OPED: When to speak ill of the dead

Ann Friedman
Tribune News Service

It's an adage that one should not speak ill of the dead. But when conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly died earlier this month, I was among the many liberal writers who didn't hesitate to call her a hatemonger.

FILE In this March 11, 2016 file photo, longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly endorses Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before Trump begins speaking at a campaign rally in St. Louis. Schlafly, who helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and founded the Eagle Forum political group, has died at age 92. The Eagle Forum announced her death in a statement Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, file)

Schlafly, who built her 40-year career on stoking intolerance, was a vocal supporter of segregation and discrimination in housing, voting and the workplace. She pushed to make anti-gay activism a core feature of the conservative movement. Even as the national consensus evolved toward greater rights for many Americans who had once been marginalized, Schlafly remained staunchly opposed to progress. "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape," she said in 2007. In more recent years, she also spoke out against transgender people and immigrants.

When these well-known facts circulated along with fonder remembrances, some conservatives called foul. They charged that even mentioning the less-than-savory actions of the deceased was itself a hateful act. "Radical Feminists Keep Attacking Schlafly Even After Her Death," read one indignant headline on the conservative site

(If never speaking ill of the dead is the site's editorial policy, I can only imagine the loving, gentle memorial that it will publish on the occasion of, say, Hillary Clinton's demise.)

The conversation about Schlafly's legacy was a repeat of the ideological back-and-forth after Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 and after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, to name just two recent examples. There's a time and a place, supporters say, for criticism —and that's later, much later.

The obvious problem with such restraint is that later, much later, no one will be paying attention; they'll have moved on. And bromides, even silence, could be interpreted as tacit approval of the deceased's loathsome positions.

Granted, it's indefensible to celebrate a political opponent's demise. And there's a difference between critiquing an opponent's legacy and simple name-calling. In 2012, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman wrote, "Speaking of pigs, the VP of PR for Chick-fil-A dropped dead of a heart attack the week after the chain's latest homophobia/anti-gay marriage scandal." He quickly amended the post and issued an apology. The original was gratuitous and mean. And, incidentally, a fast-food executive isn't exactly a public figure like Schlafly or Thatcher or Scalia, and private citizens deserve more protection from public censure, in life and in death.

But death does not put a public figure's actions beyond reproach, or somehow resolve disagreements. If anything, it's the perfect occasion to assess the effect that this figure has had on our politics and culture. As Christopher Hitchens wrote after the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death in 2007, "The evil that he did will live after him." So should the criticism.

Of course even many decades on, it's contentious to speak ill of the dead. Several college campuses are in the process of reassessing previous generations' decisions to name buildings after slave owners and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers. To some, that seems indecorous (as the dead can't defend themselves), or even unfair (as our morals have evolved considerably since they were alive). To activists, it's essential to shed light on the darker aspects of a public figure's legacy; they argue that, otherwise, we can't possibly hope to reckon with the world they left us.

That reckoning should be the real goal of posthumous criticism. After Thatcher died, the English musician Billy Bragg — who once wrote a song decrying her and her supporters — cautioned against merely vilifying the former prime minister for her union-busting and privatization policies. "Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this," he wrote. "The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don't celebrate — organise!"

Go ahead. Speak ill of the dead and their past actions. Then address their legacy constructively.

— Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times' opinion section.