Peaches Geldof's death caused ripples on social media. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on mourning in the digital age: Selfies at funerals and memorial hashtags

There is nothing we can do to make normal or “appropriate” the death of a dear friend, or a beloved public figure.

How do we deal with death in the digital age? In recent weeks and months, social media has been unremittingly macabre, reacting to the passing of artists, public figures and political heroes. Lou Reed. Nelson Mandela. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Bob Crow. Tony Benn. Sue Townsend. Most recently, 25-year-old journalist and socialite Peaches Geldof was found dead in her home, and after everyone from Boy George to the Irish prime minister tweeted their condolences, the commentariat queued up to ask - had the "frenzy" of digital mourning gone too far? Was the handwringing just unscrupulous new media "cashing in" on tragedy? 

Memorial hashtags, selfies at funerals, maudlin Facebook memorial pages, orchestrated mobs of mourning for the latest celebrity to die young. The consensus amongst the self-designated guardians of cultural standards is that internet grief has become monstrously inappropriate, an insult to propriety. In fact, what is monstrous is not the awkward intersection of modern media and public mourning. What is monstrous is the fact that twenty-five-year-olds die before their time. What is inappropriate is the fact that brave activists and beloved writers continue to age,sicken and die right when we need their wisdom and courage more than ever. It is not social media that makes these deaths shocking. Death itself is shocking, and remains so in every medium. As Judith Butler wrote in Violence, Mourning, Politics: “What grief displays is the thrall in which our relations with others holds us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain . . . Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

There is nothing particularly new about "excessive public mourning". Some commentators seem to be labouring under the impression that there was once a time when the gutter press respected the dead, that the very earliest pamphleteers did not feed off gruesome murders, public executions and the cooling bodies of tragic socialites. As the age of mass-media dawned, melodramatic mourning for public figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to John Kennedy, became a stock part of the sales plan. And if you think Twitter is macabre, consider the fact that the mainstream media obituaries for most of the famous people who are due to pass away in the next decade have already been written. I was recently contacted by a television studio with a request to record a tribute to a member of the royal family who is seemingly still in good health.

One morning last September, I got a phone call telling me that our dad had had a heart attack and was in a coma. On the way to the hospital, I tweeted that my father was seriously ill and I was rushing to see him. Several internet denizens replied that I should be ashamed of "capitalising" on what had happened. Rage ran through me like a blade. What gave these people the right to tell me how to express grief and shock? What gave anyone that right? I was so caught up that I neglected to change out of the T-Shirt I was wearing, which happened to have a giant grinning skull on it - which actually was inappropriate attire for an intensive care unit.

When dad’s life support was withdrawn several days later, my sisters and I sat down to decide what to say on social media, because it felt like we had to say something. Eventually we settled on a short, sad message all of us could use. It was one of the most difficult parts of the most difficult week of our lives: for everything else, there was a set way of doing things, relatives to call, forms to fill in, decisions to be made to a schedule. But with this, we were on our own. Part of us wanted to say nothing. But when singer Lou Reed passed away a few weeks later, amid the tidal wave of popular sentiment, the Twitter storms and tributes, I found myself irrationally cross that the internet was not mourning my lovely but objectively unfamous father with the same zeal. Where were the hashtags?

There are no rules for what to do online when someone dies, but plenty of opportunity for instant reactions and awkward status updates. The dead, however, are beyond caring whether somebody makes a gaffe on Twitter. Public mourning is for those left behind. When it comes to the rightness and fitness of the rituals, there is only one question that really matters, and it is this - is enough being done to support the family and friends of the person who has died? Everything else is secondary to that. What was truly disgraceful in the days after Peaches Geldof’s death was not the hundreds of thousands of strangers who had never met the young journalist and socialite tweeting what some called ‘shallow grief’, but the snooty comment pieces opining that she really wasn’t worth all the fuss. 

Spiked Editor and professional heartless contrarian Brendan O’Neill asked his readers “just what were the achievements of this young woman everyone was suddenly weeping for? She wore clothes, that’s one thing.” O’Neill deemed this a "pressing question". It was not a pressing question. It was a cruel and degrading question next to which the reported 370,000 tweets about Geldof in the hours after her death was announced seem positively respectful.

We live in interesting times, times of weird technology and easy outrage, but death is still the weirdest and most outrageous thing of all. There is nothing we can do to make normal or "appropriate" the death of a dear friend, or a beloved public figure, or a young person who should have had years of fun and growing up still to live. Death itself is deeply inappropriate. It is crass and comes too soon. When it does, leaving the rest of us at our most awkwardly, awfully human, all we can do is be as kind to each other as possible.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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