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.