SYNDICATED COLUMN: Please Speak Ill of the Dead

Image result for reagan grave

“Too soon!” That was a standard response to my criticisms of John McCain following his death.

My cartoon and social media posts reminded readers that McCain had volunteered to bomb innocent civilians in an illegal war of aggression to prop up a corrupt and reviled regime at the time of his capture. The real heroes of the Vietnam War were the tens of thousands of draft dodgers forced to give up their lives to flee to Canada and the many conscripted veterans who came home appalled by what they saw and did and spent the rest of their lives fighting for peace.

McCain, on the other hand, learned nothing from his experience. He never met a war — or a possible war — he didn’t like. McCain voted for war against Afghanistan and Iraq. He criticized Bill Clinton for limiting his war against Kosovo to airstrikes; he wanted ground troops too. He supported arming the Islamist jihadis in Syria and Libya, expanding the civil wars there. He threatened war against Iran. He sabre-rattled against Russia. North Korea and even China were in this deranged right winger’s sights.

These were not minor failings in an otherwise distinguished life. They were defining acts that erased the myths on which McCain built his career — his military service and his “maverick” persona. The war he fought in was disgusting and now widely considered a mistake. McCain was a run-of-the-mill right-wing Republican warmonger. His straight-talk shtick was fake as hell.

Media accounts sanitized the myriad of very bad things McCain did throughout his life. So I did my part to help counter the tsunami of BS.

“Do not speak ill of the dead.” This dictum, attributed to the 6th century BCE philosopher Chilon of Sparta, may be appropriate at your uncle’s funeral; who wants to hear that the dead man’s widow discovered foot-fetish websites in his browser history?

Public figures are different.

In cartoons and the written word I have attempted to counter the fulsome praise that followed the deaths of people like Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t trying to be mean to Nancy Reagan. Though I doubt she read my work.

Reagan hurt and killed a lot of people. As much as Reagan’s admirers didn’t enjoy my reminders that he (we believed at the time) murdered Moammar Gaddafi’s daughter or that he didn’t care about victims of HIV-AIDS, Americans who lost friends and relatives to the “gay plague” deserved to be acknowledged in assessments of Reagan’s life and legacy. The media pretended Reagan’s crimes never happened. I corrected the record.

The “too soon” and “can’t you wait until the body is cold?” arguments fall flat. What better time to point out and discuss a dead leader’s flaws than the time immediately following their death? That’s when obituaries appear, the eulogies are said and the nation is focused on the issues and policies they affected and effected. A few weeks later, no one cares.

Presumably referring to himself, former president Theodore Roosevelt argued in a 1910 speech that men of action — those “in the arena” — matter and their critics do not.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Soaring oratory! But self-serving and obsolete.

If effort and taking chances is all that matters when assessing a person’s life, the firefighter who enters a burning house to save a baby has no more worth than the serial killer who sneaks inside to kill it. Hitler and Stalin and Osama bin Laden all had grand visions they strove valiantly to turn into reality. They were daring. They achieved. They counted, but so what?

These days it’s the “timid souls” who stand aside, keeping mum while the mass media wallows in sordid orgies of mawkish praise for problematic figures like Reagan and McCain. Adding perspective and nuance to assessments of mass adulation requires courage. In this age of relentless propaganda and unmitigated BS, the critic is in the arena just as much as a dead senator.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

15 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Please Speak Ill of the Dead

  1. Yeah, it’s good stuff, and there’s a lot of concurring opinion here, and I concur too.

    I’d just advise taking it a bit easier on the common man.

    The common man is swept along in ignorance and testosterone and fed on lies since he’s born.

    Santa Clause. God. The USA!

    People he trusts act as if these things are real.

    It’s the rare few of us, (and I’m one of them, born in Mississippi, to a military family), who are genetically gifted enough, and educationally advantaged enough, (my grandmother just happened to be the town’s librarian), to see through it all and get out. I got lucky. I reckon you did too, Ted.

    Those that are left behind are deserving of some amount of empathy.

  2. Hi Ted,

    In reference to your question, below: “Every generation of American soldiers has gotten screwed. Doesn’t anyone read history?”

    The vast majority of each generation of American soldiers are fresh out of high school …
    if they haven’t dropped out “to serve.”

    I submit that the culprit is precisely the history that is allowed into US high schools.
    Why would the official “US history” be untouched by the empire’s murderous militarism?

  3. These were not minor failings in an otherwise distinguished life. They [i e, Mr McCain’s strident advocacy of more US wars of aggression abroad] were defining acts that erased the myths on which McCain built his career — his military service and his “maverick” persona.

    Nailed it, once again, Ted. Sad – but hardly unexpected – to see a «democratic socialist» (or should that be «Democratic socialst» ?) like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mouthing such encomia as

    John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.

    This is the archtype of the «new» breed of politicians who are going to save the USA ?!!…

    New boss same, same old boss….

    Henri

      • Well, Ted and falco – you both no doubt possess far more knowledge of Ms Ocasio-Cortez as a person than I do, but my impression is that she’s sufficiently malleable to soon be wrapped in the folds of whatever garment du jour is in fashion at the hallowed precincts of the DNC. It seems – correct me if I err ! – she’s strrong on «identity politics» but has very little to say about class. What’s not to like ?…

        Henri

      • If she killed a few journalists would that get her on your good side again? Pity she doesn’t have a TV channel you could go on…

      • «If she killed a few journalists would that get her on your good side again?» Delirium tremens, «Fleming Balzac» ? Or simply your repressed fantasies ?…

        Henri

  4. Paddy Bauler is reported to have said, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.”

    In fact, Americans who say “Too soon” are just “inviting” speakers of inconvenient truths to be silent.

    And in their own way these Americans are really just telling their antagonists to get off the backs of America’s Plunder Parties because “America ain’t ready for reform yet.”

  5. > The war he fought in was disgusting and now widely considered a mistake.

    Same-o, Same-o. The chickenhawks who supported the Vietnam war at the time later decried it as a waste. The chickenhawks who vociferously “supported the troops” in Iraq belatedly decided it was a bad idea after all.

    If only they would *learn* from these experiences, but they never do. All it takes is a little fear-mongering and they’re all ready to go kill some more [OTHER]; never stopping to consider whether they’ll still approve a few years from now.

    The least they could do is *own* it. I’ve never heard a single one say, “Yeah, I thought it was a good idea at the time, but I now realize I was wrong.” They’ll never take responsibility for the long-term repercussions of that support. (that being the right wing definition of “personal responsibility’ – to wit, it’s always some other person’s responsibility.)

      • @Tyler

        Some do, and are bitter for the rest of their lives.

        Others don’t, and I suspect that it’s a defense mechanism for many of them. Otherwise, they’d have to admit to themselves that they were played and might even be war criminals.

        That’s a pretty heavy cross to bear.

        I have infinite sympathy for those poor, ignorant farm boys who were raised up on God, Guns, and Gays, then whisked off to war before they were old enough to figure things out for themselves.

        I have no sympathy whatsoever for those who see it as an opportunity to shoot brown people.

      • «Every generation of American soldiers has gotten screwed. Doesn’t anyone read history?» Alas, Ted, the people who do read history belong mainly to the class that sends others out to fight to ensure its power and profits, and these are precisely the lessons they learn from the history they read….

        Henri

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