Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thatcher is dead. Do I still care?

It’s hard to imagine a more embittered political song than Elvis Costello’s “Tramp the Dirt Down,” a song that popped up frequently in my Facebook feed after Margaret Thatcher died on Monday. Leftist gadfly and British MP George Galloway tweeted the title as his official response. The lyrics read in part: “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam / And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam … I’d like to live long enough to savour / that when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

Costello was far from alone. This week saw plenty of lists compiling anti-Thatcher songs, from The Beat to Billy Bragg to Crass to Pink Floyd to, um, the Blow Monkeys, some dating as recently as 2011 (Pete Wylie’s “The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies”). And one of my Maclean’s colleagues, Jaime J. Weinman, wrote an excellent story about Thatcher’s galvanizing effect on the British film industry, which resulted in many entrepreneurial, angry young filmmakers (Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh among them) railing against the prime minister and producing brilliant art along the way.

I don’t have anything nice to say about Margaret Thatcher, outside of her obvious importance as the first female leader of a world power—which surely even Top Girls playwright Caryl Churchill would admit is a feat in itself, regardless of the PM’s politics. She is perhaps the most incredibly uncomfortable feminist icon of all, one who once proclaimed: “I hate feminism. It is poison.”

I’m sure she had her finer points, but I only know she opened the floodgates of deregulation (enabling financial atrocities like the mysterious, all-powerful man known only as ‘the London Whale’), mercilessly attacked unions on principle, and opposed economic sanctions to apartheid-era South Africa. (When Brian Mulroney dies, one of the three nice things I will say about him is that he fought Thatcher firmly on this last issue.) On the other hand, the country was in obvious, seemingly irreversible decline before she was elected, under the Labour government in the ’70s—which is in part why punk rock happened.

But like most of my peers, most of my impressions of Thatcher come from popular culture. Britain is a foreign country to me; our Constitution was patriated three years into her first term. I care no more for British politics than anywhere else outside of North America, and I don’t even like much British music since Thatcher left office. (Coincidence?)

So I’m largely surprised—judging by largely laudatory mainstream media coverage and the hissing from my own lefty social circles bidding good riddance—that anyone here has any passionate feelings at all for the Iron Lady. Do we still hold serious grudges about her on this side of the Atlantic? If so, why? Just because some of us still listen to our Smiths and Sinead O’Connor records? I can understand if you were born there or still have family there. But as Canadians, any fascination faded long ago. Except for John Baird, of course—who named his cat after her. (Remember this?)

(On the flip side, I felt the same way about John Peel’s death in 2004. How many North Americans ever actually heard his BBC show? Or is our affection entirely second-hand, based entirely on what our favourite bands thought of him?)

Britain, of course, is still angry. I understand why. Time doesn’t easily heal the wounds inflicted by such a polarizing figure. But I honestly can’t believe that people are holding street parties celebrating her death, 23 years after she left office. She’s no Ceausescu or Pinochet (though she was inexplicably cozy with the latter). I also can’t imagine anything like that happening in North America. Surely the most reviled politician—by the culturati, anyway—of the last 50 years was Richard Nixon, and yet I can’t remember anyone singing about dancing on his grave in 1994 (maybe some of us were still recovering from Kurt Cobain’s suicide). Nor Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004 (maybe we were too busy being actively angry at George W. Bush). I still think Mike Harris was an asshole—but I’m not going to be drinking in the streets when he kicks it; I’ve largely forgotten about him entirely.

And yet one of Britain’s most popular cultural exports of the last 10 years, the film and then the stage musical Billy Elliot, has an uplifting Christmas song in which the chorus fantasizes about Thatcher’s death. (The show is still playing in London’s West End, and, after deliberation, the audience decided the show must go on this week.)

Meanwhile, there’s a Facebook campaign—the kind of which Brits excel, utilized to send an old Rage Against the Machine song to No. 1 during Christmas 2009, or to resuscitate Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” to fight off a reality-show contestant’s version of the same—to send a certain The Wizard of Oz classic up the charts. That’s just weird, and yet somehow emblematic of an era when people consider Facebook’s “Like” button as a form of activism. It’s a song Klaus Nomi also directed toward her during her reign—I’d like to see that climb the charts, just to make it even weirder.

She once said, “I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician.” I’ll grant her that. And I wish I had someone similar on my side of the political fence in power during my lifetime—I haven’t yet. Even if that meant art might get lazy.

I'll admit, though: I do have a sudden urge to see Billy Bragg on his current tour—not only because he just put out his first good record in 20 years.

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