I’m a big fan of this site from the UK. Anyone who has seen the news in the last couple of days will know that one of Britain’s most in/famous Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher, passed away at the start of this week. Thatcher’s death has been hugely polarising here, in some cases to uncomfortable levels.
Now, before I start, I’d just like to say that I wasn’t actually alive when Thatcher was in government – I was born a year after she left the position of Prime Minister. For the most part I was coolly neutral to the woman – as a feminist I didn’t appreciate her calling the movement “poison” but that was probably my biggest issue.
Here is my question, both in this case and for future, more personal use: what is the best way to strike a balance between not speaking ill of the dead and acknowledging that a person has made mistakes and may have not always been a particularly pleasant person?
In regards to Thatcher at least, bean dipping is nearly impossible! At the moment, everyone wants to discuss the matter. 0410-13
I wrote about the modern phenomenon of people “dancing on the deadman’s grave” six years ago in this post when Jerry Falwell’s death sparked a plethora of uncivilized behavior. My thoughts then and now are unchanged in that I believe celebrating death with joy and vitriol is undignified and uncivilized.
The reaction to British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death appears to be quite visceral and vile and is causing a deep division in the country.
Thousands of protestors congregated in Trafalgar Square last week to celebrate her death. Janie Jones, a mother of four, has been the leader behind a recent promotion of the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead”, the song from the Wizard of Oz, to a meteoric rise up the music chart to #2. Many people plan to mark the funeral at parties around the UK on Wednesday morning during the funeral.
Other protesters plan to demonstrate along the route of Lady Thatcher’s funeral procession by turning their backs to the casket. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said, “Some will question the taste of funeral protests, whilst others will see them as inevitable at such a public political event. Either way, the authorities have no role in policing manners, and it would be tasteless indeed if the memorial of any democratic leader prompted arrests of peaceful protesters and the strangling of dissent.”
I found Ms. Chakrabarti’s use of the word “tasteless” to describe a scene where police deprive protesters of the right to dissent peacefully during a funeral procession rather unusual and misplaced in priority and usage. She appears to completely miss the fundamental precept that it would be tasteless to exploit a recent death to score political points. Here in the US we have peaceful protestors at celebrity and political funerals. They are called the Westboro Baptist Church.
WBC has a legally protected right to peaceful dissent and protest along funeral processions but that does not negate the reality that they are vile people engaged in puerile, tasteless and crass exploitation of death to get across a political agenda. They were in attendance at Ronald Reagan’s funeral procession toting signs that stated that Reagan was now rotting in hell.
An overwhelming majority of Americans are repulsed by WBC’s behavior at funerals of the media and political elite as well as common soldiers who died in the line of duty. The question I pose is, “Is it what is being communicated by WBC that is repulsive or is it the complete package of disrespecting the dead and exacerbating the grief of loved ones that is wrong for you? If it is solely the former, then there is nothing to limit anyone of any political stripe to exercise their right to protest at any funeral of any person and that is a bad slippery slope to get on as it degrades the culture overall. If it is the latter, we can apply a basic, principled shame and social shunning to behavior that disrespects the dead regardless of political party or social activism. If one would dance on the grave of one’s political opponent yet be deeply offended if the same were done to one’s own deceased political leader, you don’t “get it” and all you are doing is engaging in political one-up-manship and political machinations exploiting death. Addendum 05/13/2013: I did not publish two comments from regular commenters of this blog who both declared an intention to dance on Fred Phelps’ grave once he is dead and protest at his funeral with signs stating he was now in hell thus becoming that which they claimed to despise. If the action is not universally reprehensible then what we are left with is merely a disagreement on politics.
What makes the dancing on Thatcher’s grave site distinctly more tasteless and disrespectful is that Thatcher left political office 21 years ago, ceased public speaking 11 years ago and has suffered from dementia for at least the last 8 years. There is a time and a place to exercise political dissent, most notably when the person is alive in order to have the opportunity to rebut the charges. Margaret Thatcher has not been in a position to influence current social and political policies in over a decade and one would think those in opposition to her political legacy would have had the chance to reverse “Thatcherism” in the last 20 years had they the political machinery and votes to do it. Socialist Owen Jones correctly identified the true motivation of his political compatriots, “Celebrating the prospect of her death has become an admittedly macabre substitute for the failure to defeat Thatcherism. The Iron Lady will die knowing her legacy is stronger than ever.”
