Monday, December 19, 2011
Honoring public figures when they dieThe 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that the only truly unselfish kind of love we experience is love for the dead. Because one has no hope of reciprocal reward in loving a person who has passed away.
While this is an insightful and even beautiful thought, it would be hard to defend it unequivocally. Freud's concept of mourning deals with how the ego holds on to the cherished individual even after their passing, a process not without elements (ego needs) that could be called selfish. Familial and inheritance considerations can also affect both the public and the individual experience of mourning, again elements not without their selfish aspects.
And the public mourning of famous individuals moves into a different dimension, in which selfish or partisan interests often stand at the forefront.
Glenn Greenwald recalls how this process worked in a thoroughly propagandistic way with the passing of Ronald Reagan. The media was happy to cooperated with Republican politicians in canonizing him as a secular - or even more than secular - saint. (Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths 12/17/2011):
... the most notable aspect of that intense public ritual was the full-scale canonization of this deeply controversial, divisive and consequential political figure. Americans - including millions too young to remember his presidency - were bombarded with a full week of media discussions which completely whitewashed Reagan’s actions in office: that which made him an important enough historical figure to render his death worthy of such worldwide attention in the first place. There was a virtual media prohibition on expressing a single critical utterance about what he did as President and any harm that he caused. That's not because the elegies to Reagan were apolitical - they were aggressively political - but because nothing undercutting his deification was permitted. ...
Glenn makes an important distinction that loops back to Kierkegaard's concept: "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." Honoring the departed out of love or personal respect does include the kind of unselfishness to which Kierkegaard referred.
As the title of Glenn's article indicates, he is applying these reflections to Christopher Hitchens' passing and the generally highly positive commentary he received in even left-leaning media. As he puts it, Hitchens " particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writings but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent."
Not least among those was his rabid support of the Iraq War. Glenn retweeted a comment by cartoonist Matt Bors, "Why aren't Iraqis writing tributes to Christopher Hitchens?"
And he suggests that the general cheerful refusal to take Hitchens to task in the commentary last week has a lot to do with the Look Forward Not Backward view of the Iraq War: "Part of that is the by-product of America's refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq."
Tags: christopher hitchens, glenn greenwald, iraq war, ronald reagan
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No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."
-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?
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