Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths

Etiquette-based prohibitions on speaking ill of the dead should apply to private individuals, not public figures

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Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths (Credit: Associated Press)

(updated below)

One of the most intensely propagandistic weeks in the last several decades began on June 5, 2004, the day Ronald Reagan died at the age of 93 in Bel Air, California. For the next six days, his body was transported to, and his casket displayed in, multiple venues around the nation — first to a funeral home in Santa Monica; then to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, where it remained for two full days as over 100,000 people paid their respects; then onto the U.S. Capitol, where his casket was taken by horse-drawn caisson along Constitution Avenue, and then lay in state under the dome for the next day-and-a-half; then to a state funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral presided over by President Bush and attended by dozens of past and present world leaders; and then back to the Presidential Library in California, where another service was held and his body finally interred. Few U.S. Presidents in history, if any, have received anything comparable upon their death; as CNN anchor Judy Woodruff observed the day Reagan’s body arrived in the capital: “Washington has not seen the likes of this for more than 30 years.”

Each one of those mournful events was nationally televised and drenched in somber, intense pageantry. At the center of it all was the prominently displayed grief of his second wife, Nancy, to whom he was married for 52 years. The iconic moment of the week-long national funeral occurred on the last day, at the internment, when she broke down for the first time and famously hugged and kissed her husband’s casket, while holding a folded American flag, seemingly unwilling to let him go immediately before his body was lowered into the ground.

But the most notable aspect of that intense public ritual was the full-scale canonization of this deeply controversial, divisive and consequential political figure. Americans — including millions too young to remember his presidency — were bombarded with a full week of media discussions which completely whitewashed Reagan’s actions in office: that which made him an important enough historical figure to render his death worthy of such worldwide attention in the first place. There was a virtual media prohibition on expressing a single critical utterance about what he did as President and any harm that he caused. That’s not because the elegies to Reagan were apolitical — they were aggressively political — but because nothing undercutting his deification was permitted. Typifying the unbroken,week-long media tone of reverence was this from Woodruff at the start of CNN’s broadcast on the day Reagan’s casket arrived in Washington:



We are witnessing a moment in history, a moment when this city, which is hustle-bustle personified, a city where people fiercely protect their interests and lobby for the issues that matter most to them, all that is put aside, politics is put aside, while we pay respects and deep honor to this president, who literally changed a generation, if not more, of American students of politics.

I have talked to so many young people over the last few days who came up to me and said, I started paying attention to politics because of Ronald Reagan.

Just a little while ago, I was talking with Tom DeLay, the majority leader of the House. He, I got into politics. He said, I ran to be chairman of the my precinct. He said, I was a businessman. I was running an insects — he called it a bug business. It was insect removal. And he said, Ronald Reagan inspired me to get into politics. I’d been sitting around griping, and he was the one. He gave me reason to get involved and to think that we could make a difference.”

So he changed, he inspired, and we now have a chance today and through this whole week to take note of him.

The key claim there was that “politics is put aside.” That’s precisely what did not happen. The entire spectacle was political to its core. Following Woodruff’s proclamation were funeral speeches, all broadcast by CNN, by then-House Speaker Denny Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney hailing the former President for gifting the nation with peace and prosperity, rejuvenating national greatness, and winning the Cold War. This scene repeated itself over and over during that week: extremely politicized tributes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan continuously broadcast to the nation without challenge and endorsed by its “neutral” media — all shielded from refutation or balance by the grief of a widow and social mores that bar one from speaking ill of the dead.

That week forever changed how Ronald Reagan — and his conservative ideology — were perceived. As Gallup put it in 2004: Reagan had, at best, “routinely average ratings . . . while he served in office between 1981 and 1989.” Indeed, “the two presidents who followed Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, each had higher average ratings than Reagan, as did three earlier presidents — Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower.”

