Speaking Ill of the Dead
What do you say when a public figure you find repellent dies? Do you hold your tongue, not speak ill of the dead, and wait some decent interval before saying what you really thought of them? After all, there's no time like their death. Robert Bork died today, and the truth is that in a few months nobody is going to be talking much about his legacy. So now's the time to weigh in, which Jeffrey Toobin does, in a rather unrestrained way:
Robert Bork, who died Wednesday, was an unrepentant reactionary who was on the wrong side of every major legal controversy of the twentieth century. The fifty-eight senators who voted against Bork for confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1987 honored themselves, and the Constitution. In the subsequent quarter-century, Bork devoted himself to proving that his critics were right about him all along.
Hard to disagree—Bork's philosophy was a particularly nasty one, and he spent much of his public life expressing his boundless contempt for modern America, particularly the ways it had become more humane than it once was. For all I know he was beloved by his family, and I could offer them my sympathies, but that would be meaningless for them; they don't know me from Adam.
I think it's possible to talk honestly about someone's contributions, and your criticisms of them, without getting needlessly uncivil. For instance, the media provocateur Andrew Breitbart died earlier this year at the young age of 43. That was a personal tragedy for his family and friends. But there are few people who injected as much poison into American politics in as short a time as Breitbart did, and when he died that had to be acknowledged. You don't have to do that in a vulgar way, of course, but like Bork or anyone else who chooses to participate in a visible way, he chose the life he did.
Being criticized, even harshly, is the price you pay for participating in public life. If you can live with it while you're alive, you shouldn't have too much of a problem with having it happen when you die. So even though my death won't be reported on the evening news, I'd like to state for the record that should anyone want to take the occasion of my demise to remind their audience that in their opinion I was a knave and a fool, go ahead and have at it.
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