kill hundreds, even thousands of people in pursuit of whatever they might feel are their immediate interests, interests beyond their personal lives, and seemingly working on a different scale.

This chasm between personal and political life has long been noted by sensitive writers. It runs through King Lear, and the great late metaphysical English poet Andrew Marvell wrote of Oliver Cromwell (who he knew)

“Tis madness to resist or blame
The face of angry Heaven’s flame;
And if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,

Who, from his private gardens, where
He lived reservèd and austere
(As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot),

Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time”

(Marvell, though on the parliamentary side, also famously said of the English Civil War, that it was a “cause too good to have been fought for”: violence destroys the principles it is supposed to be defending.)

I don’t want to end up sounding like John Lennon: I’ve long detested the saccharine vision of Imagine (a candidate for the worst song ever written, despite the great piano riff) just because it blands out the real hardness of life and the absorbing complexity of that hardness. I rather doubt the world will ever live as one, but all the same we should be clear headed about how utterly disgusting our leaders are, embodying all that’s worst about humanity, forcing us to ask where their humanity got lost.

Alex McKie, who spent her working life thinking about culture and social interaction, was herself cultured and mindful of other people. Perhaps some political leaders have these qualities, but if so it seems they need to suppress them in their working lives, and always have done, and that’s exactly why the world is as fucked up as it is.  

RIP Alex, whatever that means.


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