Though he became more popular after leaving office (like most Presidents), it was that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader. As media and political figures lavished him with politicized praise, there was virtually no mention of the brutal, civilian-extinguishing covert wars he waged in Central America, his funding of terrorists in Nicaragua, the pervasive illegality of the Iran-contra scandal perpetrated by his top aides and possibly himself, the explosion of wealth and income inequality ushered in by “Reagonmics” which persists today, his escalation of the racially disparate Drug War, his slashing of domestic programs for the poor accompanied by a deficit-causing build-up in the military budget, the racially-tinged (at least) attacks on welfare-queens-in-Cadillacs, the Savings & Loan crisis resulting from deregulation, his refusal even to acknowledge AIDS as tens of thousands of the Wrong People died, the training of Muslim radicals in Afghanistan and arming of the Iranian regime, the attempt to appoint the radical Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, or virtually anything else that would undermine the canonization. The country was drowned by a full, uninterrupted week of pure, leader-reverent propaganda.

This happened because of an unhealthy conflation of appropriate post-death etiquette for private persons and the etiquette governing deaths of public figures. They are not and should not be the same. We are all taught that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, particularly in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death. For a private person, in a private setting, that makes perfect sense. Most human beings are complex and shaped by conflicting drives, defined by both good and bad acts. That’s more or less what it means to be human. And — when it comes to private individuals — it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms upon their death: it comforts their grieving loved ones and honors their memory. In that context, there’s just no reason, no benefit, to highlight their flaws.

But that is completely inapplicable to the death of a public person, especially one who is political. When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

* * * * *

All of this was triggered for me by the death this week of Christopher Hitchens and the remarkably undiluted, intense praise lavished on him by media discussions. Part of this is explained by the fact that Hitchens — like other long-time media figures, such as Tim Russert — had personal interactions with huge numbers of media figures who are shaping how he is remembered in death. That’s understandable: it’s difficult for any human being to ignore personal feelings, and it’s even more difficult in the face of the tragic death of a vibrant person at a much younger age than is normal.

But for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writings but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.

Corey Robin wrote that “on the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most: speak for himself,” and then assembled two representative passages from Hitchens’ post-9/11 writings. In the first, Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket  (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words”), and in the second, Hitchens explained that his reaction to the 9/11 attack was “exhilaration” because it would unleash an exciting, sustained war against what he came addictively to call “Islamofascism”: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”

Hitchens, of course, never “prosecuted” the “exhilarating” war by actually fighting in it, but confined his “prosecution” to cheering for it and persuading others to support it. As one of Hitchens’ heroes, George Orwell, put it perfectly in Homage to Catalonia about the anti-fascist, tough-guy war writers of his time:

As late as October 1937 the New Statesman was treating us to tales of Fascist barricades made of the bodies of living children (a most unhandy thing to make barricades with), and Mr Arthur Bryant was declaring that ‘the sawing-off of a Conservative tradesman’s legs’ was ‘a commonplace’ in Loyalist Spain.

The people who write that kind of stuff never fight; possibly they believe that to write it is a substitute for fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.

I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him. When it came to the defining issues of the post-9/11 era, he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them. As Robin put it:

Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder—and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder—is not an internationalist.  He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.

Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neocon faux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker‘s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary – detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected (he denounced the Dixie Chicks as being “sluts” and “fucking fat slags” for the crime of mildly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief). As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”; indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made.”

Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda:

I can barely read him anymore. His pieces in the Brit tabloid The Mirror and in Slate are a mishmash of imperial justifications and plain bombast; the old elegant style is dead. His TV appearances show a smug, nasty scold with little tolerance for those who disagree with him. He looks more and more like a Ralph Steadman sketch. And in addition to all this, he’s now revising what he said during the buildup to the Iraq war.

In several pieces, including an incredibly condescending blast against Nelson Mandela, Hitch went on and on about WMD, chided readers with “Just you wait!” and other taunts, fully confident that once the U.S. took control of Iraq, tons of bio/chem weapons and labs would be all over the cable news nets–with him dancing a victory jig in the foreground. Now he says WMD were never a real concern, and that he’d always said so. It’s amazing that he’d dare state this while his earlier pieces can be read at his website. But then, when you side with massive state power and the cynical fucks who serve it, you can say pretty much anything and the People Who Matter won’t care.

