Larry Sabato is a political analyst who is frequently quoted in the media, usually in the role of prognosticator about who is likely to win seats in Congress. Following the death of John McCain, Glenn Greenwald highlighted a tweet of Sabato’s that has become a routine sentiment following the death of well-known establishment politicians.
"Everyone but the bitter and vicious" salute him. And maybe also the people in the many countries he bombed and wanted to bomb. And maybe also the many people in his own countries hurt by the horrible policies he helped enact. This mandated reverence is ugly and coercive. https://t.co/qmDtWgu6LZ
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 26, 2018
Put me down as one of the ‘bitter and vicious’. It is extraordinary how it is mainly with politicians that we are expected to suspend criticisms upon their death and let a wave of praises go by unchallenged. You are far more likely to get an honest and balanced appraisal of the life of a dead writer or actor or musician than you are of a politician. This may be because the media establishment feels more subservient to politicians than to those other public figures. But those who claim that we should ‘keep politics out’ in the immediate wake of the death are in fact committing a deeply political act. By focusing only on the good and ignoring all the bad, they are enabling a form of historical cleansing that normalizes awful actions.
This happens all the time and Greenwald has to remind us each time of the distinction between the deaths of private and public figures and what is appropriate at private ceremonies and in public remembrances. In 2011, following the death of Christopher Hitchens, Greenwald looked at the wave of fawning eulogies that followed and wrote that when people apply the standards that apply to the deaths of private figures to public figures and withhold all criticisms, they end up effectively endorsing the positions held by the public figures, however odious those might be. He began by looking at what the almost uncritical adulation given to Ronald Reagan following his death in 2004.
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. We are all taught that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, particularly in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death. For a private person, in a private setting, that makes perfect sense. Most human beings are complex and shaped by conflicting drives, defined by both good and bad acts. That’s more or less what it means to be human. And — when it comes to private individuals — it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms upon their death: it comforts their grieving loved ones and honors their memory. In that context, there’s just no reason, no benefit, to highlight their flaws.
But that is completely inapplicable to the death of a public person, especially one who is political. When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. 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.
He then went on to apply a critical look at Hitchens’s life.
I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him. When it came to the defining issues of the post-9/11 era, he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them.
Nobody who writes about politics for decades will be entirely free of serious error, but how serious the error is, whether it reflects on their character, and whether they came to regret it, are all vital parts of honestly describing and assessing their work. To demand its exclusion is an act of dishonesty.
Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden. Those hailing Hitchens’ greatness are engaged in a very public, affirmative, politically consequential effort to depict him as someone worthy of homage. That’s fine: Hitchens, like most people, did have admirable traits, impressive accomplishments, genuine talents and a periodic willingness to expose himself to danger to report on issues about which he was writing. But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize — exactly what was done when the awful, power-worshipping TV host, Tim Russert, died, and we were all supposed to pretend that we had lost some Great Journalist, a pretense that had the distorting effect of equating Russert’s attributes of mindless subservience to the powerful with Good Journalism
We should never forget that how we discuss the lives of public figures in the immediate aftermath of their death is as political an act as how we discussed their actions while they were alive. Paul Blest provides a more balanced look at McCain’s career and concludes:
McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.
As I frequently do following the death of public figures, here once again is the Eulogy Song from the Australian sketch comedy troupe The Chasers. (Language advisory)