Tuesday, 9 April 2013

on death and honesty

margaret thatcher is dead, and as can be expected, there is a lot of reaction to that news.  there is the normal expected reaction of the present british prime minister, praising her achievements and her qualities.  there are the tributes from other leaders around the world.  there are the expressions of grief from conservatives.

but there are also the opposite: those who say they won't mourn her, those who are prepared to review the severely negative impacts of her legacy, and those who are actually celebrating her death.

about the latter, there has been much righteous indignation, both from the left & the right.  it's considered in bad taste, nasty, disrespectful.  even criticism of her policies and her beliefs has been sidelined with a "we shouldn't speak ill of the dead".  even by those who fully understand the effects of those policies and the widespread suffering it has caused.  even by those who sympathise with the poor & dispossessed.

the celebrations and reactions of glee reminded of similar reactions in iraq at the fall of saddam hussein & in libya with the capture & death of muammar gaddafi.  those pictures went around the world and we didn't see too much criticism about such celebrations being disrespectful or nasty.  the overwhelming opinion appeared to be that people were right to celebrate the removal of a tyrant, and that it's ok to be happy about the death of someone who had caused so much harm.

there was a similar, pretty global, reaction to the death of osama bin laden.  a lot of the reaction was of a celebratory nature.

yet a similar reaction by people who directly experienced the tyranny of ms thatcher's policies is getting a completely different reaction. 

i can say that i was never supportive of celebrations of death - for example, see here and here. i felt pretty much the same when saddam hussein was hanged & no, i don't think actually celebrating margaret thatcher's death is a good idea.  and it's possible that some of those who are against the celebration of ms thatcher's death were also against the celebration of the deaths of these others i have named.  but the majority of people who have been complaining today are showing an appalling double standard - cheering the death of some but not accepting that others would cheer the death of a british leader for similar reasons.

but this notion of not speaking ill of the dead, i have a different view about that.  i think there is a public good over-ride to that rule, and particularly when someone has had such an overarching influence on a global scale.  i think people should have to live with the consequences of their legacy, that the pain they left behind should be remembered at the time of their death.  i don't think it's right that their history should be described in glowing terms in the first few days after their death, thereby making it difficult to correct later on.  especially in a world where every record is more or less permanent.

this sentiment was best expressed by the widely-shared glenn greenwald piece in the guardian:

This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure's death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power. "Respecting the grief" of Thatcher's family members is appropriate if one is friends with them or attends a wake they organize, but the protocols are fundamentally different when it comes to public discourse about the person's life and political acts. I made this argument at length last year when Christopher Hitchens died and a speak-no-ill rule about him was instantly imposed (a rule he, more than anyone, viciously violated), and I won't repeat that argument today; those interested can read my reasoning here. 

i'd strongly recommend reading the piece with his "reasoning", where he talks about the events after ronald reagan's death and makes the powerful point:

How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

more than this, it's disrespectful of all the people who have suffered and continue to suffer because of the political decisions of the deceased.  to sideline that suffering is to hide it at the time when there is the greatest opportunity to highlight the consequences of the deceased's actions.  while we are ready to consider the pain of the family of the deceased, why should we not equally be willing to openly acknowledge the pain of thousands, sometimes millions of others, those who were innocent and hurt through no fault of their own, but only because they had the misfortune to be born in place and time when the deceased had power over them?

the only final point i want to make here is one that is being made across many feminist blogs around the world in regards to ms thatcher, and one that is continuously made regarding any number of women: disagreeing with her politics is ok, attacking her for being a woman is really not ok.  there is no need to call her a witch, or any other gendered insult.  to do so harms all women, not just this one woman.  after all, there is plenty to criticise about her policies, beliefs and actions.

regardless of that, i do not rejoice at her death.  i don't wish hell for her or for any other person.  i do wish that she is remembered accurately, which includes all the negative aspects as well.  RIP margaret thatcher.

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