November 24, 2006

Remembering the admirable.

Mike Ion is running a poll over here at his blog for person of the year. I always think that such things are quite comical because how can we know the kindest or best person around this year- for all we know its some obscure Papua New Guinean Tribeswoman or Brazilian politician that the Western media never covers. One of Mike's reccommendations though is Anna Politkovskaya- whether her most brave and interesting work was done this year- I have no idea- having read only one of her books all I can attest to once again is her bravery and integrity in reporting what she saw. Whoever murdered her, I hope they are brought to justice but more important than awarding her any trophy, is in my opinion, that we keep questioning authority and keep thinking about issues. When a person dies, it is not enough to place their ashes on a permanent mound and keep watch lest their burial place be desecrated.

Mike's right to think that Politkovskaya was one of the most admirable people to have lived and died this year. I am no expert on Russia but even someone as ignorant as I had heard of her work and her bravery. We should however be cautious in what we say- as I said most Westerners are in the position that I am in- scarcely knowing this woman save through the occasional piece of work that she did that reached the West. For us this woman could be summed up in one idea, that she was a brave and uncorrupt standard bearer in Russia for human rights and for democracy and that she died quite possibly for being that.

Our quite genuine grief is conditioned by that. For all of us when we analyse a person- we see a continuity that isn't really there. Your view of me is moulded by several moments at which you have interracted with me on a computer screen- you've read these words, the words I wrote before and so on and therefore you know some of my interests and my way of thinking about matters political. Its similar with Politkovskaya- what you or I know of her in the most part, is the journalism, the written words she produced and the pieties after death from children, colleagues and friends. We don't know what she looked like when angry, how she cooked, how she was as a friend when someone needed comforting or any of the important things that render us most our private selves. All we have is this image of a brave woman standing up for democracy and human rights.

We must be careful therefore, and I'm sure Mike is, to realise what it is that we mourn- because it isn't Politkovskaya- the things most Politkovskayan about her are lost to us and we can never gain that knowledge to have that grief- what we mourn is the death of her bravery and her resolution. When we mourn we mourn to preserve that person that we loved in our minds, mourning is an act of remembrance just as it is an act of neccessary forgetfulness. For us, that did not know Politkovskaya, the question becomes therefore how should we mourn for this image of resolution and bravery. We could crowd round a funeral pyre and heap ashes upon it with those who knew and loved her, but we did not know her and we did not love her, we knew the image and we felt for the image of her as the resolute defender of democracy.

Our place is not in that crowd, remembering the woman and preserving instances in our own lives of the woman's qualities because we don't know them. Our place is rather to preserve the qualities we do know- which are almost impersonal qualities- they are qualities which as Mike's post implies can be held by many and not just by one embattled Russian journalist. Whereas the crowds round her grave will mourn her unique personality, we mourn her general qualities. They mourn Anna the individual, we mourn Anna as exemplar of the human race at its best. Consequently our acts of mourning are different- for those who knew her, they will remember her through a haze as a person and her impact on their lives- for us though we remember her best not through pretending that we knew her, and piously exclaiming over her grave how wonderful she was, but by using her bravery, her icon as a standpoint to inspire people to take up the causes she left behind her.

We did not know her, we knew that she was brave and benificent. We have two duties- the first is to attempt to understand the remnants of her we have left and to see that her journalism is almost certainly much more complicated in its attitudes than being a spokeswoman of the West in Russia, and the second is to remember those qualities of bravery and benificence and use them to inspire ourselves and others to continue protesting for human dignity, democracy, debate and human rights.

I apologise if this post is a bit garbled- there is a thought there but I don't think that I have expressed it too well.