On speaking ill of the dead

“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
Alice Roosevelt Longworth

This year has seen the deaths of four prominent men — Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Breitbart, Andrew Cockburn, and, most recently, Gore Vidal — who all had wildly diverging political views, but one salient characteristic in common: their scathing, take-no-prisoners political commentary. None of those guys exactly treated politics like a tea party. They didn’t wring their hands about whether they were hurting anybody’s feelings. or lose any sleep about whether they were being fair. On the contrary, all four were combative and sharp-tongued; each one of them clearly took pleasure in being, at least on occasion, extraordinarily vicious.

Which is why I found the wanly polite reactions to their deaths, at least in some quarters, to be puzzling. Some examples: on a listserv I’m on, some writers made it clear that they had sharply negative opinions about Alexander Cockburn, but were oddly reluctant to commit them to paper (and these were extremely voluble folks who are rarely shy about weighing in on anything else). When Gore Vidal passed away, sunny obituaries like this one seriously downplayed the man’s bigotry (and I say that as someone who holds mixed, but more positive than not, opinions of Vidal’s work. David Greenberg provides a useful corrective here). Heck, when Andrew Breitbart ascended to that choir invisible even I, who possess unmitigated loathing for the man, held back. I was afraid if I unloaded on Facebook or a listserv with my uncensored opinions of him, I’d be castigated as a prime example of the Indecent Left.

Suffice it to say, I’ve come to rethink all of that. Why go soft on a public figure all of a sudden, just because that person happens to be dead?

Now, I perfectly understand that when a private citizen dies, you don’t want to be the kind of prize idiot who’s badmouthing him at the funeral in front of the grieving widow. But when a public figure dies, it is entirely appropriate to examine that person’s entire legacy, and not hold back. Holding yourself up to that kind of public scrutiny is basically part of the job description, if you are a public figure. If you don’t like it, you need to seek some other line of work.

One of my email correspondents explained that he didn’t want to write anything negative about a recently deceased public figure because he wanted to spare the grieving family’s feelings. In reply, one wit chimed in, “The time to feel sorry for the family was when the person was alive,” but that doesn’t quite get at it, either.

The fact is, a public person’s public life and legacy do not belong to her family, it belongs to the world at large. To censor oneself and deprive the general public of a full and frank discussion out of consideration of the private feelings of a few individuals reflects distorted priorities. It would be selfish and narrow in the extreme if the loved ones of a public figure believed that that person belonged to them and only to them, and should be immune from criticism. If we took that attitude to its logical conclusion, all intellectual life in this country would stop dead in its tracks.

Okay, so I think we can agree that the “sparing the feelings of the family” justification for avoiding honest discussions about the merits, or lack thereof, of dead people, is a load of bunkum. Are there any better arguments out there?

One might be, “I don’t speak ill of the dead because I hope when I’m gone, I’m repaid in kind.” My response to that is, good luck with that one, buddy, especially if you’re on the left and you don’t want conservatives to attack you when you shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s human nature for people to say mean things, and it’s probably more likely that they will say them when you’re gone than when you’re still here to defend yourself. And for whatever reason, many conservatives seem less constrained than many liberals are by these middle class niceties

Yuppie careerism, in the form of wanting to advance oneself by protecting the reputations of powerful people, even when they’re dead, and even when those reputations are totally undeserved — well, that definitely is sometimes a reason why people abide by this convention, but it’s hardly a creditable one.

Finally, there’s one more reason I can think of for whitewashing the dead: sheer wimpiness. And that, to be honest, is what got a hold of me when Breitbart took his dirt nap.

The prissy delicacy with which so many commentators treated the passings of Messrs. Hitchens, Breitbart, Cockburn, and Vidal was all the more annoying because, though each one of them had, in their time, written some fairly venomous obituaries themselves, they were also tough-minded enough to understand that turnabout is fair play. Take, for example, Cockburn on Irving Howe; Breitbart on Ted Kennedy; Vidal, who described Truman Capote’s death as “a good career move,” and Christopher Hitchens, who when Mother Teresa died, gleefully seized upon it as an opportunity to start energetically making the rounds to promote his vicious book about her (which I actually think is kind of awesome).

My feelings about this issue explain why, all too frequently, I find the obituaries in American newspapers — genteel, respectful, and often bleached of any hint of color, with all pertinent conflicts and controversies either sentimentalized or all but erased — to be maddening. I much prefer the warts-and-all style obituaries that British newspapers such as The Independent have longed specialized in.

That said, America has not been without its lively obituaries. In the 90s and early 00s, there was an excellent obituary zine called Goodbye!; it is still online, and you can find the back issues here. Its motto was “Because the dead can’t sue for libel,” and it contained many fine essays on the recently departed, famous, infamous, and obscure. On this slow news and blogging day, I strongly encourage you to browse its archives. I think my favorite Miller piece has got to be this one, on the death of Harvey Ball, surely one of history’s greatest monsters, because he created the Smiley Face. The obit contains this classic line: “Hey Smiley – your old man just died! Still smiling?”

You may wonder why Goodbye! stopped publishing, and whether Mr. Miller succumbed to the unfortunate, if inevitable, fate of all the subjects he so faithfully chronicled. Fear not! In a rare instance of virtue being rewarded (didn’t Oscar Wilde say something to the effect of that’s why they call it fiction?), Mr. Miller now does this sort of thing for a living, at the Wall Street Journal. I miss the punk rock edge of Goodbye! but I can hardly fault Mr. Miller for forsaking his zine for a steady paycheck.

Steve was actually a friend of mine back in my NYC days, though unfortunately we’ve lost touch over the years. A fascinating fact about him is that he is a survivor of the WTC attacks — he was on one of the upper floors of the towers on September 11th. Interestingly, he doesn’t think — or at least, did not think at the time — that the experience changed his approach to writing obituaries very much. He still appears to enthusiastically favor speaking ill of the dead. As do I!

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee