Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Writing Honestly About The Death Of A Famous Person

Antonin Scalia has died.  When someone dies who has, in your view of the world, been a force that has made rich people richer, poor people poorer, and inflicted unnecessary suffering on many human beings, how does one respond? 

Edward Snowden retweeted a Glenn Greenwald article about how people should react when Margaret Thatcher died a couple of years ago - conservatives saying to be respectful of the family yet predicting things like,
"Former Tory MP Louise Mensch, with no apparent sense of irony, invoked precepts of propriety to announce: Pygmies of the left so predictably embarrassing yourselves, know this: not a one of your leaders will ever be globally mourned like her."
He points out that while the conservatives wanted liberals to be respectful and not criticize Thatcher immediately following her death, they didn't follow the same rules themselves.
"Tellingly, few people have trouble understanding the need for balanced commentary when the political leaders disliked by the west pass away. Here, for instance, was what the Guardian reported upon the death last month of Hugo Chavez:
 'To the millions who detested him as a thug and charlatan, it will be occasion to bid, vocally or discreetly, good riddance.'"
Greenwald also points out a political, and what I'd call a 'ways of knowing' reason, not to hold off on the problematic aspects of someone's life - it biases the public record and people's emotional record of the person who died.
"[T]hose who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren't silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person's death to create hagiography. Typifying these highly dubious claims about Thatcher was this (appropriately diplomatic) statement from President Obama: "The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend." Those gushing depictions can be quite consequential, as it was for the week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence that was heaped on Ronald Reagan upon his death, an episode that to this day shapes how Americans view him and the political ideas he symbolized. Demanding that no criticisms be voiced to counter that hagiography is to enable false history and a propagandistic whitewashing of bad acts, distortions that become quickly ossified and then endure by virtue of no opposition and the powerful emotions created by death. When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms."
Hagiography is on my long list of favorite words and I'm always surprised at how few people know what it means.  Most people at least recognize that the Greek 'graph' has to do with writing (biography, autograph, telegraph) but not hagio which is holy.  Technically, hagiography is the writing of the lives of saints.  but it's also taken on the meaning that Wikipedia describes:
"the term hagiography is often used as a pejorative reference to biographies and histories whose authors are perceived to be uncritical or reverential to their subject."
But I think the problem is not all that difficult.  The key is to write a factual account of someone's life that includes both the positive and the negative.  Very few public figures are simplistically good or evil.  We have the charming fools and we have the arrogant, but effective figures, and many other variations of meshed characteristics.  

David G. Savage seems to have walked the tightrope in his overview of Scalia's life, highlighting the complexity of his subject.

Recognizing that he and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were close friends, gives me pause about my general sense of Scalia voiced above.  I think his basic ideology is wrong, but he was a bright man, so I need to think through this and check up a bit on both originalism and the decisions he supported.  I'm pretty sure I'm right, but he knew he was.  Maybe that's my advantage over him.


  1. Slightly off your point, I immediately thought of how annoyed I was when Nixon died and all the living presidents not only showed up for his funeral but said nice things about him. This was hard for me to swallow, since I thought Nixon had brought us closer to a Constitutional crisis than any other president (that was before the Supreme Court hijacked the 2000 election). Obviously a lot of people, including Clinton and Carter, thought respect for the office trumped disapproval of the individual's behavior. Not sure if I would have decided the same way had I been invited.

    But as an exciting mind game, now that Republicans have demonstrated that they can never separate the office from the individual, let's imagine what will happen at Obama's funeral. Will any Republicans attend, and if so, will they leap up and yell "Liar!" or "Traitor!" as the coffin goes into the ground?

    1. American politics have often been bitter and currently we haven't had any duels among Congress members. It seems we have to not lump all the conservatives into one group. Some are just venting their own personal issues. Some are simplistically diagnosing the nation's problems. Some are smart and genuinely troubled, seeing the direction of the country is taking as calamitous. (On the left people feel the same way about where the right would go.) And some divide the world between winners and losers and will do anything to not be in the loser category. Each need to be handled differently, some it's probably hopeless. But those who ultimately are in it for the future of their grandkids, are potentially reachable.

  2. Scalia says there’s nothing unconstitutional about executing the innocent.

    by Ian Millhiser Aug 17, 2009 5:00 pm

    "Joined by Justice Clarence Thomas in dissent, however, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized his colleagues for thinking that mere innocence is grounds to overturn a conviction:

    This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable."


    1. If I were required to add a positive statement I could state that Justice Scalia could have had at least as many friends as did Theodore Robert Bundy.

    2. Anon, this is one of the most troubling cases. But it also shows that Scalia wasn't bound by his religion. (See Wikipedia for irony icons.) My interest is in how seemingly intelligent people can be so wrong. But how to do that without reflecting on the possibility that you yourself are wrong?
      My sense is that Scalia was profoundly certain he was right. And Ginsburg also believes she’s right. What differentiates those people who fall in Scalia’s camp and those who fall in Ginsburg’s?
      There are big questions here. How does upbringing affect one’s certainty and basic beliefs? What role does genetics play? Is this just a variation of the old conflict between deontology and utilitarianism? My philosophy consultant says it's a little more complicated than that. Will get back to this. Thanks for the comment.

    3. My sense is that Scalia was profoundly certain he was right.

      Scalia was apparently profoundly glad to be white too.

    4. The link both supports my sense of Scalia and his use of originalism as a cover for personal bias, and is extremely disturbing. As a university faculty member, I say it's also believable.

  3. Plutarch did a pretty good job of writing the obits of those who knew power. Never considered it his job to gloss the clash of persona and person and came up with what are timeless works in the field of biography.

    Justice Scalia is certainly a man who makes a good story for all of us to learn from, whatever our politics.

    1. Ah yes, Plutarch's Lives. I need to go back and reread that. It's been a while. Thanks for reminding me.


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