Death and the Idea of America


When Europe tells stories about America, it is principally telling stories about itself, what it fears it will become; what it is already. To read Baudrillard's America, with its evocations of joggers cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of their energy, is to listen to a story about a world where death is banished to the margins - old age people's homes languishing in the suburbs - and our lives become more frenetic the more we try to push death away.

But while this is principally a European story (or Baudrillard's story about himself),it takes up many of the same presuppositions as the stories Americans tell about themselves. Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death evokes the same landscapes; death medicalized and removed from the home, socially dispensable elderly people, the cult of youth. All these stories take place on top of a story about the American way of life - a story about not accepting one's place, not dying where one began.

When I moved to the states, three months ago, I didn't think I would be taken in by these myths; I didn't want to be the European telling stories about myself through the convenient medium of an endless country.

But to a degree, I must have internalised them, for I was shocked when I arrived: this entire election seemed to pivot around ideas of death.


The tone for my election was set by the Republican convention, just days after my arrival. In Palin’s speech to introduce McCain, as Marc Greif has pointed out, it wasn't quite clear if he was alive.

Her strange phrases conjuring the Presidential nominee as the kind of fellow whose name you will find on war memorials in small towns across this country hung fire, on screens across the country and in the convention hall, until she qualified them – only he was among the ones who came home.

No wonder the Republicans kept winning elections. Death is on their side. Palin's speech conjured up the hordes of the dead; good, honest American soldiers who would be voting Republican even now, if it were not for the inconvenient fact of their demise. Nevertheless: they had dispatched one of their number back to the world of the living, and it was incumbent upon us - well, the Americans - to appease their restless spirits.

The claim here was clear. "Obama is too radical", translates as, he does not speak to our ghosts. On one side, we have McCain, and the cemeteries full of soldiers, on the other side, or so it was made to appear, was Obama, and a Kenyan father.

Despite seeming to have the authority to speak for the dead, the dead were growing restless, and the Republicans could not leave them alone. While Talking Points Memo and the other Democratic blogs documented the way the Republican campaign attempted to smear Obama, the Republican blogs had a very different set of concerns. Dead people.

Everyday brought news of dead people who had risen up, and registered to vote. For while Palin might claim she had small town American on her side, she was clearly feeling anxious about the dead. The afternoon of October 23 brought my favourite headline, at "Support Dead Voter Suppression."

I was confused. Did this mean that the dead always voted Democrat? Were there ranks of zombies even now queuing up at the polling stations? Did the Republican spending plan threaten funding for grave upkeep? Or worse: were there Democrats impersonating the dead, whom, as Palin’s speech made clear, always vote Republican.

Walter Benjamin ends the sixth thesis of the Concept of History with the words: "The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious."

In the Republican anxieties, however, it was not so much that the Democrats will threaten the dead, as much as that already, with intimations of victory, the dead were stirring from the places allotted to them over the last few hundred years of race relations in America.

Over the whole earth, Canetti tells us in Crowds and Power, wherever there are men, there is a conception of the invisible dead. "Man has been obsessed by them; they have been of enormous importance for him: the action of the dead upon the living has been an essential part of life itself." All over Oakland, where I now make my home, I began seeing ghosts, and as we approached Halloween, they surged through the legs of the confused small children being pushed into shops by harassed parents: who else would be harassing the parents into this charade, I wondered, if not the spirits themselves?


In Mexico, Día de los Muertos experienced a surge of popularity in the late 70’s and 80’s. As Claudio Lomnitz sets out in the book whose title I purloined for this column, Death and the Idea of Mexico, nationalists has began to encourage people to celebrate that day in rejection of that American imposition of consumerism and imperialism: Halloween. The latter especially rankled because it tended to be the rich who took it up most avidly, and in a period of neoliberal adjuustment and increasing penury, for the rich to be successfully begging did not sit well with the rest of the population.

The dead, just as at the Republican convention, were again set against the outsider. And, just as after Palin's speech, the dead would just not stay still. The distinction between Day of the Dead and Halloween became increasingly blurred, despite nationalist preoccupations; the latter has become the first part of an extended celebration that segues into Dias de los Muertos in La Paz, Baja California.

But even if death cannot protect Mexicans from Americans, or Palin from the restless spirits, it will not stop us trying to bring the dead to the service of the living.

I sat by the side of the road in the Mission District of San Francisco, watching the Day of the Dead procession pass. There was no chance to make a single meaning out of the blizzard of colors and banners that passed by; death was too diverse, kept slipping through the cracks of every theory I tried to make out of it. Here was death, the great leveler; a promise of equality wrapped up in skeleton costume and the reassurance that we all will die. Yet at the same time I saw death, the bringer of retribution, who was hidden in a McCain mask that foretold his imminent downfall. Here it was not so much that the dead would not be safe if McCain was victorious, as that he would not be safe from the dead – neither from mortality, nor from those already passed on. Even ideas have a proper time to die, it seemed, as "R.I.P Prop 8" banners marched past, a blunt reminder, writing now, that death always refuses to follow the designs of the living.


If there was a moment of self-congratulation after the election, an America that awoke the next morning, recognized its action, and was pleased, then in many quarters this moment has quickly faded. Instead, there is now much talk about how to make this Presidency into something of which Americans can be proud. The new community brought into existence, who found, for the first time in history, a real leader, will have to deal with the dead. And they do not rest still in their graves.