Pious Lying About the Dead

(8:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

With the news of Tony Snow’s ultimate departure, we’re faced with yet another round of grappling over how to respond to the death of someone whose temporal behavior enabled dark forces to exercise their plunder and rapine. We are exhorted to hold our tongues out of respect and compassion. And, if we can’t muster that, then out of self-interest, for, inevitably, some day someone we love will be laid to rest. Some day we will be.

Most people who argue, with Chilon of Sparta, that we should speak no ill of the dead put a time limit on their prescription. It’s not that we shouldn’t ever speak ill of the dead, in their view, merely that we should allow the decedent’s family time to get the corpse in the ground before lighting the flamethrowers. It’s understandable in that “we’re all sinners, let God judge” kind of way. Who gets hurt if we roast some war criminal or child molester or lying government shill after the Reaper swings his scythe? Certainly not the target of our wrath. Just kin and friends. What purpose is served by intensifying their grief at its peak? Where is our human kindness?

The trouble with this polite posthumousness isn’t that it gives space to the begrieved, a worthy and understandable behavior. Nor is it that speaking the truth is held in abeyance for a few hours or days. It’s that people who should know better get carried away with themselves. It should be remembered that we’re not talking here about the passing of somebody’s great-aunt Dolores who may have ripped off the collection plate as it passed by or had an affair unbeknownst to great-uncle Phil. We’re speaking of public figures, women and men who so often become saints at graveside services, no matter how despicable their life’s work.

Instead of a mere biting of tongues, these people who should know better go to great lengths to invent praise for the departed, something we witnessed several prominent Democrats do in the case of Jesse Helms earlier this month. Silence wasn’t good enough for them. They had to pile on the bullshit.

As I.F. Stone once said, “Funerals are always occasions for pious lying.” He didn’t say that approvingly. Indeed, he said it about John Kennedy, and he didn’t stop there.

In her 2006 book, All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, Myra MacPherson wrote:

In November 1963, the world mourned in shocked despair when President Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. To watch him was to be “delighted by his wit, his intelligence, his capacity and his youth,” wrote Stone. “Those made the terrible flash from Dallas incredible and painful.” Stone then took a deep breath and plunged into an astonishingly tough column, an appraisal of Kennedy that was only replicated by writers long asfter the revelations of a tarnishd Camelot: “Perhaps the truth is that in some ways John Fitzgerald Kennedy died just in time. He died in time to be remembered as he would like to be remembered, as ever-young, still victorious, struck down undefeated. …” But, Stone continued, “The Kennedy administration was approaching an impasse, certainly at home, quite possibly abroad, from which there seemed no escape. … The President was caught between these old men [in Congress]. Their faces set stubbornly towards their white supremacist past, and the advancing Negro masses, explosively demanding ‘freedom now.'” In foreign affairs Kennedy was stymied by Cold Warriors when attempting any minuscule thaw with Russia.

Stone asked his readers to face deep realities and decried the tendency to either applaud or ignore covert acts of the CIA, from the killing of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo to the assassination of the Diem Brothers in South Vietnam. “We all reach for the dagger, or the gun, in our thinking when it suits our political view to do so. … In this sense we share the guilt with Oswald and Ruby and the rightist crack-pots. Where the right-to-kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young President was slain.” Stone addressed the growing acceptance of “murder on the widest scale as the arbiter of controversy between nations.”

Stone said it was necessary to take a “clear-sighted view” of Kennedy and his advisers, who were “in some ways a warlike Administration.” It seemed ready to “send troops into Vietnam” and “in violation of our own laws and international law” embraced the inglorious Bay of Pigs invasion. As for the Cuban missile crisis, Stone asked, what if Russia “called our bluff and war had begun and escalated?” If any historians had survived, “would they have thought us justified in blowing most of mankind to smithereens, rather than negotiate, or appeal to the UN, or even to leave in Cuba the medium-range missiles which were no different after all from those we had long aimed at the Russian from Turkey and England?” These facts should be remembered in case Johnson had a mind to imitate the slain president. “Think it over carefully before canonizing Kennedy as an apostle of peace.”

Dissenting from worldwide eulogies – “funerals are always occasions for pious lying” – Stone firmly concluded, “Abroad, as at home, the problems were becoming too great for conventional leadership, and Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative, cautious as an old man for all his youth, with a basic distrust of the people and an astrngent view of the evangelical as a toll of leadership…. In the clouds of incense … it is easy to lose one’s way just when it becomes more important than ever to see where we really are.” [pp. 388-389].

