If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less

When Osama bin Laden died, I had to spend the next week or so listening to very preachy people talk about how it was wrong to ever take delight in the death of a human being, no matter how evil they might have been. About how anyone who thought that this was a cause for celebration ought to take a serious re-examination of their standards as a human being. About how it symbolized America’s utter lack of civilization when people actually held impromptu parties in the street.

When Margaret Thatcher died, I had to spend the next week or so listening to very preachy people talk about how demands from Thatcher-worshippers that everyone else tone down their real feelings about her were ridiculous and offensive. About how much they loved this Guardian piece on misapplied death etiquette stating that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous”. About how awesome it was that some Britons actually held impromptu parties in the street.

I have no data about the overlap between these two sets of very preachy people, but I bet it’s larger than anyone with any faith in humanity left would naively predict.

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37 Responses to If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less

  1. Damien says:

    Or maybe you’re making a false equivalence, between being glad — joyful, gleeful — at someone’s death, and being honest about someone’s career.

    “We killed bin Laden! Woo hoo!”
    “Shame on you for being glad a human is dead.”

    “Let’s give Thatcher a state funeral!”
    “Uh, she gutted the welfare state, defended apartheid and was chummy with brutal dictators.”
    “Shame on you for speaking ill of the dead.”

    Not the same thing, eh?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” is #1 on the UK charts this week.

      Your move.

      • BenSix says:

        I think the problem is that the Greenwald piece is irrelevant to the people who were dancing in the streets. No one insisted that obituaries of OBL be solemn and respectful.

        I agree, though, that some of those people dancing in the streets were probably tutting at the barbarousness of Americans doing the same after bin Laden bought it. Just, indeed, as people who are horrified at vocal critics of Thatcher were popping champagne corks after Chavez died. And my very favourite people are those who have grown offended by others insulting Christopher Hitchens, regardless of all the time they spent chortling over his comments on Falwell.

        Hypocrisy is one of the more depressing and hilarious features of our species.

      • Damien says:

        So? I was responding to your post, which had just one line about British dancing in the streets; before that was stuff like “I had to spend the next week or so listening to very preachy people talk about how demands from Thatcher-worshippers that everyone else tone down their real feelings about her were ridiculous and offensive.” as if such preachiness is equivalent to preaching about the value of life, when it isn’t. As Andrew Ducker said, perhaps the current preachy people would also frown at the street-dancers. And perhaps the street-dancers were understanding of US dancing when bin Laden was killed.

        What exactly is your argument? It seems to be “these vague people are doing this thing, and these other vague people are doing this other thing, let me assume I can conflate them en masse and frown at their hypocrisy”.

      • Deiseach says:

        1989. Elvis Costello. Tramp the Dirt Down.

        Made me uncomfortable when I heard it on the original album; still makes me uncomfortable. Though I can understand the sentiment behind it, but I’m not English and it’s not my place to comment (same as with those who canonised Reagan.)

        • Deiseach says:

          To try and explain why the sentiment around her death is so strong, even though she was out of office and out of political life for years: another Costello song, this one from the time of the Falklands War – Shipbuilding.

          From Wikipedia:
          “Shipbuilding” is a song written by Elvis Costello (lyrics) and Clive Langer (music). Written during the Falklands War of 1982, Costello’s lyrics discuss the contradiction of the war bringing back prosperity to traditional shipbuilding areas of Clydeside (Yarrow Shipbuilders), Tyneside (Cammell Laird), North East England (Swan Hunter) and Belfast (Harland and Wolff) to build new ships to replace those being sunk in the war, whilst also sending off the sons of these areas to fight and, potentially, lose their lives in those same ships.”

          Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
          And notifying the next of kin
          Once again

    • naath says:

      Trust me, there are people dancing in the streets to celebrate the death of Thatcher.

      Also, there is more nuanced commentary. There was more nuanced commentary about Bin Laden too.

