What if other countries mourned their national tragedies the way we do? The United States reads off the names of the dead during annual commemoration ceremonies and builds walls with names. Other countries have far bigger death counts, often due to us, but the scale of the carnage makes it impossible for them to wallow in such niceties.
Somber is Out. Kitsch Reigns.
Americans don’t mourn right.
We are tacky.
We are gauche.
We turn tragedy into kitsch.
Last week’s news was dominated by the aftermath of the Tucson massacre: the memorial service, the funerals, even the reopening of the Safeway supermarket.
A memorial service at a sports arena. What is wrong with us?
I say “us” because this is not a Tucson thing or an Arizona thing. It’s all too American.
Thousands of cheering fans—er, mourners—donned “Together We Thrive: Tucson & America” T-shirts, handed out by the University of Arizona. They greeted the arrival of President Bar-Rock Star Obama with applause and wolf whistles. They interrupted with raucous hoots every couple of minutes—and he did nothing to tamp down the unruly crowd. Emergency responders got a standing ovation. Attendees clapped at the mention of the nine-year-old girl who was shot to death. Arizona governor Jan Brewer was booed.
Some called it unsettling, others unseemly. I thought it was weird and tacky. A memorial service should not feel like a WWE event.
On the lawn in front of the hospital where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was being treated, USA Today reported, people placed “hundreds upon hundreds of hand-scrawled notes, stuffed animals and signs condemning the violence.”
Outside the Catholic church where the funeral for Christina Green, age 9, was being held, firefighters hung a patchwork quilt “National 9/11 Flag,” oddly blending politics, religion, and George W. Bush.
Each mass tragedy amps up the volume and surreal inappropriateness of Americans’ public expressions of grief. After 9/11 New Yorkers posted “missing” posters for people they knew were dead. Stuffed animals and grammatically challenged notes, soggy and runny, hung from the fence at St. Paul’s Chapel near Ground Zero while vendors hawked cheap framed photos of the Twin Towers a few feet away.
Obama politicized Tucson. John McCain did the same at the televised memorial service for Pat Tillman. A group of pro-Bush 9/11 widows preened for the GOP at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
From memorial pages on Facebook to memorial decals on SUVs, Americans think anything goes when you’re mourning the death of a loved one—or someone whose death made national news, which somehow makes you want to feel involved even though, of course, you are not.
Everyone has to deal with death. No one can or should tell you how to feel. Yet you do have an obligation to comport yourself with dignity, to “stay calm and carry on,” as the British poster from World War II urged. Death is inevitable, horrible, often tragic and, as Sartre said, absurd. But please don’t drag the rest of the world into your psychological abyss. Spare society the tawdry and ostentatious displays of over-the-top yowling.
Just be sad. It’s OK.
My best friend died when I was 16. I never got over it. His death still makes me sad. I’m OK with that.
I wore a suit to his funeral. There wasn’t any cheering. I don’t think an appearance by the president or the attorney general would have reduced anyone’s grief. It was a sad thing, so sad that no one could make it better, and nobody tried.
As the cultural critic Marita Sturken wrote in her 2007 book “Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero,” all this tacky phony sentimentality serves a sinister purpose. Mainstream American culture is being manipulated by government and big business to separate us from what is real—death and horror—and to obscure who is behind it—our government and big business.
“This comfort culture,” says Sturken,” can be found in everything from the small souvenirs that promise reassurance at sites like Ground Zero and the Oklahoma City memorial…Much of the culture of comfort functions as a form of depoliticization and as a means to confront loss, grief, and fear through processes that disavow politics…an American public can acquiesce to its government’s aggressive political and military policies, such as the war in Iraq, when that public is constantly reassured by the comfort offered by the consumption of patriotic objects, comfort commodities, and security consumerism.”
As the economy and political system continue to collapse, we will likely see more mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Thus we should be prepared. And we should give ourselves permission to get real about mourning.
So, as a public service to the grievers of the future, I hereby offer my
Basic Etiquette Following a Massacre:
(1) When interviewed on television never say that your “heart goes out to the victims and their families.” We have heard that hoary chestnut a million too many times. Keep your heart where it belongs, inside your ribcage.
(2) If you are a public official holding a press conference about a school shooting/workplace shooting/terrorist attack, refrain from thanking a long list of local and state officials for their help. This isn’t the Oscars. You haven’t won anything. You are not going to meet Joan Rivers.
(3) Whether attending a memorial service or actual funeral, leave your hoodies, baggy pants and tanktops at home. No baseball caps. No T-shirts. Don’t wear anything with a team logo. Appropriate clothing is formal, black or very dark blue. Men wear suits with ties. Women wear long dresses. Don’t got ’em? Stay home. You don’t get to be on CNN.
(4) If you know one or more of the victims, ask their surviving relatives whether they would prefer flowers or a donation to a preferred charity. Otherwise simply choose an appropriate charity and make a donation in their name. Do not waste money on flowers and stupid stuffed animals.
(5) Unless the victims include at least one politician, no politician should speak at the service. If there is at least one dead or wounded politician, politicians who do speak should refrain from political rhetoric.
(6) No. Applause. Ever.
NEXT WEEK: Toilet etiquette. How to wipe. How to flush.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL