Saturday, 13 April 2013

“Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”, or, Is it allowed to speak ill of the dead?

Margaret Thatcher is dead, and while conservative MPs celebrate her life time achievements and the state is preparing for a bombastic funeral, others celebrate her death and would be only too glad to dance on her grave: Ding dong, the witch (or bitch) is dead. Those who admire and praise her, both as a great leader and a human being, have expressed outrage and disgust at those public demonstrations of joy, which are "disgraceful", "despicable" and "totally morally wrong". But are they really? Why exactly? Because Thatcher was such a good person that she doesn't deserve people celebrating her death, or because it is generally wrong to rejoice in anybody's death, whoever they may be and whatever they may have done?

Those who celebrate her death obviously believe that Margaret Thatcher was a bad person and are therefore glad that's she's dead. There's certainly an element of schadenfreude here: serves her right to be dead, good riddance to bad rubbish, and so on and so forth, and perhaps also protest against the welfare cuts imposed by the present government, which is seen as just another expression of help-the-rich-and-let-the-poor-fend-for-themselves “Thatcherism”. But there is of course also resentment (or even hatred) of her as a person, as someone who is thought to be directly responsible for plunging many people into permanent unemployment and destitution.
But what drives those who express outrage at the celebrations? Is it their belief a) that this particular person, Margaret Thatcher, should not be disrespected in that way because she deserves respect (in which case one may very well disagree with their judgement of Thatcher's worthiness of being respected, and then celebrate without moral impropriety), or b) that, as the rhetoric suggests, nobody's death should be celebrated because it is generally bad to speak ill of the dead. In that case it seems that it would be equally wrong to celebrate the death of, say, Adolf Hitler, as it would to celebrate the death of, say, Mother Teresa. In other words, it would be death itself that changed the status of a person in such a way that it is no longer appropriate to hate them, as if once a person has passed this threshold, all they've ever done is forgotten and forgiven. Good or bad, it no longer makes any difference: the dead are all worthy of respect. Yet if we assume, as I think we must, that it can be appropriate to hate and despise someone when they are still alive, then it is not entirely clear why that same person should not be despised and hated when they are dead. What exactly is it that death changes?

But then again, it doesn’t seem to be the case that celebrating the death of a person is generally thought to be “distasteful”. In fact, the English have been celebrating the death of a rather hapless and by all accounts not particularly evil person for more than four centuries now. Every year, on November 5th, they celebrate the violent death of Guy Fawkes who was involved in a conspiracy to kill King James I. and to restore a Catholic monarchy. They even burn his effigy and obviously think it’s great fun to do that. Is that, too, “distasteful”? I actually think it is, and much more than celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher who has certainly destroyed more lives than Guy Fawkes. Or let’s take a perhaps less controversial example: suppose Adolf Hitler had not shot himself, but had somehow managed to escape to South America where he had lived peacefully for another thirty odd years before he finally succumbed to a heart attack at the ripe age of 86. As the news of his death spread, Jewish communities all over the world would erupt into spontaneous jubilation, so happy are they that finally the person who did so much harm to so many people is dead. Would we in that case also say that the celebrations were “inappropriate” and “morally wrong”? Because one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead?
Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I am not putting Margaret Thatcher in the same category as Adolf Hitler. My point is rather that we do not really seem to endorse the general principle that one should not speak ill of the dead, or celebrate their demise. Sometimes it may be quite appropriate and entirely legitimate. But then the real issue with the celebrations over Thatcher’s death is not whether one should or should not speak ill of the dead, but instead whether or not Margaret Thatcher deserves to be hated and despised, or rather praised and admired for her actions. The debate is not really about the dead and whether they (by virtue of being dead) deserve respect, but rather about Thatcher and whether she deserves respect. It is also about how we should remember and evaluate the events of that crucial period in modern British history that have made this country what it is today and that were influenced so profoundly by Thatcher’s values, will, and determination. What is happening at the moment with this debate is that a battle is being fought about the kind of past that we are going to have, not just how we will remember the past, but what the past is actually going to be for us. Will Thatcher for later generations have been a hero or a villain, will she have saved or ruined the country? Whatever she really was, it clearly suits the Tories to cast her as Britain’s saviour, not least because they, too, want to be perceived in that way. If they succeed in creating a past in which Thatcher was the hero, then they are more likely to be remembered as heroes themselves.    


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