Bowie and the tragedy of death

Originally published 13/01/2016

The Madaya crisis was alieved temporarily on Sunday when trucks rolled into the western Syrian city carrying enough food and aid to feed and support 40,000 besieged citizens for a month. At the conclusion of tense, often uncertain, negotiations between humanitarian aid workers and militia loyal to the Syrian government the siege was lifted and aid finally delivered to thousands of stranded citizens. The Australian reports at least 28 people have died from starvation in the city, while 400 were ‘on the brink of death’ and 250 others found suffering with ‘acute malnutrition’ at the time aid arrived. The story gained international attention – but the biggest story of the week was not the 28 who perished through starvation, nor the children reportedly seen combining grass and water in a desperate attempt at making soup. The biggest story of the week was the death of David Bowie. And haven’t we just gorged ourselves silly on that.

I’ve a great appreciation for David Bowie and his work. But logic dictates rock stars approaching their 70s are approaching their expiry date at a rapid rate, and it should come as no great surprise (or shock, or any of the other far-too-sentimental reactions spewed across social media) to any person with any understanding of mortality that we are all born and we all die. After Bowie’s long, accolade-rich life, “tragic” doesn’t seem the right word to describe his death. Sad, perhaps, but one which should have been expected and which should have taken few people by surprise. Never failing to pick up the latest western tragedy, Twitter went into top gear and his name still “trends” on the website while Facebook stories explaining how Ziggy Stardust allowed Joe Bloggs to understand their own sexuality continue to be churned out with as much grace and finesse as the operations of low-grade pet food production line. Mechanical, dreary, uninspiring and – if you consume too much – surely not healthy for more than a couple of days.

But Bowie tribute posts and hashtags continue to circulate, bringing us to an important consideration. The Paris attacks; London bombings; Sydney Siege; September 11; Charlie Hebdo: how much did we hear of these? #JeSuiCharlie was a social media steamroller. #PrayforParis came in December on the back of synchronised bombings and shootings in the French capital. Facebook even allowed us to edit your profile picture to include a faded French flag atop your regular image. What did changing your social media colour scheme do? Nothing, but it certainly seemed to make a lot of people think they were in some way personally contributing to the recovery effort. Even in Australia I’m sure a lot felt vulnerable. And when somebody else is made to look vulnerable, or is made to be a victim, we generally show compassion. But our compassion rarely stretches beyond western incidents such as the Paris attacks or the death of a rock star like David Bowie.

On October 20, 2015, 103 people were killed in an Islamic State-supported bombing in Turkey’s capital Ankara. On December 8, 50 were killed and 35 injured in a bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan. On the same day, four were killed in Rafah, Egypt, also in a bombing. Three days later, December 11, 60 were killed and 80 injured in a car bombing in Tell Tamer, Syria. The next day, 16 were killed and 54 injured in another car bombing in Homs, Syria. The same day three were killed and 14 injured in a bombing in the Philippines; and 30 were killed and 20 injured in a vicious melee attack on civilians in Borno, Nigeria by Boko Haram militants. One day later, a bombing in Parachinar, Pakistan, killed 23 and injured 30.

Where were the tributes on social media for those tragedies? Where was #PrayforAnkara, #PrayforKandahar, #PrayforRafah, #PrayforTellTamer? Why was there no #PrayforMadaya these last weeks, or Mosul, or Rawa, Sharqat, Rutba, Qaim, or Ramadi? All cities under constant control and oppression by Islamic State. They didn’t exist. There were no hashtags, nor was it possible to change your Facebook profile picture to one containing a Turkish, Afghan, Philippine, Syrian, Egyptian or Nigerian flag. For the most part, except for in the most extreme cases (such as in Madaya this week) we’re barely exposed to the realities that lay outside our western sphere. Yes, they’re often reported, but by whom and with what emphasis? David Bowie became the latest star to ascend to the top of the music charts posthumously, another memorable achievement from a life of memorable achievements – but how long will it be until we’ve lost interest or forgotten about the tragedies in Madaya, Ankara, Istanbul or Kandahar? With attacks on civilian populations seemingly becoming almost commonplace outside of the west it can and would become exhausting to pay tribute to each indiscriminate killing. But by prioritising Paris, or Sydney, or London, or San Bernardino, or aged rock stars, we do great injustice to the many more who don’t make it into the paper or who are consigned to a news-in-brief column toward the back pages. I place no more priority on one civilian death over another, nor do I think the death of 69-year-old David Bowie is in any way more tragic than the death of one in Madaya a world away from western popular culture and the music charts. But the death of 28 through starvation in western Syria, 30 in Borno, 50 in Kandahar or 103 in Ankara should be given the same tribute as 130 in Paris, let alone the same as an aged rock star dying of natural causes in Manhattan.

To David Bowie I pay tribute. His music will continue to influence artists for many years to come, and the unmistakable guitar introduction to Rebel Rebel and so many other classics written in his own pen will be blasted through pubs and parties long after his obituaries disappear from newspapers and websites. But let’s not do days of page-long spreads when multitudes are dying who might at best get a small column in the back pages. Let’s save the front pages, spreads and hashtags for the real tragedies.

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