Today, on the implications of the “don’t speak ill of the (recently) dead” rule:
But the key point is this: those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography. Typifying these highly dubious claims was this (appropriately diplomatic) statement from President Obama: “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.” Those gushing depictions can be incredibly consequential, as it was for the week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence that was heaped on Ronald Reagan upon his death, an episode that to this day shapes how Americans view him and the political ideas he symbolized. Demanding that no criticisms be voiced to counter that hagiography is to enable false history and a propagandistic whitewashing of bad acts, distortions that become quickly ossified and then endure by virtue of no opposition and the powerful emotions created by death. When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms.
To quibble: I don’t believe I’d describe Obama’s unfortunate linguistic choices as “incredibly consequential,” which seems like a bit of an overstatement, although I certainly wish the he’d gone a more generic direction with his statement today. I’m open to arguments for the appropriateness of a weaker version of the rule: a recent death is perhaps a time for heightened caution about how you speak ill of the dead; perhaps taking extra care to avoid unfair or needlessly personal attacks. The larger point, though, is clearly correct: the “don’t speak ill” rule is wielded as a tool to create a zone of protection around a particular rhetorical tool. No thanks.