Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Death Debate Again

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died a week ago today and I am ashamed to say that I joined in on the tasteless schadenfreude-fest that swept the Internet. I must admit I said some terrible things.

Okay, I’m not actually ashamed.

But some kind-hearted liberals think I should be, so the traditional cycle of cheering and chiding ensued. The arguments against celebrating are familiar - they get trotted out whenever a malevolent political figure dies. Glenn Greenwald wrote a great essay about this on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death. It was a follow up on an argument he made on the occasion of Christopher Hitchens' death.

Naturally, how terrible the individual was in life varies and I suppose we can disagree over whether the degree of glee is really proportionate to the departed's damages. Augusto Pinochet’s regime tortured and murdered thousands of Chileans whereas, in England, Margaret Thatcher’s austerity measures merely ground a generation of working poor deeper into poverty. And Antonin Scalia only sought to subvert equality and democracy in America, so I suppose it is all relative.

I can maybe see making the argument that only their victims have a right to raise a glass but that others do not. I disagree, but I can at least see it. But to say nobody should only silences the victims. It tries to shame them for their valid anger – particularly when the public figure’s crimes are gently finessed or totally ignored in a flourish of eulogistic praise, as is frequently the case. As noted in the Greenwald article, it is the praise that is truly tasteless. Those who tisk-tisk are the type that think it is rude to point out rudeness. But then how does rudeness ever get corrected? This politeness is enabling writ-at-large on the scale of nation states. Gallows humor towards, say, war criminals who escaped the gallows and died peacefully in their sleep is not only understandable but totally appropriate. It is scant, bitter consolation to the survivors; but I will not deny them that. They are unquestionably entitled to it.

Simply put, the “no matter how bad they were” argument makes no sense in the secular context of civic life. If the strictures of your personal religion command you to love everyone, then do so. But I am not Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King. I did not sign up for either of their religions, so I am not bound by their precepts. The fact is that, contrary to conservative propaganda, liberals are ridiculously Christian in temperament regardless of their religion. Forgiveness, atonement - liberals love that shit. Even Darth Vader gets saved and comes back as a blue Force ghost - with an impressive celestial face lift, no less. But what gets me is that you do not even have to atone if you had held public office. Official liberal forgiveness is automatic. Grace is de rigueur, if not an unthinking reflex. I know that one of the dictionary definitions of "liberal" is "generous," but perhaps a measure of conservative restraint is required here.

The thing is, I seriously think that society benefits from impolite timing. Last Sunday, I tweeted, "Political prediction: Opponents of genocide will cheer Henry Kissinger's death and be criticized for their insensitivity." I cross-posted it on other social networking sites and a friend objected that there should be no cause to cheer. I replied that it can turn the media's predictable whitewashing into a teachable moment. We must confront our history. The fact that Kissinger is a free man and admired by the establishment reveals terrible truths about America that seriously need to be addressed.(1) Until he sits in a cage in the Hague, we cannot possibly call our nation a champion of human rights.(2)

The point here is that opportunities to talk about such figures are incredibly rare. Who would have guessed that Henry Kissinger would get mentioned in a Democratic presidential primary debate? TWICE! Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually doubled-down on that endorsement. The second time, Bernie Sanders could not let it pass. His response was righteous and I quite approved. Kissinger had facilitated three different mass murders either by accident or deliberately.(3) Sanders only singled-out one of them, but even that mention was a minor miracle. But everybody eventually dies, so that last opportunity is guaranteed. We should never surrender it.

I think there would be a lot less liberal "vitriol" if the "liberal" media didn't whitewash manifest monsters. It legitimizes them and thereby encourages others like them. The fact that a war criminal like Henry Kissinger is not only walking free but respected by the establishment and proudly touted by Hillary Clinton illustrates this. Richard Nixon didn't deserve our respect when he died, Antonin Scalia didn't, and nor will Henry Kissinger when he kicks it. If you want monsters to be more respected in death, then perhaps the news media should stop spin-doctoring the cadavers and treat their deaths as ordinary news stories. Write an obit, not a eulogy. Screw the usual slurry of polite, funereal obfuscation. If a writer wants to write eulogy, give the victims' case equal time. Granted, not every effort will equal Hunter S. Thompson's epic "eulogy" of Richard Nixon, but that rare effort should still be made.

But, hey, maybe I am wrong. I am always open to possibility. Perhaps I should not toast the deaths of total toads. After all, there are a lot of them. As I noted in my book, "[T]he right’s icons have been dropping off like flies – Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Charlton Heston, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, William F. Buckley, and Robert Bork have all kicked the bucket since I had started writing this thing." I need to start drinking less before I start seeing the blue Force ghost of Richard Nixon in the full youth and vigor of his early McCarthyite days.


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(1) Nationalists will naturally call this sentiment unpatriotic. Quite the opposite: You cannot fix problems that you refuse to recognize, and in a participatory democracy fixing things is a duty. As I write in my book, "Criticism is part of citizenship. Stifling dissent is a form of sabotage. It is like disconnecting an important dashboard warning light."

(2) This makes two recent posts that I am put in the awkward position of praising Christopher Hitchens, but his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger is must reading on this topic. Watch the documentary of the same name, if you prefer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s touting Henry Kissinger’s praise of her encapsulates all that is terrifying about her candidacy.

(3) First, the accident: The illegal bombing of neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War may have killed as many as 150,000 Cambodians. That is not the accident part. The accident part was that it destabilized that country and allowed the brutal Khmer Rouge to take over and murder over a million more. Nixon and Kissinger's recklessness accidentally had helped the Khmer Rouge just as surely as George W. Bush had accidentally created ISUL (or Daesh, if you prefer). You could call it negligent genocide. It is a chronic blow back from bombing. As the first linked article noted, comparing Afghanistan to Cambodia, "The Khmer Rouge grew from a small force of fewer than 10,000 in 1969 to over 200,000 troops and militia in 1973. During that period their recruitment propaganda successfully highlighted the casualties and damage caused by U.S. bombing." Funny how similar actions in similar circumstances get similar results.

Installing the aforementioned Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was the other mass murder that Henry Kissinger was an accomplice to, but that was no accident. Kissinger explicitly green-lit that slaughter. Generally, the dictators we chose to run other countries during the Cold War, asked our permission first. That was also the case when President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger approved Indonesia's invasion of East Timor. Indonesia massacred almost a quarter million Timorese - a third of that country's population. It's traditional. Indeed, a miscommunication in one protocol is what triggered the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein sought - and thought he got - George Bush Sr.'s permission to invade Kuwait. After all, during the Reagan administration, we sold him the poison gas he used on the Kurds. Yes, we sold it to him to fight Iran, but we did not stop selling to Saddam after we discovered on whom it was being used. Kissinger was not directly involved in the sale, although he had betrayed them previously. No, that is Donald Rumsfeld seen shaking hands with Saddam.

Some quibble with the use of the word "genocide" arguing that specific ethnicities were not targeted. For example, this article argues that, in East Timor, the term is not technically correct in terms of international law. And in Chile, the targets were ideological rather than ethnic. But the Khmer Rouge's brand of communism was rabidly nationalistic and ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Cambodians were targeted by Pol Pot's regime.

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