Whether our obituary is for a muckety-muck or a minion, few, if any of us, have the eloquence or analytical skills of an I.F. Stone to put everything in perspective. For that reason alone, as well as for general persuasiveness, it’s wiser to stick with facts than sink to vituperation. But it serves nobody if we cannot be “clear-sighted” and willing to strip away the tinsel from the eulogies of those whose behavior had broad and pernicious impacts.


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  1. wish that on him.

    Too bad he lied.  Didn’t wish that on this nation.

    He consorted with evil, indeed he perpetrated it.  I cannot mourn him.

    • RUKind on July 13, 2008 at 00:30

    He’s not off the hook for anything. Whatever decency he may have had as an individual was far outweighed by his complicity and active participation in crimes against humanity. Did anyone weep for Hitler or Stalin? Or their close minions? Most people rejoiced. Silently and privately unless they were living outside the domains of repression.  You never know who’s watching.

    I wouldn’t say Lee Atwater deserved his way of death but he’s the one who slayed Dukakis for H.W. and who tutored the Rove thing at his knees. H.W. spawned the W thing out of Barbara, a particularly vile brood mare. Witness her spawn – Neil, Jeb, W…

    Old money grows greener in all seasons and all generations. It gathers in unto itself and it sucks the life blood out of the mass of humanity. Even in “Communist” China the hierarchy is just another familial structure. A revolution may overturn the current lords and masters but a new crop will always rise to the top.

    When Bush and Cheney pass the world at large will rejoice. Humanity will have seen the passing of two of its greatest criminals ever. Ant they’re just the hand-servants of the masters.

    • Robyn on July 13, 2008 at 00:48
    • Viet71 on July 13, 2008 at 02:21
  2. from my father, who I mourn is Molly Ivins.  Nobody can replace her.  Here’s a column I found today, from Mother Jones:

    In order to understand why George W. Bush doesn’t get it, you have to take several strands of common Texas attitude, then add an impressive degree of class-based obliviousness. What you end up with is a guy who sees himself as a perfectly nice fellow — and who is genuinely disconnected from the impact of his decisions on people.


    There was a telling episode in 1999 when the Department of Agriculture came out with its annual statistics on hunger, showing that once again Texas was near the top. Texas is a perennial leader in hunger because we have 43 counties in South Texas (and some in East Texas) that are like Third World countries. If our border region were a state, it would be first in poverty, first in the percentage of schoolchildren living in poverty, first in the percentage of adults without a high school diploma, 51st in income per capita, and so on.

    When the 1999 hunger stats were announced, Bush threw a tantrum. He thought it was some malign Clinton plot to make his state look bad because he was running for president. “I saw the report that children in Texas are going hungry. Where?” he demanded. “No children are going to go hungry in this state. You’d think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas.” You would, wouldn’t you? That is the point at which ignorance becomes inexcusable.


    Take any area — environment, labor, education, taxes, health — and go to the websites of public-interest groups in that field. You will find page after page of minor adjustments, quiet repeals, no-big-deal new policies, all of them cruel, destructive, and harmful. A silent change in regulations, an executive order, a funding cutoff. No headlines. Below the radar. Again and again and again.


    • Mu on July 13, 2008 at 03:43

    . . . care how good or bad a person is, what their politics are, how “connected” they are.  It’s our “Mask of Red Death.”  

    Mu . . .

  3. we have to support them, we’re not supposed to speak ill of them, they’re “over there fighting for us”, right. Then we hear reports of daily torture of Itaqis, bombing Afghan civilians – by our young troops, your neighbors’ kids.

  4. …they’re good and Dead…

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    • dkmich on July 13, 2008 at 07:22

    To be as tactful as you on this subject isn’t me.  I shed no tears for Tony Snow or Tim Russert, but I do empathize with their families.  Both had a duty to this country and both sold out.  I can handle anything but lies.  

  5. I hate everything about it. I hate its dreadful quiet persistence in replicating. I hate the sneaky way it hides itself until it is too late. I hate the impatience it displays in its desire to grow.

    I hate that it lives in my wife – strengthening itself by sucking the life out of her day by day – inexorably growing and doing the damage that it does inside where you can’t see it or attack it or kill it.

    When Tony Snow died it was a very bad day for both of us. He was diagnosed after she was, so it was another reminder that  we’re on borrowed time.

    We try to act normal, but the fucking cancer is always there, and I’m always fighting back tears. I can’t even tell anymore if I’m crying for her, or feeling sorry for myself at my pending tidal wave of grief and how I’m going to get through it.

    So if it makes you feel better to refuse to mourn for Tony Snow then I wish you happiness.

    I, for one, am so very sorry he died. No matter what he did when he was alive, he didn’t deserve an early grave. He didn’t deserve the pain that comes with organ death. He didn’t deserve to have cancer.

    I mourn him for you. There’s no end to the tears anyway, I got plenty. Apparently.

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