What does it mean to politicize death?

It’s not wrong to politicize death. It’s impossible not to.

More than 300,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, how do we contextualize them? (photo by Matt Botsford)

Meet Roman Mars

If you know of Roman Mars, you’re probably a podcast nerd. Or maybe you’ve seen his multi-million view TED Talk on city flag design. Roman Mars is the host of two shows and the founder of Radiotopia, a collective of podcast and radio producers based in Oakland, California. Most notably, Mars hosts the award-winning podcast 99% Invisible that discusses ‘all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.’ It’s a commendable show that furthers the idea: anything is interesting if you dig deep enough.

Photo by Melanie Pongratz on Unsplash

Mars started another podcast, which aired its first episode on June 7, 2017. This new show, What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, sets out to understand ‘what the 45th President has said and how it jibes with 200 years of the judicial branch interpreting and ruling on the Constitution.’ Released at irregular intervals, this show feels like a pet project for Mars.

He casts himself a ‘fellow student’ with the listener. The teacher is his friend and neighbor Elizabeth Joh, an actual law professor at UC Davis and a writer who contributes to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Slate. Most shows attempt to discuss the goings on of the Trump Administration from an academic perspective, but they often dip into conversations about the ‘unprecedented’ actions of the 45th president and his associates.

Mr. Mars Goes to Washington

In an episode titled Lame Duck, posted on November 26, 2020, Mars and Joh discuss the history and consequences of lame duck presidencies. In the episode, Mars is more revealing about his political leanings than listeners have come to expect:

…the [Republican] governing party doesn’t believe in government intervention when it comes to things like COVID or stimulus relief. It seems their under-riding principle was to undermine [government] institutions. It’s particularly problematic now, when there are bad things happening that need to be acted on. If it wasn’t so dire, their version of coasting wouldn’t hurt so bad. But it does hurt right now, as people suffer…

Mars follows this moment by explaining how his father recently passed away from COVID-19. He talks about the difficult final days where he was only able to see his father through a video call facilitated by ‘Reverend Kate’ holding a tablet to his unresponsive father for their final, one-sided goodbye.

Mars then shares that when he announced this sad news over Twitter, he was so overwhelmed by the response he got from not only listeners but people who happened across the story that he had to mute the thread. Most of the responses were kind and supportive, but there were a significant number of people angry that Mars would “politicize his father’s death.” Those messages were mainly in response to Mars’ follow-up to the initial post:

Never forget Trump’s criminal disregard for the health and well being of the people of this country.

How Dare You?

With that statement, by almost any measurement, Mars ‘politicized’ his father’s death. Politicizing death is something Americans have often thought unpalatable, something to be avoided if one wishes to retain a sense of decorum. But what does it really mean to politicize a death?

In this case, it means understanding the context of the death. Instead of saying ‘my father died of COVID-19,’ Mars specifies the context and says ‘my father died of COVID-19 in the midst of a pandemic that is ravaging a country left to fend for itself by a government that could have helped more, but chose not to.’ Many Trump supporters responded to this ‘politicization” by berating Roman Mars.

Don’t Fall For It

The idea that ‘death should not be politicized’ is a non-argument. Death is inheriently political because no death occurs in a vacuum. If viewing death in context is political, then removing death from context is equally political. By viewing the more than 300,000 COVID-19 deaths as isolated events, you remove the shortcomings of the Trump administration during this pandemic. By placing these deaths in context, you bring the president’s shortcomings to light. Each side has skin in the game.

Photo by Alina Pkhakadze on Unsplash

The argument here is not about whether politicizing death is right or wrong. Rather, it is between thinking the Trump administration was criminally negligent in the face of crisis, or thinking the Trump administration did an upstanding job protecting United States citizens from preventable disaster. The problem is that only one group is entering the conversation in good faith.

To cry foul at politicizing a death is an attempt to avoid having a real conversation about the issues facing our country. It’s a poor captain who decries any talk of maps aboard their ship.

Trying to make sense of this wild, wonderful world.

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