Tuesday 20 December 2011: Heroes & Monsters
About five years ago I attended a meeting at an anarchist conference in London. The topic was stated on this small poster, which has been hanging in a corner of my kitchen ever since. The meeting and its project was not, and still isn't very important to me, but the basic question arises again, whenever a famous and controversial person dies.
It is generally agreed that when someone has just died, public commentary is best kept as favorable as possible because it's distasteful to insult someone before they even lie in their grave. We who outlive have the entire future to dissect the sins of the dead, so why not let the family & friends of the deceased have their day of kind memory?
I knew a man who was married to a peace activist from Sri Lanka. She was thoroughly steeped in non-violent conflict resolution and fiercely opposed to capital punishment. The husband was quite surprised and amused when a notoriously brutal and murderous Sri Lankan general was blown to bits by the Tamil Tigers, and his wife started jumping in the air over and over, cheering at the top of her lungs.
It's been the same throughout history. In New York, the legacy of General William Tecumseh Sherman is entirely favorable, if one has occasion to think of him, more than a century after his death. If you discuss the man in Georgia, you'll be talking about the most reviled monster who ever set foot on that soil, and time has not forgiven him at all. The North won the war and most of it was fought in the Confederate states, so we simply forgot the details of Sherman's march from Atlanta to Charleston, and then up through the Carolinas. I have seen southerners breathe fire at the mention of his name, many times over the years.
Margaret Thatcher made her friends and her enemies only a few decades ago. She will be given a full-on state funeral, which is unusual in the UK for non-royals. Her retirement has been more graceful than her buddy Ronald Reagan, who showed clear symptoms of Alzheimer's disease while still in office. Nobody talked about throwing a party when Reagan died.
I wonder whether there will be parties in the US when George W. Bush dies. If Thatcher deserves the insult, then Bush's demise merits a permanent, week-long annual festival. But this idea has no following in the United States. Plenty of people curse our dead villains but you don't see plumes of Champagne and laughing mobs in the city centers.
When heroes die, they are hated afterward in the hearts of the rotten, but that's a topic for another blip!