Sunday, 18 April 2010

Honour the dead

Disclaimer: this is close to the bone, if it offends you you can write to the Daily Mail about it.

So you might have heard the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, was killed in a plane crash last week, along with pretty much every high-ranking politician, diplomat, and military official in Poland. In a cruel twist of fate the party were flying to Russia to commemorate the anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which pretty much every high-ranking politician, diplomat, and military official in Poland was slaughtered by the Soviet secret police. If that wasn't bad enough, a volcano, dormant for nigh on a hundred years, chose the following week to erupt, spewing ash over northern Europe and ensuring that no one could go to the funeral. You might call it unfortunate.

One would be forgiven for feeling a tug at the heart strings, and then perhaps afterwards, in the privacy of your own home, a muffled laugh at the sheer incredibility of it all. Unsurprisingly the people of Poland have been mourning, but, in a turn of events which is proving increasingly common, have in the process elevated the dead to a state of virtual sainthood.

Before his death Kaczyński's approval rating had fallen to 20% and he was expected to lose a presidential election due in the autumn. He twice banned the Warsaw gay pride march and instead allowed a counter-demonstration called the "Parade of Normality." In 2007, Poland, represented by Kaczyński, was found guilty by the European Court of Human Rights of violating the freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That's not to entirely detract from the man; he was a vociferous opponent of communism and the tyranny it led to; he campaigned tirelessly against corruption; and on 21 December 2008, Kaczyński became the first Polish head of state to visit a Polish synagogue and to attend religious services held there. The point, however, is that being dead shouldn't automatically grant one immunity from criticism.

Kaczyński and his wife are now interred in the crypt of Wawel cathedral, the traditional burial place for Poland's kings, national heroes, poets, statesman and romantic revolutionaries. Lech Kaczyński was none of those things. To put it in perspective, burying Lech Kaczyński in Wawel cathedral is like burying Gordon Brown in Westminster Abbey. Apparently I'm not the only one who noticed this disparity; according to the Guardian "some Poles have staged protest rallies and joined petitions on the social media site Facebook against the decision to bury Kaczynski in such a sacred spot". And yet any protests were muffled by the overwhelming indignity of a nation who felt that dead meant great; Karolina Rajchel, 19, a student who travelled five hours from Wroclaw, said she had not supported every step that Kaczyński took, but called the protests "out of place" in light of his death. "Out of place"? If anyone can suggest a more appropriate time to have a protest over where someone is to be buried than following the individual's death, then I'd like to hear it. I mean it would be pretty fucking weird if they'd started protesting before he'd died.

She went on: "Kaczyński had good and bad qualities but now you shouldn't say anything bad about the dead". Obviously a certain amount of respect should be accorded on account of relatives et al, and everyone should have the right to respond, which is a bit tricky when you've kicked the bucket, but even so, "shouldn't say anything bad about the dead"? Good God, all those who've slammed Hitler's immigration policies these past 60 years all need to stand up and give themselves a good slap on the wrist. How dare you? He's dead don't you know.

Such sentiment is not confined to the death of the Polish premier however. The current UK election campaign is positively dripping with vote-winning sentiment about 'our brave troops'.

Leaving school with no GCSEs and 'joining up' because it "will be a laugh" does not necessitate bravery. It doesn't negate it mind, but it in no way implies it. And truth be told, anyone can get shot. That's the easy bit. With the Daily [insert favoured tabloid here] leading the way, our nation has been taken over by a culture of necro-sycophancy, in which anyone who's snuffed it while serving their country is now hailed as a 'hero'. I'm not anti the armed forces; it's a tragedy when anyone dies unnecessarily, and many of those who've lost their lives were undoubtedly selfless and courageous individuals. Indeed, that's the beauty of war, it represents the very worst of humanity, yet more often than not draws out the very best of individuals. But this broad-brush approach to conferring honour is obtuse. You don't have to wear a uniform to be brave, and you certainly don't have to be dead.

There's a competitive edge to public mourning these days. You should have the largest flowers, the darkest suit, the longest face. It's become a form of self-affirming ritual, in which the individual demonstrates to themselves and everyone else their own deeply held sense of humanity. As a result we've managed to elevate death itself to the highest echelons of accomplishment.