When Someone Awful Dies, is it Okay to Express Public Joy?

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When Someone Awful Dies, is it Okay to Express Public Joy?

Take a moment to read, in their entirety, the final three paragraphs of Gawker’s Andrew Breitbart obituary, written by Dan O’Sullivan and Jeb Lund upon the conservative blogger’s death by heart failure in 2012. The conclusion below comes on the heels of three thousands words worth of vicious, thorough skewering—the worst literary treatment a recently deceased soul could ever dread to suffer:

There’s a more generous interpretation, one echoed by a lot of comments made in hasty obituaries, that a wife has been widowed and four children left fatherless. And perhaps for some that’s enough reason to whitewash a career richly studded with racism, hatred, and contempt. Perhaps that’s enough to turn honest evaluations of a life riven with opportunistic malice into mealy-mouthed encomia about “a provocateur” and a “punk rock journalist.”

Of course, nobody was asking fretful hand-wringing questions about children when it was time to throw a sop to conservatives and pillory ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. Nobody asked how many children had been given a better life for having their parents rescued from predatory lending. Nobody asked how many children’s lives were improved by the good offices of Shirley Sherrod. In the last few days, nobody’s asked how many lives will not be affected for the better because we’ve lost their contributions. And for all the talk of his children, nobody’s asked what kind of America they stand to inherit from their father—whether black kids on the playground with them will endure a wider world of fear, wary of a country so easily whipped into a furor of suspicion of them, their motives, their peer groups, their voices.

There wasn’t time to ask those questions, not when one needed to labor to find a plausible compliment for someone who luxuriated in poisoning the racial discourse and raining abuse down on colleagues in a crass endless hump for pageloads and ad revenue. There wasn’t time, and in any event, they were still afraid—checking the thesaurus for words of praise that seemed acceptably sincere, instead of taking up a spade to help bury him deep in the earth, not merely to put greater distance between him and humanity but so that Hell does not have to reach so high to claim him.

I asked you to read this excerpt not merely because I adore its furious brilliance, or because I still spend time thinking about what a piece of shit Andrew Breitbart was, but because it gets to the heart of a debate that plays out each time some new domestic cretin shuffles off this mortal coil: Do we owe them a token politeness, upon their passing? Should we not speak ill of the departed, even if we utterly despised him just hours before? Should death impart some kind of absolution even for the most rotten among us?

(Side note: I say “domestic” because this hand-wringing is notably absent when we’ve collectively decided that some outsider, like Osama bin Laden, is beyond redemption. It’s okay to jump for joy when we hear his dead carcass has been dumped into the Indian Ocean, but we won’t consent to the same treatment for a Breitbart type, regardless of how much he may have poisoned the culture.)

O’Sullivan and Lund identified precisely how this smug tone policing plays out. First, someone reacts to the death of a man like Breitbart with enthusiasm. Second, that person is chastened, because no matter what else you might think of the archetypal dead Breitbart character, this is a person with a wife and kids and blah blah blah death is sad etc. etc. Cheering for someone’s death, you are told, is the ultimate impropriety, the thing we must never do regardless of what opinions we hold of the newly deceased.

Moreover, they note, the mainstream media internalizes this ethos of caution—they don’t have to be yelled at, because they obey the “don’t speak ill of the dead” mandate without being told. Effectively, they tone police themselves, leading to the “punk rock journalist” slash “provocateur” type of commentary that the Lund and O’Sullivan reference.

Let’s go back to Bin Laden for a moment. Imagine you heard about his death, came to Paste, saw my byline, and read this lead paragraph from his obituary:

Osama bin Laden, Islamic revolutionary, international icon, and 1st General Emir of Al-Qaeda, died today at age 54. Born to a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden chose the path of religious holy war at a young age, joining the Mujahideen and rising within their ranks before splitting off to form the Sunni militant group Al-Qaeda, which quickly became an important force in the international jihadist milieu. Bin Laden achieved legendary status as one of the world’s most recognizable insurgents, and earned his greatest renown—and no small amount of infamy, to be sure—for engineering the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, which remains one of the most successful acts of guerrilla warfare in the modern age. He also earned his share of enemies along the way, and it was one of those enemies—the United States—who ultimately found and killed him in Pakistan. In recognition of his stature, and in adherence to Islamic law, bin Laden was buried at sea.

That would kind of piss you off, right? It would piss me off, because it whitewashes the fact that this guy was a vicious terrorist who brought only death and destruction into the world and ruined too many lives to count. It also shades his worst accomplishments with moral relativism, as though his passing made it okay to view something like 9/11 in the abstract, and to marvel at its execution without bringing the ethical component into play. Death, and history, have gifted us with critical distance.

This is an abhorrent reaction. It’s far better to express honest happiness that someone so toxic and dangerous was removed from the earth. That result instantly improved the world, no matter how incrementally, and there’s no shame in either thinking this thought, or expressing it.

But let’s try to make the same calculation for certain American icons, like Andrew Breitbart. Sure, there are many people who revered him in our country, but if I, using whatever brain power is at my disposal, perform a mental calculus and conclude that Breitbart brought far more hatred and suffering to the world than any remotely positive quality, and that his legacy of poisoning the national discourse will persist long after he’s gone, why wouldn’t I be happy that he died? By a rational application of simple logic, I should be overjoyed! Again, it’s a simple question: Do you think the world is better off without him, or not? If yes, then hurray! A bad thing is gone!

Of course, it’s not that simple, because death holds an almost mystic hyper-relevance in our minds. Regardless of whether this logic makes sense, there’s a prevailing wisdom that unless someone can be labeled “evil” in a way we universally agree upon—the bin Ladens of the world—celebrating individual death is a step too far, and that above all, even as we fight tooth and nail against their ideology, we must not root for their demise. This is even true when it becomes clear that a person cannot be rooted out in any manner but death. This is even true when we remember that death is coming for us all—is, in fact, an inescapable part of the human experience—and that we constantly overrate its importance.

And when the death of a lowlife comes, we see the same encroachment of moral relativism that I employed in my fake bin Laden obituary. With Breitbart, the partisan, thuggish, life-ruining tactics that would have been decried a day before are suddenly turned into “punk-rock journalism” by the shroud of death. The mere fact of ceasing to breathe ushers in a critical distance, a softening of the vision that turns outright villains into impish rascals.

I would like to state, for the record, that I believe this to be unadulterated bullshit. It normalizes awful behavior, and tells us, in a coded way, that Breitbart-like tactics aren’t really so bad, that it’s all just some big game, and now that he’s gone we can appreciate his audacity. In this way, it also makes its living practitioners somewhat less ghoulish, and implies that maybe what they’re doing isn’t so bad either. Thus, further damage is wrought by our inability to call a spade a spade.

This is, ultimately, a question of engagement. Do you care deeply about the state of our country, and our world? Do you despise people who shunt the greater benefit of society aside—whether it’s for greed, ideology, profit, or some other dark motive—and pursue lifelong agendas that lead to hatred and suffering for people that are simply trying to live?

If the answer is yes, don’t mourn the vermin when they die, and don’t feel ashamed to persist in telling the truth about who they really were. These people did their part to make our existence a little worse, day by day, and sometimes the only solace—in the face of a world that seems to relentlessly reward their cruel ambitions—is that you’ve lived long enough to see their noxious lives snuffed out. Mazel tov.