Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

A word to the unwise: Don't trash the dead

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently posted Nancy Reagan's obituary on his Facebook page. It didn't take long for the bile to flow. "She was a monster," one of Kristof's thousands of followers quickly commented. "I wish her eternal unrest for her policies of indifference and hate towards those with AIDS, those with addiction, those in need. Let's not glamorize her because she was thin and natty."

More of the same followed, and Kristof intervened: "I'm sad to see my Facebook posting of Nancy Reagan's death prompted lots of scathing comments about her. Look, I disagreed with her profoundly. . . . But a person's death is not the moment for snark or vitriol. Agree with Nancy Reagan or disagree with her, death seems to me a moment for respect — or silence."

I'm pretty unsentimental about the Reagans, harking back to the bathetic "Reagasm" (Esquire columnist Charlie Pierce's term) that accompanied the former president's death in 2004. But Kristof reminds us of a social convention that is at least 2,700 years old: Do not speak ill of the dead.

The famous phrase originated with Chilon of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Chilon aphorized about this and other subjects ("Do not dislike divination") around 600 BC. In our day and age, the stricture seems to be more honored in the breach.

The recent death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia provoked a perhaps predictable avalanche of hate on Twitter: "Rest in hell, Scalia"; (Expletive) thrilled beyond words that Scalia is dead," and so on.

It is ugly, of course. And yet — why not? As Sigmund Freud astutely observed in his essay Thoughts for the Times of War and Death, it's not as if they care: "This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living."

Ah, the truth. Easy for you to say, Dr. Freud. But it is almost impossible to embrace whole biographies truthfully. Who was Nancy Reagan? Obviously, a shadow prime minister of sorts, as so many first ladies before and after her.

But was she a "cold and glittering icon for a morally vacuous era," a formulation attributed to Kitty Kelly that the New York Times posted on its Facebook site?

Again, many of the Times's followers objected to the slur, so close upon Mrs. Reagan's passing. "Amazing how the slime oozes out once a person is defenseless," one commenter wrote. "It's OK to not like Nancy Reagan," wrote another. "It's also OK to shut up about it for a few days."

Who was Antonin Scalia? Certainly a conservative Catholic who voted at his party's call, as did all the justices, in the notorious Bush v. Gore decision. We now have learned that he lobbied two different presidents to place Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan on the Supreme Court.

Right-wing troglodyte or liberal feminist champion? It might take Twitter a moment or two to sort this one out.

— Boston Globe

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