Friday, March 2, 2012

Speaking Ill of the Dead

I can’t say that they were dancing on his grave. They didn’t even have the decency to wait until Andrew Breitbart was buried.

No, the liberal left, the one that Andrew Breitbart assured us was not your father’s liberal left, could not contain its glee. Its denizens were so thrilled at what they must have taken to be a victory that they started spewing venom the instant the news was announced.

We know, because we are civilized beings, that you do not hit a man when he’s down.

If it’s cowardly to hit a man when he’s down what is it when someone sees his enemy’s dead body and decides to get in a few extra shots? If you can’t compete with him while he’s alive you have no business celebrating his death. 

Cowardly does not do it justice; it crosses into depraved.

Not only did radical leftists thrill to the death of Andrew Breitbart but they started competing with each other to see who could be the most repulsive. Link here.

He may not have won the laurels—the jury’s still out-- but MattTaibbi  of Rolling Stone is certainly in the running:

So Andrew Breitbart is dead. Here’s what I have to say to that, and I’m sure Breitbart himself would have respected this reaction: Good! F@#k him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.

Note the clever attempt to claim virtue—Breitbart would have approved.

Taibbi goes on to explain that he is adhering to Breitbart standards:

But he also had enough of a sense of humor to appreciate why someone like me shouldn’t bother to pretend I’m sad he’s dead. He wouldn’t, in my place. So to use one of his favorite words: Good riddance, cocksucker.* Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

And then we have David Frum. He was so overcome with moral outrage about things that Breitbart had said that he could not resist joining this chorus.

Seeing himself as a force for rational moderation Frum reminds us that he knows that one should not speak ill of the dead.

And then he goes on to speak ill of the dead Andrew Breitbart. Meaning that he knows the difference between right and wrong and chooses to believe that, on this occasion, he has received an exemption. 

If you know right from wrong and choose to do something you know is wrong, then clearly you are suffering from a character flaw.

You might think that you are following an ethic that requires you to give full expression to your strong feelings, but in truth, it is just a cheap excuse.

Good character involves tempering the expression of your emotions. It means practicing respect, for the living and the dead. You may rationalize it all you like, but it is a moral imperative to wait a decent interval before trashing the dead.

Frum does not just show that he has weak character. He seems actually to be proud of himself for breaking this cardinal rule of civil society.

At that point we have passed beyond weak character into shamelessness.

Writing on the Daily Beast, Frum says:

And this is where it becomes difficult to honor the Roman injunction to speak no ill of the dead. It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous. When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness—when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas—how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?

Especially when that career was so representative of his times?

We live in a time of political and media demagoguery unparalleled since the 19th century. Many of our most important public figures have gained their influence and power by inciting and exploiting the ugliest of passions—by manipulating fears and prejudices—by serving up falsehoods as reported truth. In time these figures will one by one die. What are we to say of this cohort, this group, this generation? That their mothers loved them? That their families are bereaved? That their fans admired them and their employees treated generously by them? Public figures are inescapably judged by their public actions. When those public actions are poisonous, the obituary cannot be pleasant reading.

Let’s see: “inciting and exploiting the ugliest of passions.” Isn’t that what Frum himself is doing with his assault on Breitbart. Is there an uglier passion than the one that compels you to haul off on a dead body?

Of course, Frum is hardly alone on the angry and increasingly ugly left. He and many of the others of his ilk have tried to rationalize their behavior by saying that it’s the fault of Breitbart. They are doing to him as he did to them.

You know the argument: the Devil made me do it!

Their rough justice prescribes an eye for an eye. Yet, they are ignoring the more important moral principle: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Note the “would have.”

You do not treat them as you believe they have treated you. You treat them as you would wish to be treated by them.

As it happens, this is not the first time that the ugly, angry left used an obituary to malign a political opponent. One of its representatives recently went after the recently departed Jan Berenstain.

You know Jan Berenstain. She co-authored a bunch of mega-selling children’s books about bears.

A few days ago she died and Hanna Rosin offered this on Slate:

The world today brings news that Jan Berenstain, co-author with her husband Stan of the 45 years and running Berenstain Bears series for children, has passed on to a better world. As any right-thinking mother will agree, good riddance.

The sentence begins with a grammatical mistake—the world does not bring news, not even metaphorically—and ends with evidence of a fanatical leftist mentality.

What did Jan Berenstain do to deserve this undisguised contempt? Apparently, she co-authored politically incorrect children’s books. Worst yet, children like these books. Children want to hear these stories read to them.

If your goal in life is to brainwash the younger generation with feminist ideology then the Berenstain bears are your arch enemy. Maybe even worse than Andrew Breitbart.

Hanna Rosin writes for Slate and the Atlantic, among other publications. You might want to see her as a sensible, liberal mainstream journalist. You would be wrong. Beneath it all, beats the heart of a feminist fanatic.

I was hardly the first to notice Rosin’s lack of moral character. A few days ago, Katie Roiphe called Rosin to account, in terms that are slightly more gracious than mine.

Roiphe began with a proper expression of empathy. Those who are flailing at Andrew Breitbart’s body would have done well to heed her advice.

I understand the siren call of the contrarian position, the irrepressible desire to say the thing other people are too decent or cautious or conventional or polite to say, and yet I wonder if the right time to say that thing about someone is hours after you hear they have died. I wonder if the absolute opportune moment to attack a writer, say, is as their family plans a funeral, as their children experience that feeling Freud describes as being “torn up by the roots.”

Roiphe tried to introduce some decorum into the mix, by calling on people to temper their strong emotions:

And yet one wonders, whatever strong emotions one has about the cartoon bears in a children’s book, could that bold and harsh “good riddance,” have been resisted the day Jan Berenstain’s death was announced?

Just as one tries not to wear fuchsia to a funeral, it seems that one might fruitfully reserve one’s more pointed critiques for another occasion. There is, however, an increasing fashion for these negative obituaries, this sharp summing up of dead people’s achievements in which they are found falling short, these personal attacks timed as the dead person’s possessions are still being retrieved in plastic bags by their relatives from the hospital.

Since Rosin is Roiphe’s editor at Slate, Roiphe showed exemplary courage in challenging her boss on such a fundamental moral issue.

Quickly, Rosin received the message of disapproval, from Roiphe and many others. Yet, she  had no moral epiphany;. Rosin could merely muster a manifestly insincere apology:

I have been roundly (and deservedly) chastised in e-mails and elsewhere by Slate readers for my use of “good riddance” in connection with this kind woman’s death. I admit, I was not really thinking of her as a person with actual feelings and a family, just an abstraction who happened to write these books. Apologies. Next time I will be more humane. --Hanna

Naturally she did not think of Jan Berenstain as a human being. I hope you are not surprised.

Feminists and other zealots do not care about human beings. It’s the dirty little secret behind feminism. Its adherents do not care about women any more than they care about men. As ideological fanatics, they only care about ideas.

If you advance the cause you are valuable to them. If you detract from their agenda you might as well die right there. You deserve neither sympathy nor respect.

The ugly, radical left saw Andrew Breitbart as an obstacle to ideological hegemony. They did not shed a tear for his passing. They do not care about him as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a friend.

They need to make a constant display of their total commitment to their cause. They fear that any gesture of respect for someone they see as the devil would compromise their standing among those who think as they think and feel as they feel. 

Of course, angry leftists did not just go after Breitbart and Berenstain. Roiphe notes that some on the left also saw Christopher Hitchens in the same light.

Most of the reactions to the death of Christopher Hitchens were respectful and charming. And yet, the honeymoon did not last for very long.

Roiphe writes:

Rewinding a few months to Christopher Hitchens’ death, other contrarians felt stirrings of the same impulse. Somewhere Katha Pollitt woke up and had the feeling of delicious frisson: Here everyone is saying nice things about Christopher Hitchens, but she was courageous enough to say something nasty and critical and rigorous. To denounce “those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting.” To tell the world the important fact that Christopher was not, in fact, a fun or charming drunk. 

If this were simply a phenomenon that exists in the blogosphere we might dismiss it as the overheated ramblings of people who are seeking an audience.

But, these writers are mainstream journalists, people who already have an audience, people who should care about whether their readers will trust their objective judgment and integrity.

Those who are jumping all over Breitbart today are advertising their mindless zeal and their lack of integrity.

Unfortunately, there is more. These people are also showing that they do not believe in the marketplace of ideas. If you refuse to show the most minimal gesture of respect to your opponents, aka the loyal opposition, you are undermining the foundation of deliberative democracy.

It isn’t an accident that speeches on the floor of Congress nearly always involve gestures of respect for the “honorable” gentleman or gentlewoman. They are not empty gestures; they assert that differences of opinion are just that, differences of opinion between honorable individuals.

It's simple and easy to understand: if you dishonor the dead you dishonor yourself.


Ari said...

It's too bad about Frum's conduct. I hate to see that.

His book "How We Got Here" is a masterpiece. Whatever else you can say about him, you can't take that away.

What a freaking pity he has to stain his reputation!

n.n said...

The irony is that Breitbart was a liberal until a few years ago when he was confronted and reacted to a reality he could not ignore.

So, the vicious attacks may be motivated by a sense of betrayal. In a society, there is no greater crime than treason and the preferred punishment is capital.

Nick said...

Wow, those "Berenstain Bears" books were some of my favorite as a child, and as far as I can remember they were completely innocent. I never knew the feminists hated them. I found that pretty hard to believe.

Sam L. said...

I read the Berenstein Bears books to 1st and 2nd graders up until a few years ago. I didn't like them. I can't recall just why, but my vague recollection was that Papa Bear was not properly respected. Kinda like sit-com dads.