Currently, Hitch is pushing the line, in language that echoes the reactionary Paul Johnson, that the U.S. can be a “superpower for democracy,” and that Toms Jefferson [sic] and Paine would approve. He’s also slammed the “slut” Dixie Chicks as “fucking fat slags” for their rather mild critique of our Dear Leader. He favors Bush over Kerry, and doesn’t like it that Kerry ”exploits” his Vietnam combat experience (as opposed to, say, re-election campaign stunts on aircraft carriers).

Sweet Jesus. What next? I’m afraid my old mentor is not the truth-telling Orwell he fancies himself to be. He’s becoming a coarser version of Norman Podhoretz.

One of the last political essays he wrote in his life, for Slate, celebrated the virtues of Endless War.

* * * * *

Nobody should have to silently watch someone with this history be converted into some sort of universally beloved literary saint. To enshrine him as worthy of unalloyed admiration is to insist that these actions were either themselves commendable or, at worst, insignificant. Nobody who writes about politics for decades will be entirely free of serious error, but how serious the error is, whether it reflects on their character, and whether they came to regret it, are all vital parts of honestly describing and assessing their work. To demand its exclusion is an act of dishonesty.

Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden. Those hailing Hitchens’ greatness are engaged in a very public, affirmative, politically consequential effort to depict him as someone worthy of homage. That’s fine: Hitchens, like most people, did have admirable traits, impressive accomplishments, genuine talents and a periodic willingness to expose himself to danger to report on issues about which he was writing. But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize — exactly what was done when the awful, power-worshipping TV host, Tim Russert, died, and we were all supposed to pretend that we had lost some Great Journalist, a pretense that had the distorting effect of equating Russert’s attributes of mindless subservience to the powerful with Good Journalism (ironically, Hitchens was the last person who would honor the etiquette rules being invoked on his behalf: he savaged (perfectly appropriately) Mother Theresa and Princess Diana, among others, upon their death, even as millions mourned them).

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud. But what these paeans to Hitchens reflect even more so is the warped values of our political and media culture: once someone is sufficiently embedded within that circle, they are intrinsically worthy of admiration and respect, no matter what it is that they actually do. As Aaron Bady put it to me by email yesterday:

I go back to something Judith Butler’s been saying for years; some lives are grievable and some are not. And in that context, publicly mourning someone like Hitchens in the way we are supposed to do — holding him up as someone who was “one of us,” even if we disagree with him — is also a way of quietly reinforcing the “we” that never seems to extend to the un-grievable Arab casualties of Hitch’s favorite wars. It’s also a “we” that has everything to do with being clever and literate and British (and nothing to do with a human universalism that stretches across the usual “us” and “them” categories). And when it is impolitic to mention that he was politically atrocious (in exactly the way of Kissinger, if not to the extent), we enshrine the same standard of human value as when the deaths of Iraqi children from cluster bombs are rendered politically meaningless by our lack of attention.

That’s precisely true. The blood on his hands — and on the hands of those who played an even greater, more direct role in all of this totally unjustified killing of innocents — is supposed to be ignored because he was an accomplished member in good standing of our media and political class. It’s a way the political and media class protects and celebrates itself: our elite members are to be heralded and their victims forgotten. One is, of course, free to believe that. But what should not be tolerated are prohibitions on these types of discussions when highly misleading elegies are being publicly implanted, all in order to consecrate someone’s reputation for noble greatness even when their acts are squarely at odds with that effort.

 

UPDATE: The day after Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens went on CNN and scorned what he called “the empty life of this ugly little charlatan,” saying: ”I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” As I said, those demanding that Hitchens not be criticized in death are invoking a warped etiquette standard on his behalf that is not only irrational, but is one he himself vigorously rejected.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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