In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, main character Adam Trask speaks with his servant Lee about the deaths of three nameless men. The first was openly regarded as a “goddamn son of a bitch” and was almost universally disliked. When people did acknowledge him, they spoke openly about how glad they were that he died and how widely he was hated. The second man was a two-faced, hypocritical liar but regarded as a generous man because he had heavily invested in their town, although for strictly personal reasons. When he passed, Trask spoke of people mourning him in public and celebrating in private. The third man was “one of those rare men who light up the world by simply being,” and when he died people seemed to mourn sincerely, lamenting “how will we ever get along without him?”
The American political process is a merciless, monstrous institution that swallows people whole and spits them out in pieces, destroying their reputations and livelihoods in the process. Our political officials leave office hated and bitter, usually forsaking the public life for good and with no thoughts of returning. This pestilential cacophony, this attenuation of humanity, is especially true for the presidential race, where those hoping to take the highest office in the land are exposed to the greatest disparagement in the land. It seems that in our rush to be right, to give the most scathing of beatdowns, to distinguish ourselves as the meanest, the most maliciously clairvoyant of the pack, we forget: “de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est — do not speak ill of the dead.”
Most funeral customs have more to do with fear of the undead and their jealousy of the living — or of the evil spirits that might emerge through the portal to the afterlife that a death opens — than with anything like respect. For example, we typically bury the bodies of the dead in a nice, deep hole with the heaviest stone we can find over their head to make sure they can’t get out. Or else we burn them to dry ashes to make sure they won’t regenerate. Certain Jewish customs are even more explicit. Mirrors are covered over so that the souls of the living, which are considered to be present in their reflections, can’t be seized by spirits. Doors are left unlocked so that no one in the house will have to open them and inadvertently invite in the undead.
The implication of the original Latin phrase “de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est” (about the dead, nothing should be said unless it’s something good) was not so much a directive to say good things about the dead as a suggestion that it was best to avoid saying anything at all — because mentioning their names, as with any spirit, was likely to summon them up and could lead to something which would rather be avoided. This is also why Egyptian pharaohs, Japanese emperors, and so forth, were referred to by different names after death than in life. Or, at worst, if you couldn’t totally avoid mentioning the dead, you should at least say something flattering so they wouldn’t get angry and come give you trouble. Of course, these days saying nice things about the dead is far more likely to keep them around giving you a hard time forever — see, for example, the case of Ronald Reagan. But such a mindset has been around since the Paleolithic, and it isn’t going to change so easily. My hope here is to begin that process. I hope to help remember the human side of the politician.
Antonin Scalia: If you were bold enough to ask Antonin Scalia questions, you had to be precise. Otherwise the bushy black brows would furrow, the chin would crumple and the pudgy, puckish body would start to rock, eager to get at you. Wasn’t he violently opposed to Roe v Wade, the abortion ruling? “Adamantly opposed, that’s better.” Did he have any guilty pleasures? “How can it be pleasurable, if it’s guilty?” Lesser lawyers who were vague in oral argument faced a barrage of sarcasm or, if he agreed with them, constant chiding to do better. (“That’s your strong point!”) Dissenting colleagues at the Supreme Court had their opinions described as “argle-bargle”, “jiggery pokery” and “pure applesauce.” Words had meaning. He revered them and used them scrupulously, even in insult. The law was written in words, and those ideally laid down bright lines for everyone to follow. As a committed textualist, he wasted no time looking to legislative history, the purported purpose of a law or the comments of some egregious congressman. It meant what it said. Similarly, he meant what he said. He spent three decades on the court, relishing every minute, and liking it even better when he could kick shins in public. Looking back, what pleased him most was to see more attention paid to text, legislative precedent sliding out, and far more questions from the bench: all his doing. He could detect, though, no fading of the fashion to force the constitution ever further into modern life. After abortion and same-sex marriage, why not assisted dying? The stalwart Catholic in him was revolted at the thought. He knew for certain, though, that the Framers were on his side; the Devil was on the other; and that heaven was his portion, for he was always right.
Perhaps one the most contentious and problematic Justices in recent memory, Scalia attracted the attention of many and the ire of most from his scathing dissents and sometimes crass complexion towards lawyers in the courtroom. Many celebrated his death mere minutes after learning of it, the goddamn son of a bitch. A friend of mine actually had a party for it, planned not minutes after word of his passing spread to our group.
But I felt bad about it.
Nancy Reagan: Reagan reminds me of the second man — some find it hard to find fault with the smiley, visibly loving first lady who made her presence known and thanklessly called the shots when the ex-president clandestinely suffered. She was a role model for women at a time when feminism of any wave struggled to gain ground and managed to streamline the possibility for a meaningful role for women in a brave new world of OPEC brutality and contras aplenty. Showy at times and charming always, Reagan polarized the political and teased the traditional.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Nancy Reagan. She was wife to one of the most debated and discussed presidents of recent memory, Ronald Reagan, and took point on a dreadfully misguided and harmful drug policy, one we still feel the effects of. Despite this, I believe we should learn our lesson and move on, and perhaps save the Reagan family from any more pain. Hypocritical? Two faced? Perhaps. Such is the nature of politics. Having your cake and eating it, too? Just say no.
Decency: Long hailed as one of the noblest virtues, and certainly a hallmark of human achievement, decency passed away, still unreported and unacknowledged. While several sources claim that decency is still alive and well, the thick stench of hatred obviously rules the day. It was preceded in death by open, honest dialogue and is succeeded by its cousin, brutality, who now reportedly prefers to be called “how it really is.” How will we ever get along without him?