On politicising tragedy

We still don’t know exactly how many people died in the fire that tore through London’s Grenfell Tower a week ago. As I write, the death toll stands at 79. According to British police, this number may rise. Clicking through images of the missing online, it’s hard not to be struck by the heterogeneity of names and faces. Hardly any are white. Among them is Khadija Saye, an artist with Gambian heritage. It seems Saye’s mother, Mary Mendy, also died as flames and smoke filled the tower from the second to the twenty-seventh floor. At 3:00am last Wednesday, Saye wrote on Facebook: ‘Please pray for me. There’s a fire in my council block. I can’t leave the flat. Please pray for me and my mum.’ As she tapped out these words, babies were being thrown to safety from apartments on the building’s eighth floor.

In a pattern commonplace to tragedies of this kind, the recriminations and counter-recriminations began almost as soon as the flames had been extinguished, social media the platform of choice for the airing of these debates. It was the left’s fault, the right was to blame, or, as The Times’ Libby Purves had it, Grenfell brought shame to both camps. Hard on the heels of such claims came another commonplace accusation – that commentators were ‘politicising’ a tragedy. This Facebook comment by Richard Senior, responding to a post by British musician Billy Bragg that drew attention to the relationship between low taxation and poor public services, was typical:

Get lost. It’s shocking you seek to score political points on the back of such a tragedy Bragg. Are you seriously suggesting that this would a) not have happened and b) been dealt with quicker by a labour government… This is a low shot.

In the West, many taboos have stubbornly attached themselves to death. The notion that one should not speak unkindly of the dead (De mortuis nihil nisi bonum) is familiar to many of us. We know, too, that to make light of the recently deceased is to court societal disapprobation or even ostracism, an idea captured by the habitual phrase ‘too soon’. Then there is the idea that certain matters – education, climate change, family violence – should be ‘above politics’, suspended beyond the grubby reach of parliamentary deal-making and compromise.

But what does it mean to politicise something? The online Oxford dictionary offers this rather bland definition: to ‘cause (an activity or event) to become political in character’. It has come to be used almost exclusively pejoratively, with the second meaning Oxford gives us – to make someone politically aware – hardly ever pressed into service nowadays. Surprisingly, the negative use of the word began to gain traction in the public discourse only as recently as the late 1980s.

In a potted history of commentators using the term in this way, Slate’s Katy Waldman cited three early examples in the United States, each arguably more toe curling than the last: in 1988 the National Association of Broadcasters claimed the Surgeon General’s office was ‘politicising the emotional tragedy of drunk driving’ by holding workshops on the problem that highlighted alcohol advertising. In 1991, an official from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development responded to bleak shelter statistics by saying that, ‘Homelessness is too great a tragedy, individual and social, to politicise’. Then, in 1992, soap opera star Deidre Hall refused to wear an AIDS ribbon to that year’s Emmy Awards, claiming that to do so would be to ‘politicise a human tragedy’.

What these examples demonstrate is that, far from reflecting a politically neutral position, the accusation of politicising something is in itself political, a kind of ‘nothing to see here’ that obfuscates rather than clarifies the true nature of the issue at stake. Not unlike ‘political correctness’ – a term that took off at about the same time – its main utility as a pejorative lies in its virtual meaninglessness, giving its users a way of avoiding a problem they’d rather not confront. Asserting their respect for the dead from behind a veil of bad faith, the wielders of the charge of politicisation pretend that everybody but them has an agenda.

In fact, it is the same tabloid newspapers that rail against ‘red tape’ and government regulation that demand to know ‘how did this happen?’, and the same journalists who routinely denigrate immigrants and the poor and the unemployed who profess to mourn the victims of Grenfell – overwhelmingly poor working class, and people of colour. These same journalists now wonder at the actions of Darren Osborne, their screaming, hatemongering stories on the supposed Islamisation of Britain carefully sublimated. These journalists, and the people who think like them, are not on the side of the bereaved. They are on the side of, to quote from Charlotte Bence’s excellent online piece about Grenfell for this journal:

[The people] who vote down legislation that would mean all UK homes must be fit for habitation, who are themselves landlords, who celebrate the decimation of health and safety legislation in the relentless pursuit of profit, who sit on and suppress reports into fire safety in tower blocks [and] will still insist that what happened at Grenfell Tower was a ‘terrible accident’ and not the result of a series of political choices and policies.

For what is there left but impotent moral gestures – at their worst an especially hollow kind of virtue signalling – if we insist that it is not fit to speak of politics in matters of human tragedy? When Bence writes that, ‘Housing, in London and elsewhere, is inherently political’, she does so not to apply politics like an unsightly layer of paint on a wall, but rather to expose the crumbling brickwork that was there all along.

It took the deaths of 79 people, and almost certainly more, to bring about the kind of inquiry Grenfell residents had been demanding for the 18 months before the fire. But what happens next? It may, in the weeks ahead, become all too easy for conservative commentators to follow Katie Hopkin’s lead, and unironically swap their ire from immigrants and ‘benefit scroungers’ to executives and officials, as in the image of the flame of a blowlamp switching from one object to another in Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. Perhaps, as Hopkins wishes in one of her typically punitive reveries, some of the individuals directly responsible for Grenfell will be sent to jail. But harder questions will need to be asked too – about race and class and inequality under the corporate structure of late capitalism.

The more I look at pictures of the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower – a grim Ballardian vision if there ever was one – the more it seems to ring with the silence of an underclass made voiceless by our politics, which we now, more than ever, must speak of. It will haunt us.


Image: Grenfell Tower protesters / Wasi Daniju

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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