Sunday, February 14, 2016

Saying No To Intellectual Shiva



Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly this weekend, touching off furious argument in Washington about whether the Senate would consider a successor nominated by the President. (They seem to have invented a constitutional principle in which the fourth year of a Democrat's presidency does not count.)

Scalia had been on the court since 1986, appointed by President Reagan. He was an enormously consequential figure in American law and jurisprudence. His legal theory and conservative ideology were subsequently of enormous import to masses of people. There is much to be said as the news of his death is absorbed, what his contribution was to history, and what might follow with his departure.

And not all of it is praiseful, of course. We are being asked, however, to hold off on the critique and only offer praise.

Robert Reich speaks for a lot of public leaders and "thought leaders" in writing, "This is not the time to mount the obvious criticisms of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia." There is a recurring ritual when a figure of political import dies. The entire internet is expected to behave as if they were at the person's funeral, as if the deceased's family are reading their Twitter feed, and refrain from any commentary critical of the person no matter what kind of legacy they leave behind, as if history is to take a time-out. Only praise is allowed, so we are scolded. 

Well, no. Sorry, but that's fatuous and pompous. If a horrible violent dictator dies, there is nothing indecent about saying, "This was a horrible violent dictator." There is a distinction between merely dancing on someone's grave and making truthful or sincere critical comments about someone who had an impact on masses of people's lives.

There are plenty of positive reflections being made about the jurist who died yesterday - testimonies to his intellect and to likable aspects of his personality, praise for his legal acumen by some - and there are also things to be said that are less worshipful about the consequences of his work and influence. There is no need whatsoever to hold back from including the latter in public comments. Leaving the field only to those praising him just allows the person to be sanctified while those harmed by the figure are told be "respectful." The democratic answer is no, we aren't bound to play the game on those terms.

It is quite another thing to suggest keeping such remarks tasteful. That would apply, I would hope, while the figure was alive as well. I hope whatever I might say about Scalia, or have in the past, however critical, has been tasteful. (And true, above all: I hope I am at least close to the mark on that score.) But the conflation of critiquing the legacy of those who make history with "being tasteless" is an idea that we should reject. And I do.

In an excellent piece for the Guardian in 2013, Glenn Greenwald  pointed out that when that very paper wrote, upon the death of a socialist South American president, that "the millions who detested him as a thug and charlatan [would] bid, vocally or discreetly, good riddance [to him]," no one protested on behalf of his family. "There's something distinctively creepy," Greenwald wrote, "about this mandated ritual that our political leaders must be heralded and consecrated as saints upon death." As when President Obama described Margaret Thatcher as a "great champion of freedom and liberty." Greenwald argues that this ritual of hagiography has historical consequences at least in the short-term. As he concluded: "If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history."

So no, no thanks. Intellectual shiva is not a legitimate tradition, and we need not acquiesce to propaganda.

1 comment:

quid said...


The only thing I liked about this man was his friendship with Kagan and Bader Ginsburg.

Shows he was a human being, although he probably related to them as the closest "scholarly" lawyers on his esteemed bench, next to his own intellect.

I particularly liked Maureen Dowd's past classification of him as "Archie Bunker in a high backed chair".
RIP