Monday, December 19, 2011

Honoring public figures when they die

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that the only truly unselfish kind of love we experience is love for the dead. Because one has no hope of reciprocal reward in loving a person who has passed away.

While this is an insightful and even beautiful thought, it would be hard to defend it unequivocally. Freud's concept of mourning deals with how the ego holds on to the cherished individual even after their passing, a process not without elements (ego needs) that could be called selfish. Familial and inheritance considerations can also affect both the public and the individual experience of mourning, again elements not without their selfish aspects.

And the public mourning of famous individuals moves into a different dimension, in which selfish or partisan interests often stand at the forefront.

Glenn Greenwald recalls how this process worked in a thoroughly propagandistic way with the passing of Ronald Reagan. The media was happy to cooperated with Republican politicians in canonizing him as a secular - or even more than secular - saint. (Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths 12/17/2011):

... the most notable aspect of that intense public ritual was the full-scale canonization of this deeply controversial, divisive and consequential political figure. Americans - including millions too young to remember his presidency - were bombarded with a full week of media discussions which completely whitewashed Reagan’s actions in office: that which made him an important enough historical figure to render his death worthy of such worldwide attention in the first place. There was a virtual media prohibition on expressing a single critical utterance about what he did as President and any harm that he caused. That's not because the elegies to Reagan were apolitical - they were aggressively political - but because nothing undercutting his deification was permitted. ...

The key claim there was that "politics is put aside." That’s precisely what did not happen. The entire spectacle was political to its core. Following Woodruff's proclamation were funeral speeches, all broadcast by CNN, by then-House Speaker Denny Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney hailing the former President for gifting the nation with peace and prosperity, rejuvenating national greatness, and winning the Cold War. This scene repeated itself over and over during that week: extremely politicized tributes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan continuously broadcast to the nation without challenge and endorsed by its "neutral" media - all shielded from refutation or balance by the grief of a widow and social mores that bar one from speaking ill of the dead. ...

Though he became more popular after leaving office (like most Presidents), it was that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader. As media and political figures lavished him with politicized praise, there was virtually no mention of the brutal, civilian-extinguishing covert wars he waged in Central America, his funding of terrorists in Nicaragua, the pervasive illegality of the Iran-contra scandal perpetrated by his top aides and possibly himself, the explosion of wealth and income inequality ushered in by "Reagonmics" which persists today, his escalation of the racially disparate Drug War, his slashing of domestic programs for the poor accompanied by a deficit-causing build-up in the military budget, the racially-tinged (at least) attacks on welfare-queens-in-Cadillacs, the Savings & Loan crisis resulting from deregulation, his refusal even to acknowledge AIDS as tens of thousands of the Wrong People died, the training of Muslim radicals in Afghanistan and arming of the Iranian regime, the attempt to appoint the radical Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, or virtually anything else that would undermine the canonization. The country was drowned by a full, uninterrupted week of pure, leader-reverent propaganda. [my emphasis]
Glenn makes an important distinction that loops back to Kierkegaard's concept: "This happened because of an unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures. They are not and should not be the same." Honoring the departed out of love or personal respect does include the kind of unselfishness to which Kierkegaard referred.

As the title of Glenn's article indicates, he is applying these reflections to Christopher Hitchens' passing and the generally highly positive commentary he received in even left-leaning media. As he puts it, Hitchens " particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writings but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent."

Not least among those was his rabid support of the Iraq War. Glenn retweeted a comment by cartoonist Matt Bors, "Why aren't Iraqis writing tributes to Christopher Hitchens?"

And he suggests that the general cheerful refusal to take Hitchens to task in the commentary last week has a lot to do with the Look Forward Not Backward view of the Iraq War: "Part of that is the by-product of America's refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq."

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