Charlie Stross: April 2021 Archives

TITLE: Someone died

So, a rather famous old man died yesterday. I'm not going to say any more about him, for reasons that'll become obvious below: instead I'm going to talk about the vile media feeding frenzy we're about to be subjected to.

Compulsory mourning for a stranger sucks--especially when it's performative Victorian-style royal mourning.

The past century has seen a huge cultural flip-flop so that death and mourning are as inadmissible/peripheral to public life today as sex was in the 1890s, and vice versa.

Back in the 1890s, at least among the upper classes sex was spoken of elliptically or not at all, carried out furtively and in private, and not admitted to in polite society. Everybody did it, but nobody wanted to be known for it, and the taboos surrounding it were many and punishment for infractions could be savage. But mourning was a huge social spectacle, acted out in public: there were special clothes, ritualized stages of mourning with defined time frames within which certain behaviours were expected and other normal activities suspended. The funeral cortege was a public procession through the streets, sometimes with hired mourners to indicate the degree to which the deceased was respected: monumental architecture sprouted in graveyard.

Then the 20th century happened.

Today we're relatively open to discussions of sex--at least to talking about it and portraying it openly in the media. (I'm not sure we're having more of it--the Victorians were hyperactive furtive shaggers--but we're not trying to hide it, for the most part.) However, death isn't something we're routinely exposed to. The demographic transition from a high birth rate/high death rate society to a low birth rate/low death rate culture has resulted in death becoming something that mostly happens behind closed hospice and hospital doors. Funerals still happen, and act as an excuse for reunions of far-flung families ... but then we resume everyday life immediately. Employers grant a week off for the death of a spouse, parent, or child: more distant relatives are ignored. The idea of women going into seclusion at home, wearing only black clothing (and a veil if venturing out in public) for six months, would be a jaw-dropper. Grief and bereavement is a very private thing these days, not a fit subject for sharing. The normal thing to do this century is to leave the bereaved family decently alone with their grief in private.

But then the Queen's squeeze died, and the national discourse is suddenly dragging us on a 150 year deep dive into the unfamiliar territory of archaic public mourning rituals. And the vultures are circling ...

I never met Prince Philip, or his wife and kids. My only interaction with the royal family ever was to walk across a stage during a graduation ceremony attended by a bored minor royal--the patron of the university I attended. They are, in a very real sense, strangers to me: no more familiar than Kim Kardashian or Elon Musk.

And yet I'm expected to join in an orgy of vicarious synthetic grief and mourning and wrap myself in either a flag, or a black armband, or both (I'm unclear). The sanctimonious right wing tone police are already out in force, marching in columns in every newspaper. On top of the normal stentorian roar of monarchist calls for obedience, this time round we also have moralistic finger-wagging injunctions to observe social distancing because of COVID19: to remain silent behind closed doors, the royal funerary rites to invade our private spaces.

The UK is ruled by a monarchy-obsessed reactionary Party (and by Party I do not mean to identify the Conservatives: rather, it's the Party of the Establishment as embodied by the state itself). The media aligned with the monarchy-obsessed party can--and will--use this event to bury bad news or manufacture pretexts (Look! They're not wearing black! Or genuflecting obediently to power!) attack the usual targets. Expect the government to use this grim-reaper-delivered opportunity to the max to bury bad news (renewed rioting in Northern Ireland, the Scottish election, Brexit, COVID19 vaccine shortages, corruption) and demand that we focus on the ritual of royal mourning instead of paying attention to current events.

The cultural dynamic of celebrity drags the unthinking and unaware along with it. Humans like to watch the powerful (we're descended from primates who live in troupes, after all), and the death of a member of the royal family is very much like the death of a film star, musician, famous-for-being-famous celebrity--it's ripe for exploitation for commercial or political ends.

Worse, looming on the horizon is the spectre of another royal funeral. The Queen is 94 years old and presumably a grieving widow. Losing a spouse after more than 70 years of marriage is like suffering an amputation of the soul, according to my mother, after a similar bereavement. She's probably not going to last out the current decade, even though her family is famously long-lived. Indeed, widows or widowers often follow their spouse relatively rapidly after such a long relationship: codependency withdrawal can kill. And the usual vultures are circling.

Shorter summary: the royal family is institutionally resistant to change, this means its death/mourning rituals are increasingly out of touch with contemporary cultural norms, and the cognitive dissonance between what they tell us is expected of us and what we know to be true will be exploited by manipulative and malignant political actors.

It's April 1st today, historically a day when persons of ill repute tried to prank one another into believing ridiculous things.

However, this is the second year of the COVID19 pandemic, and also the year Brexit bites, and the second year in which British Prime Minister Clownshoes Churchill can tell any damn lie he feels like in the House of Commons without being called on it by the press, the public, or even the leader of the opposition.

Take for example the recent release of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which in other years would be an epic-level April Fool's Day trolling exercise (it purports to prove that the UK is a tolerant, multicultural, ethnically diverse paradise that has abolished structural racism and in which non-white people experience no discrimination whatsoever, they're just imagining it). It's clearly a joke, having been commissioned by the jester prime minister himself, who wrote (during his career as a journalist and editor) of "picanninies with watermelon smiles" (and described veiled muslim women as "letterboxes", and let's not even get into his overt homophobia). Ha, ha, ha. (Shakes rattle at monarch, squeezes pig's bladder to make farting sound.) And yet here we are, expected to believe a rigged report from a committee so incredibly unsure of itself that they had to name it "C.R.E.D.", presumably as a signal that they needed help ...

... And this is without even mentioning the previous US President.

It is therefore no surprise that as of 2021, the April Fool tradition has been declared to be obsolete by the International Trade Commission subcommittee on Humor.

Henceforth, trading in April Fool's japery is banned (and may result in suspension of social media accounts and blogging privileges) and an international treaty criminalizing the propagation deceptive and malign jests will relieve us of the onerous obligation to evaluate material we see on the internet skeptically for at least one day every year.

Indeed, I'm going to set up a petition to the committee to consign April the 1st to the status of damnatio memoriae—its name to forever be stricken from memory and banned from utterance. Where it's necessary to mention it for calendrical purposes it will be referred to as "March 32nd", and it will be followed sequentially by "April 2nd": when I've got the petition website up I'll post details here, and I encourage you all to sign it.

Thank you, and have a happy March 32nd! (And may it be the first of many.)

(PS: Toby Young could not be contacted for comment.)



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in April 2021.

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