The Value of Death and the Value of Passion

December 14, 2013 § 4 Comments

I am reading what is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.  Schulman is a survivor of the AIDS Plague in New York City in the 80s and early 90s.  She is deeply implicated in queer culture in New York, in the fight for the rights of those inflicted with AIDS during that era and the fight to commemorate and remember those who died.  81,542 people died of AIDS in New York City from 1981 to 2008.  2008 is 12 years after the Plague ended, according to Schulman.

The Gentrification of the Mind is a blistering indictment of gentrification in the East Village of Manhattan, an area of the city I knew as Alphabet City, and the area around St. Mark’s Place.  It’s the same terrain of Manhattan that Eleanor Henderson’s fantastic novel, Ten Thousand Saints, takes place in (I wrote about that here).  This is one of the things I love about cities: the simultaneous and layered existences of people in neighbourhoods, their lives spatially entwined, but culturally separate.

Schulman’s fury drips off the page of The Gentrification of the Mind, which is largely her own memoir of living through that era, in that neighbourhood where she still lives.  In the same flat she lived in in 1982.  She makes an interesting juxtaposition of the value of death, arguing that the 81,542 were of no value to our society, that their deaths were marginalised and, ultimately, forgotten.  Whereas the 2,752 people who died in New York on 9/11 have experienced the exact opposite in death: their lives have been valued, re-assessed and immortalised.  Her point is not to take away from those who died in 9/11, but to interestingly juxtapose those who died due to the neglect of their government and culture and those who died due to external forces.

I just finished reading Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a fictionalised account of the process leading to the creation of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  Waldman reminds us that the lives of those killed on 9/11 were not valued equally, something that should be intrinsic to us all.  The lives of the people who worked in the food courts, the restaurants, cafés and those who manned the parking lots, the custodial staff did not mater, in the end, as much as the first responders, the office workers, the people on the planes.

And this is an interesting argument.  Schulman’s response is much more visceral than mine, but she was there in the 80s and 90s.  I wasn’t.  She was also there on 9/11, I wasn’t.  But I am an historian, she is not.  Death is never equal, just as life isn’t.  It has been this way since forever.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, the lives of the foot soldiers and the sailors under Odysseus’ command are worth nothing, whereas the lives of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus are valued.  The deaths of the first two cause mourning and grief for Odysseus, both at Marathon and on his epic journey home.

All throughout history, people’s lives have been valued differently.  What Schulman sees relative to the victims of the AIDS Plague and 9/11 shouldn’t be surprising.  It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay.  But, fact of the matter, it’s the same as it ever was.  And, after researching, writing, and teaching history for much of the past two decades, I can’t even get all that upset about the devaluation of the marginalised in society anymore.  I don’t think it’s any more right in 2013 than I did as an angry young man 20 years ago, but I have become so jaded as to not even register surprise or anger anymore.

So in reading Schulman’s book, I am surprised by her anger and her passion, and I am also intrigued by it, and I’m a little sad that being an historian is making me increasingly resigned to bad things happening in the world.  It might be time to get my Howard Zinn, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm out, and remember that those men, even after a lifetime of studying, writing, and teaching history, maintained a righteous anger at injustice.

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§ 4 Responses to The Value of Death and the Value of Passion

  • Matthew, I realize I’m opening a can of worms here, but is it just the marginalized that are devalued? What about those that are killed every day in the US as a result of gun violence. Slate.com’s Infograph captures all the deaths since Sandy Hook. Why not memorialize them with a simple policy change.

    Much like your own admission, death in general, anyone’s, has become marginalized. We remember Sandy Hook, Columbine, and in our country, Ecole Polytechnique, but why was 9/11 one of the few to have actually affected change? In such a paradigm shifting way? What does that say about society? And who decides which deaths matter, long term?
    For the most part, society shrugs our shoulders, learns little and moves on.

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      The death of the marginalised, like their lives, are always devalued, that is true. Death has become so commonplace in our world, through a combination of 24-hour news cycles, video games, and mass entertainment. I saw a stat a few years back that by the time a kid turns 18 in our world, s/he has seen upwards of 200 “deaths” on screen, whether fictionalised or real. And until it happens within our world, with someone we know dying, it’s all just noise out there.

      I think the difference between 9/11 and the mass shootings is simple: it’s easy to find blame for 9/11 and assign it to someone: Osama bin Laden. It’s much more difficult with mass shootings. Do we blame the victims? the shooter? gun policies? politicians? gun makers? Second Amendment activists?

      And when it comes to diseases like AIDS or cancer, well, that’s what those diseases do, they kill people.

      So we shrug our shoulders, maybe say a prayer for the departed, and carry on.

      The more I get into Schulman’s book, she talks about gay artists and writers in the East Village in the 80s, about the men who died. And all too often, she says that their books are long out of print, their art is rotting away in a storage locker somewhere. But the saddest, most poignant thing she says is in discussing what happened to the belongings of these men when they died. She recalls walking home one day and seeing a huge collection of playbills in a dumpster, a life’s collection. Another gay man had died of AIDS, she comments. And that’s the closest she gets to being jaded by the deaths. The fact that she’s dedicated her life to memorialising these men makes it clear that she didn’t become inured to death.

  • Valerie Petit says:

    True and sad that because AIDS was such a feared disease at the time, the victims were automatically thought to be promiscuous or degenerate much the same as alcoholics are attributed with weak morals and no intellectual capabilities. Both are misunderstood diseases with no cure but still socially unacceptable………….society has no empathy due to lack of knowledge. Passion is still a powerful motivator for any individual to effect change.

  • […] already. (Kim Eichlen’s The Disappeared; Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints (and here) Teofilio Ruiz’s The Terror of History; C.J. Shivers’ The Gun; Sarah Schulman’s […]

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