Since the death of Kim Jong-il, the world’s media has been voyeuristically fixated on the scenes of public mourning gripping North Korea. As a sociologist, I’ve found some of this footage fascinating. So too the way in which these scenes of extreme public mourning are frequently being framed, at least by the UK media.
But is this kind of public mourning really so alien? The point was well made in a tweet by the political journalist David Torrance yesterday:
Look at all those crazy N Koreans weeping & wailing over a hereditary state figure they’d never met. We Brits wouldn’t do anything like that
I had just turned 12 when Princess Diana died. I remember being told, “you’ll always remember where you were when you found this out”. For what it’s worth, I don’t remember where I was though, as a 12 year old during the summer holidays, I assume I was at home. I remember the funeral, mostly for Elton John’s song which, in my 12 year old way, I found quite moving (whereas I now find it mawkish and weird). Most of all though I remember images of the crowds, the endless seas of teddy bears and flowers. It’s only looking back on this time as an adult that I can understand quite how bizarre it really was, as ‘an entire nation’ was ‘united’ in mourning for the ‘people’s princess’. As the comedian Mark Thomas reflected on the funeral, “it was almost like a Soviet leader had died and they had put on the martial music, except it was images of Diana and her children”.
My point is not to suggest that ‘Lady Di’ represented a cult of personality analogous to Kim Jong-il. Rather that it represented something much more insidious and all the weirder for the widespread blindness to the sheer ludicrousness of it, as well as the nakedly commercial and political uses to which this was put (with many of the emerging chroniclers of New Labour reaching a rare consensus in recognising the effectiveness with which Tony Blair sealed his early bond with the nation by orchestrating public mourning after her death).
If you think I’m over-stating my case, watch this video of P Diddy / Sean Combs (a.k.a. the richest man in hip-hop) at the Diana memorial concert, with such obvious happy-clappy Christian revivalist orchestration that it must have been entirely conscious and deliberate.
Some of these issues are explored in greater depth, albeit not in terms of Kim Jong-il for obvious reasons, in an excellent documentary by the late Christopher Hitchens:
(there’s another 4 parts to the documentary, follow the link through to Youtube to see them)