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Apr 08 2013

When famous public figures die

Margaret Thatcher was a very polarizing figure during her time in public life. Some loved her policies, others hated them, with me falling in the latter category. Following her death, there has been the predictable reaction from some quarters that those who disliked her actions should not say anything bad about her out of respect for her family. Of course, when the dead person is an enemy (such as bin Laden or Saddam Hussein and his sons) their delicate sense of propriety seems to disappear and we had in the US gleeful gloating at the highest levels (see here and here).

It would be boorish in the extreme to (say) go to Thatcher’s funeral and jeer or picket or to send the family notes and messages that say one hated her in life and are not sorry she died or similar actions. That is crossing into the private sphere and besides which the death of anyone is not an occasion for celebration or gloating.

But should the negative aspects of her public life be omitted from the reminiscences of her? If so, then the hagiographers will have a field day talking unchallenged about only the positives, and those who did not live through the times she wielded power would have a wildly one-sided view of her legacy, since it is only in death that such people re-enter the public sphere.

I think that one is perfectly justified in using famous people’s death to dispassionately review their public record, warts and all.

In this clip from the Australian TV show The Chasers, one of the cast members parodies in song the attitude of glorifying in death those whom one despised in life. (Strong language advisory.)

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Having been a first-hand witness to the destruction she wreaked on the working class, I’m with you on her policies, Mano, but I wouldn’t dream of demonstrating at her funeral; I like to think I have more dignity than she had compassion. But, since she is being afforded a state funeral with full military honours, I hope the 21-gun salute is fired directly into the vile old witch’s coffin, just to be certain.
    I do fully intend to dance on her grave one day, but I’ll wait until the queue dies down. At the moment it is already forming at Westminster (so they can follow the coffin in a huge,macabre conga to its final destination) and is estimated to end somewhere on the Isle of Sky (approx 615 miles / 990km by road, in case you’re wondering).

  2. 2
    smrnda

    Demonstrating at a funeral, in my opinion, is intruding into a private event, so I agree with you that that’s out of line.

    However, the press is a public space. Public figures should be lauded or panned as they deserve there, particularly politicians, CEOs and other types who have had the power o cause lots of damage to lots of people during their lifetimes. Once you choose to wield power, the public should has no obligation to censor or soften their criticism at any time. We have no obligation to try to turn a negative public figure into a sympathetic figure in death any more than we’d be obligated to say only good things about a recently deceased mass murderer. Public figures chose their own legacy. If they don’t want to be bashed when dying or dead, they should have done a better job.

  3. 3
    Marshall

    I’m sure there’s a saying about how a person in power has it much easier when it comes to insulting opponents. I gather that this is what the “respect the dead” stems from–it’s sort of not fair to criticize a person if they are unable to defend themselves, and being dead puts you in the most incapable position of defending yourself possible.

    I don’t think this is reason to not criticize someone who’s dead, mind you–I’m just saying that this is a reasonable argument that people might hold in their minds. But a commentary on events that have happened in the past are all fair game in my opinion. I agree with you that it should remain relatively impersonal, since family undoubtedly loved her for reasons other than her public influence.

  4. 4
    Aliasalpha

    The best quote I heard about her then upcoming funeral (I think it was on Mock The Week) was that dancing on her grave would be so popular that they should make it a Dance Dance Revolution machine

  5. 5
    bad Jim

    “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”
    — Shakespeare

    Posterity will ne’er survey
    A nobler grave than this
    Here lie the bones of Castlereagh
    Stop, traveller, and piss.

    — Byron

    I once heard Garrison Keillor quote something like this: “I was devastated to hear of his death. The only thing that has been keeping me alive was the hope of seeing him hanged.”

  6. 6
    left0ver1under

    Following her death, there has been the predictable reaction from some quarters that those who disliked her actions should not say anything bad about her out of respect for her family.

    Not to mention the predictable hypocrisy in demanding silence. The rightwingnuts took glee and openly laughed about the deaths of Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Kennedy, Christopher Hitchens and many others, while getting upset about others doing the same when Jerry Falwell, Tony Snow and Ronald Reagan died.

    Of course, when the dead person is an enemy (such as bin Laden or Saddam Hussein and his sons) their delicate sense of propriety seems to disappear and we had in the US gleeful gloating at the highest levels (see here and here).

    Given how much death (domestic and abroad) Thatcher is responsible for, how much blood is on her hands, it’s fair to compare examination and criticism of her like to those of bin Laden and Hussein.

    It would be boorish in the extreme to (say) go to Thatcher’s funeral and jeer

    Which no one is doing, unlike the far right (i.e. the Westboro clowns, Pat Robertson, etc.).

    But should the negative aspects of her public life be omitted from the reminiscences of her?

    When Adam Lanza killed himself after murdering school children, the public and media felt it was perfectly alright to examine his life looking for reasons for his actions. Why can’t we do the same with Thatcher or anyone else? (Yes, I am equating the two.)

    The demand for silence was especially galling a few years ago after Tim Russert died. The was repeated demand (and in some places censorship) of any examination or discussion of his role in cheerleading the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even some allegedly “liberal” sites cowered and knuckled under to outside pressure (e.g. Crooks and Liars), refusing to allow any discussion or criticism of Russert’s words after 2002.

  7. 7
    twosheds1

    The PRI radio show The World did a good piece on her. They didn’t pull any punches (as far as I could tell. I could be wrong) when discussing her politics, and even played a fairly large portion of the UB40 song “Madame Medusa” which was written about her.

  8. 8
    rufus75

    It would be boorish in the extreme to (say) go to Thatcher’s funeral and jeer”

    From my perspective (which is roundly hating pretty much everything she did and stood for, with the exception of liberating 1600 Falkland Islanders from a particularly unpleasant military junta), I fail to see the difference between doing that and the nutters from Westboro picketing random funerals. Can anyone enlighten me as to any?

  9. 9
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Rufus75, there is no difference. At the risk of sounding like Max Boyce, I was there throughout Thatch’s reign of terror and open warfare on the working class, and endured my share of suffering thanks to her policies, so if there were a cometition for her biggest hater I’d make the finals, but I would never lower myself to the standards of the Phelps’ and their (thankfully few) brainless followers; it’s simply a matter of dignity and self-respect, and I like to think I have plenty of both.

    ps: my eldest daughter ‘phoned me yesterday and asked if I’d heard about the vile old witch’s* departure from a stroke: when I said that I had, she said “What did she stroke, a bloody lion?”

    *Before anybody complains about ‘witch’, it isn’t gender-specific; both men and women can be witches simply by dint of practising ‘witchcraft’.

  10. 10
    sailor1031

    As noted by someone else above Thatcher was every bit as much an enemy of the british people as Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein – more probably! No reason to soft peddle it just because she finally croaked. It will take decades yet to repair the damage she did.

    “Demonstrating at a funeral, in my opinion, is intruding into a private event, so I agree with you that that’s out of line.” – It’s not a private event when you’re having parliament recalled, when you’re having a military parade and burial with full military honours and the Queen showing up. That makes it public and a perfectly suitable target for anti-Thatcher demonstrations.

  11. 11
    Timothy

    Good lord. I’m so relieved to read these comments.

    Best: ” But, since she is being afforded a state funeral with full military honours, I hope the 21-gun salute is fired directly into the vile old witch’s coffin, just to be certain.”

    Based on the traffic on Facebook, I thought I was alone in my thoughts.

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