I have recently read in UK online papers that Thatcher has been compared to Hitler, Stalin and Bin Laden, a hyperbole of comparison which I think diminishes the atrocities committed by the three men instead of elevating Thatcher to the realms of the most evil. But even if she were of their caliber, I still would not condone death celebrations. After Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011, I wrote how I chose to react to the news. He is our generation’s Hitler, an evil man who rejoiced at the thought, plans and actions of killing others and one could be justified in celebrating his death.
The decision to mete out earthly retribution should be entered into with soberness, solemnity and calm befitting a choice to see justice served. Otherwise the taking of life becomes trivialized and we are no more civilized than the beasts who wantonly kill the innocent they view as worthlessly expendable. Nor do we want to rejoice at death lest we show ourselves to be no better than the savages who hung the burnt bodies of US contractors from street lights and danced in joy. No, I think we are much better than that.
I won’t weep for him but I will soberly reflect in thankfulness that he can no longer lead others into evil and be grateful for the peace and safety and freedoms we enjoy.
“Respect for the dead” does not mean one is compelled to engage in active mourning, attend a funeral or express insincere sorrow. But I do believe it means we should act with dignity to honor the dead who can no longer defend themselves from critical scrutiny and respect the grief of the living who do mourn their passing.
P.S. This is an interesting editorial by someone who was not a fan of Margaret Thatcher, who lived during her political career yet counsels restraint n the occasion of her death. A good, balanced read, imo.
Addendum 05/13/2013: I received a large number of negative comments about Margaret Thatcher which I did not approve for publication to this blog post. I felt then and still do now that the commenters did not get the point of allowing others to grieve without political distractions and that political disagreements are best dealt with when the person is alive so as to engage in that debate. I also felt by approving them I would be allowing a significant number of people to express an opinion that may not be reflective of the political reality. So, I finally choose to approve those messages but add the following obituary as balance. From National Review (May 6, 2013):
Margaret Thatcher was the greatest peacetime British prime minister of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time; and her achievements in foreign policy were second only to those of Winston Churchill.
In domestic policy, she reversed the decline of the previous 30 years and revived both the British economy and the British spirit. She brought inflation under control and established sound money; brought the unions under law, so dispelling the idea that Britain had become “ungovernable”; defeated the miners’ strike, so entrenching her reforms; revived the enterprise culture that Britain had pioneered a century earlier but lost; and started what became a worldwide revolution of privatization. Ten years after the strike-ridden “winter of discontent”,Britain’s economy had become the fourth-largest in the world.
In foreign policy, she was instrumental to the free world’s victory in the Cold War – a victory achieved “without firing a shot,” as she put it. She was steadfast and vocal in her support of the NATO policy of installing cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. The success of that policy, against the vehement objections of both the “peace movement” and most parties of the European Left, marked the point at which the U.S.S.R. lost the Cold War. She improved on that success by identifying Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man we could do business with” and warmly recommending him to Ronald Reagan as such. Her early endorsement of the Soviet leader was one reason the Cold War ended peacefully, almost on friendly terms.
Mrs. Thatcher-we prefer to call her by the name she was known by in the days of her glory-made enemies who remain bitter to this day, as some comments on her death from the British Left miserably illustrate. Her shade must be content with the praise that is rising from the formerly Communist nations in which she remains a heroic and loved figure–and from the United States, which was second only to Britain in her affection.
To sum up such a remarkable life is not easy. We cannot improve upon the attempt by Lord Saatchi, head of the think tank she founded and the shaper of her victorious election message in 1979: “Everyone wants to be immortal. Few are. Mrs. Thatcher is. Why? Because her values are timeless, eternal. Tap anyone on the shoulder anywhere in the world, and ask what Mrs. Thatcher ‘believed in’ and they will tell you. They can give a clear answer to what she ‘stood for’. She developed all the winning arguments of our time–free markets, low tax, a small state, independence, individuality, self-determination.”