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My quaint and apparently old-fashioned policy against speaking ill of the dead has our friend MR (full name not posted to avoid search-engine connecting it to his blog) much agitated. Over at Sideways Mencken, he calls me out, alleging hypocrisy in my refusal to permit his posts taking a pot shot (admittedly a true one) about Rep. Henry Hyde in my recent post lamenting his passing.
Michael believes that being nice to the dead is "mere superstition on a par with a rabbit's foot or knocking wood," and thus foolish.
As with most of mankind's treatment of the dead, however, my policy has little to do with the deceased himself and much to do with those who survived him.
First, if it was my relative who passed away, I would be quite agitated to have to put up with such nastiness, such bitterness, while mourning the loss of my loved one. My policy is partly aimed at being respectful to the bereaved. I don't believe in saying something publicly which I wouldn't say to the face of the people most directly involved. I would not walk up to a son on the day his father died and criticize his dad for having an affair. It's rude. As Brutus said, the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. On the day of death, and at least through the funeral, I don't think it's too much to ask to focus on the good a man did, not the ill.
Second, and more importantly, politics is a nasty, divisive, bloody battle. In politics, in business, in life, we spend a lot of energy fighting each other. During those battles, it is far too easy to lose sight of the simple fact that we are all on the same team. We all want a good life for ourselves, our family, and as many of our fellow human beings on the planet as we can manage. We are all born, make our way as best we can through life, and then die. Along the way, we do some good, we do some bad; we succeed sometimes and we fail sometimes. Those are universals. If we're going to continue to live together successfully, however, we must remember those shared universals, lest our battles force us too far apart. Since death is the universal equalizer, I believe that the occasion of a death, in the political realm, should be used as an occasion to come together, not be pushed apart.
My policy holds for both Republicans and Democrats. Should, God forbid, Bill Clinton pass away any time soon, I would say, as I said for Hyde, that I hope he is remembered for the good that he did, not for the more tawdry aspects of his life. Were MR to pass away (I won't say God forbid, as MR is a staunch atheist, but I certainly hope that doesn't happen for a long, long time as I enjoy his company most days and still owe him some Scotch), I would likewise focus my comments on what I liked about him, his accomplishments as a family man and as an author, rather than his bull-headedness when it comes to politics.
This does not mean, however, that we must forever white-wash history. I have no desire to erase the historical record, or demand historical judgments based only on the good. But that can, and should, wait. I simply ask (and demand, in forums I control) that you maintain your mother's dictum, if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all, until at least a day or two after the funeral. After that, have at, if you must.
Finally, some wonder whether this policy applies when the likes of Osama Bin Laden or Fidel Castro pass away. Yes and no. Discussing Osama's acts of mass murder is wholly different in kind from a cheap shot about a politician's affair which had little if any bearing on the lives of the rest of us. Osama and Fidel are in the public eye precisely because of the evil things they have done; it would not be possible to say much of anything about them at all without discussing those things. And yet still I will not exult in their deaths. I will be relieved that they can no longer continue to harm people, and I will believe that their deaths were just, but I will not take joy in them. As a Christian, I will be sad that they persisted in their evil actions, and I will hope and pray that they saw the light before they died and that God will give them the forgiveness which we mere humans will not be able to.
As John Donne put it:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.