Speaking of dead public figures


Glenn Greenwald writes about the absurd umbrage taken by two right wing law professors at Georgetown University law school when some of their colleagues demurred at the effusive praise given to the late justice Antonin Scalia by the dean of the school.

These two professors claimed that speaking ill of Scalia was unwarranted and worried about the possible trauma inflicted on law school students who liked Scalia by having to hear criticisms of him. The professors wrote, “Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are twenty-two year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students.”

As Greenwald says, this is remarkably patronizing towards law school students and that indeed they should be exposed to contrasting views of a judge’s legacy.

But what this Georgetown Law controversy even more strongly illustrates is how and why the “etiquette” rule against speaking ill of a recently deceased individual is so wildly inapplicable, and so dangerous, when it comes to influential public figures. As I’ve written before in the context of the deaths of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Christopher Hitchens, this “rule” – that one is allowed only to express praise and admiration for a public figure who dies but not criticism or dissent – is a recipe for unchallenged propaganda. Manipulative commentators exploit this post-death period to create unearned, baseless hagiography of these influential actors, and that hagiography is then consecrated, and endures, as Truth because nobody is allowed to dissent from it – because doing so is deemed gauche, uncivil, indecent, and “cruel beyond words.”

It is extremely consequential how the legacy of Scalia’s jurisprudence is understood. That understanding will affect all sorts of vital decisions in the future, from new court appointees to the methods used to understand and apply the law. This “rule” that dictates that only praise but not criticism of Scalia can be expressed – under the guise of “etiquette” and “decency” – is a deceitful tactic for winning an important public debate without having to actually engage the arguments.

We’re not talking about Scalia, The Friend, or Scalia, the Grandfather. Virtually none of us knew him in those roles. We’re talking about Scalia, the highly polarizing, highly controversial Supreme Court Justice whose actions and beliefs affected the lives of millions of people. We’re not guests at his family’s house for a wake. We’re citizens shaping how he and his public actions will be understood and remembered and perceived. Trying to suppress any criticisms of him, so that only adulation can flourish, is worse than irrational; it’s propagandistic.

That doesn’t mean one should express glee that Scalia is dead, nor does it mean that if one is a family friend of his relatives that one should spout criticisms in their grieving faces. But it most certainly does mean that from the moment public adulation of someone like this is permitted, so, too, must criticisms of them be permitted. That is especially true at an academic institution devoted to the study, practice and debate of law. To insist that only one side is permitted to be heard – the side that hails Scalia as a benevolent genius – is as oppressive and anti-intellectual as it gets.

At times like this, I like to listen once again to The Eulogy Song from the Australian comedy show The Chaser’s War on Everything that perfectly punctures the ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’ sentiment. [Language advisory]

Comments

  1. says

    I would bet real actual money that these same professors and students decry the lack of free speech on college campuses and freely mock the concept of safe spaces.

  2. says

    If we’re not to speak ill of the dead, when, exactly should we speak ill of people?

    I said lots of nasty stuff about Scalia while he was alive. And I meant every word of it. Just because he died in plutocratic luxury doesn’t make him a better judge, a better human being, or better at taking bribes from his constituents. (Seriously, nobody’s going to give a supreme court judge all expenses paid trips to high end resorts and not expect something .. some little friendly nod.. here or there. It’s not like they wanted to hang out with him because of his radiant personality…)

  3. Félix Desrochers-Guérin says

    My personal rule is that you should wait until the funeral is over before shitting on someone’s grave. It’s much safer that way.

    Unless you meant it figuratively, of course. In that case, knock yourself out.

  4. Holms says

    If these students conservative students are “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” at criticisms of their legal positions and the arguments supporting them, why are they in law at all?

  5. moarscienceplz says

    They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!

    Moms Mabley

    Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students.

    Oh dear, oh dear!
    You know, I might have a bit of sympathy for these newborn lambs were it not for the fact that I am quite sure that many of these same tender kittens think it’s perfectly fine and dandy to say misogynistic, or racist, or homophobic things because Freeze Peach! donchaknow.

  6. NYC atheist says

    I don’t know about Scalia, but Hitchens wouldn’t have it any other way when he died. Just ask the family of Jerry Falwell.

    When you become a public figure you waive certain rights.

  7. asdf says

    LOL a bunch of privileged tools are too weak to handle the fact that their racist, sexist ideology causes harm in the real world?

    Poor babies are triggered by their own malevolence and idiocy.

  8. says

    Marcus Ranum (#2) –

    If we’re not to speak ill of the dead, when, exactly should we speak ill of people?
    I said lots of nasty stuff about Scalia while he was alive. And I meant every word of it.

    Living people can defend themselves, so some want to silence critics after death. But most of the time, it’s about hypocrisy. The rightwing extremists who cried foul about calling Tony Snow’s death “karma” felt no compunction about insulting Kurt Vonnegut. They took exception to Christopher Hitchens saying “Falwell’s carcass”, only to then insult Hitchens and talk about his obesity.

    If people say insulting the dead is out of line, I might go along with it. But I will not abide being silent about their actions nor about stating facts (e.g. Jimmy Savile was a pedophile, and UK PM Ted Heath was one of his clients). Historical revisionism is intolerable.

    Scalia was a racist, a hypocrite, a theocrat, a bigot, a corporatist, a fascist, and a dozen other things I could name. Neither you nor I should apologize for not stop saying it.

  9. doublereed says

    I don’t really understand the sentiment in certain cases like these though. Especially for law students in college. There’s no doubt that Scalia left a prominent legacy as a supreme court judge. And we should recognize how vile and regressive that legacy is. At the very least, it’s instructive.

    Did the students actually mind that much, or was this just in these professors’ imaginations?

  10. EigenSprocketUK says

    @leftover1under (slightly OT): I’ve never heard the allegation that Ted Heath was a client of Jimmy Savile. Savile was self-centred and not in the business of procuring anyone else’s perverted pleasures.
    Recent events are showing the allegations about high government child abuse rings in the 70s to be highly shaky and unraveling fast. Check out Richard Bartholemew’s Bart’s Notes On Religion blog for obsessively objective reporting.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    stating facts (e.g. Jimmy Savile was a pedophile, and UK PM Ted Heath was one of his clients).

    One of those “facts” is not like the other.

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