Saturday, January 30, 2016

How much should we kick folks after they die?

A MINOR media kerfuffle followed the recent passing of the Eagles guitarist, songwriter and co-founder Glenn Frey.
Amid the admiring assessments and farewells, Gersh Kuntzman declared in a column in The Daily News, “No disrespect to Glenn Frey — whose death this week is a cause for genuine mourning — but the Eagles were, quite simply, the worst rock and roll band.” Mr. Kuntzman proceeded to score Mr. Frey and company as too mainstream, too soft, too generic.
The backlash was immediate. A day later, Mr. Kuntzman reported receiving an “avalanche of hate mail” and even calls for his own death.
This took place atop the dissing of another acclaimed and departed musician. Even as David Bowie’s life and work were being celebrated, a friend of mine noted online that some Facebook acquaintances felt obliged to say in effect, “I never cared/listened/understood the attraction.”
Is it O.K. to publicly dump on the newly deceased — or for that matter, to offer them not-quite-heartfelt praise? It’s a tough call. No one likes a hypocrite. Just the same, there is surely a time and a place for everything.
The journalist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken had no doubts. When William Jennings Bryan died in 1925, he denounced the muddle-headed three-time presidential candidate and notorious opponent of evolution as “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity.” He added: “He was a peasant come home to the barnyard. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.”
Today, plenty of naysayers are aping Mencken.
In an elephantine piece for Salon in 2011 on the “protocol for public figure deaths,” the journalist Glenn Greenwald scoffed at the effusive coverage years before of Tim Russert, the moderator of “Meet the Press,” and of Ronald Reagan. Dismissing the former as “awful” and “power-worshipping,” Mr. Greenwald complained, “We were all supposed to pretend we had lost some Great Journalist.” The latter’s post-mortem “canonization,” he charged, virtually ignored the Iran-contra scandal, exorbitant military spending, indifference to AIDS, vast income disparities, implicit racism and the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork — all in a sentence of about 160 words.
The proximate peg for this invective, incidentally, was the expiration of Christopher Hitchens. Rejecting the “remarkably undiluted, intense praise lavished on him by media discussions,” Mr. Greenwald exhaustively savaged Mr. Hitchens for his “repellent” advocacy of the war on terror.
Mr. Hitchens most likely would have loved it. In 1997, baffled by the worldwide grief over Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, he ripped into her as “a spoiled child bride, a sulky wife, a narcissist, a borderline airhead with zero interest in books, history or tradition.” After the Rev. Jerry Falwell departed, he said, “I think it a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.”
The Internet age and postmodern decorum being what they are, kicking at folks when they’re permanently down will surely continue. Myself, having written hundreds of obituaries in my career, I tend to tilt toward balance and qualification — as called for, that is.
Of course, much depends on the personality. “When it comes to private individuals,” Mr. Greenwald suggested in Salon, “it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms.” By contrast, he felt this tone “completely inapplicable to the death of a public person.”
But who’s to say where private ends and public begins? And how much posthumous opprobrium should be shoveled without tossing a posy or two, if only for decency’s sake? Even the crusty Mr. Hitchens allowed that Princess Diana opposed anti-personnel land mines, enjoyed children, was kind to an AIDS-stricken friend of his, disdained excessive ceremony and “was quite nice-looking.”
Perhaps the best tactic in these cases is to keep mum. Silence, after all, can speak volumes. When Senator Joseph R. McCarthy died in 1957, this newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, told his editorial page editor, Charles Merz, “I don’t think we need an editorial on this.”
Mr. Merz agreed. “Why dignify the bastard,” he said, “let him pass from the scene without more attention.”
Or, if you feel the need to speak out about a contentious individual, consider this advice from Dean Acheson, the secretary of state in the Truman administration. Asked to comment about McCarthy, he replied, “Of the dead, nothing unless good.” (Although he said it in Latin: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.”)
Assuming that truth will ultimately prevail, it probably can’t hurt to pause before speaking too ill or too well of certain dead, lest we embarrass ourselves. As my friend put it, “Hey, it’s O.K. to not like the Eagles. It’s also O.K. to shut up about it for a few days when one of them dies.”

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