I don’t agree with my friend Jack Shafer that it’s okay to speak ill of the recently departed. Even if the deceased was your bitterest enemy and richly deserves a trashing, common decency, especially toward the person’s loved ones, demands a cessation of hostilities, at least until the body is in the ground.
At the moment, news of the death of right-wing media provocateur Andrew Breitbart has many people offering ritual condolences or holding their tongues. Still, the announcement has been followed by a steady stream of “good riddance to bad rubbish” tweets from liberals like Matt Yglesias. This in turn has outraged Breitbart’s conservative fans.
But here’s the thing: Breitbart did not afford the customary courtesy due the dead when Sen. Ted Kennedy passed away:
Andrew Breitbart, a Washington Times columnist who oversees Breitbart.com and BigHollywood.com, tapped into the anti-Kennedy vein in the hours after the senator’s death was announced, posting a series of Twitter messages in which he called Kennedy a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard” and a “prick.”
Moral rules cannot long hold if there are no consequences for transgressing them. So I think that in the interest of protecting the rule about not badmouthing the recently departed, there should be a proviso that those who willfully and publicly break the rule do not deserve the protection of it when they die. By this standard, Yglesias gets a pass. And Christopher Hitchens, who was notably uncharitable to Bob Hope and downright vicious to Jerry Falwell when those gentlemen died, would have had no right to cry foul at Katha Pollitt’s devastating sendoff of him—and indeed, I doubt he would have.