  2. suntzuanime says:

    Osama bin Laden is pretty much universally understood in the West not to be a political example worth emulating. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, has supporters. So while celebrating the death of OSB is merely reveling in barbarism, celebrating the Iron Lady’s death is a political statement. To make the analogy between the Culture War and a real war, Thatcher qualifies as a legitimate military target, whereas bin Laden is a non-threatening civilian.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Not that I am celebrating either death! When I hear the word “culture” I hide in my bunker until the shooting stops, that’s my position.

    • Geirr says:

      [True Believer]

      Don’t you understant that the Culture War is about what is good, true and just? These are sacred values we’re talking about here; you don’t trade them off. How could you suggest that we hold back when we are talking about the defeat of the Enemy?

      [/end True Believer]

      It’s much like one of Scott’s musings in the virtue ethics posts on ecclesiology and the community of believers, for so many people Thatcher was the Enemy.

    • Medivh says:

      Excellent Analysis! That is exactly the point. *Upvoted*

  3. If it helps, I’ve seen an awful lot of lefty-liberal types _also_ saying we shouldn’t glorify in her death, and shocked that other left-wing people feel that it’s ok to do so.

    • Oligopsony says:

      “Lefty-liberal” and “left-wing” are very different things.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Can you explain this statement?

        • Multiheaded says:

          See his comments on the non-liberal hard-left tradition back in the Reaction posts.
          To (massively) oversimplify: not only we don’t call ourselves “liberals”, we oppose many liberal policies and view the liberal ideology/worldview as fundamentally flawed/misguided/self-serving. However, we can occasionally lend support to stereotypically “liberal” causes like anti-racism, or support liberal politicians as a lesser evil against a threat from the Right.

        • Left = towards the socialist end of the capitalist/socialist spectrum.
          Liberal = towards the libertarian end of the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum.

          In the USA, the two are very intertwined. But elsewhere/elsewhen one can find very authoritarian socialists, for instance. They would be left-wing without being lefty-liberals.

          Many of the left-wing in the UK are reasonably authoritarian. What’s important to them is that the working classes do well, not freedom of speech (for instance).

  4. Typhon says:

    Why, exactly, is it wrong to rejoice when someone you hate dies ?

    • Andrew Rettek says:

      Because death is bad. You celebrate when your political opponent leaves office, that’s fine because you’re celebrating your ideas becoming ascendant.

      No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

      • Typhon says:

        Thank you for quoting the entirety of the poem, I had not even realized there was a reference I wasn’t getting.
        That being said, I must say I disagree almost entirely with the idea.

        • Andrew Rettek says:

          The idea that there is an “other” for whom one shares no value and for whom one doesn’t morn the death, and where to draw that line is something that’s been debated on this blog recently. When it’s put into the question of abstract ethics, the commentators seem to discuss the idea of should this be applied to humans modified to only care about wireheading or should this be applied to dolphins, apes, or insects. It turns out people feel that such sympathy shouldn’t apply to biological humans who institute political policies we don’t like.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I intended for this to be about pointing out contradiction between two positions rather than supporting either. But if I had to answer your question…

      …I think it’s less the rejoicing than the attempt to do so publicly and as a signal. People weren’t just keeping their background level of hatred for Thatcher, they were going out of their way to publicly renew their dislike.

      This of course starts a big fight between them and the people who liked her, and it means that the death of every public figure becomes another opportunity to polarize a country and start a new little border skirmish in the culture wars. Deaths become a time to express how much you hate other people and revel in what tears you apart.

      Compare this to the alternate Schelling point of when a country’s leader dies, everyone is quiet and respectful and holds a nice tasteful funeral and comes together as a community.

      (one corollary of this is that it’s equally garish to go around shouting MARGARET THATCHER WAS THE BEST PERSON EVER)

      • im says:

        P{ossible distinguisher point: Don’t revel in the downfall unless you had a part in causing it.

        • naath says:

          Also possible distinguisher:

          I do think there is a difference between the death of someone who was actively involved in doing Wrong Things (define as you please) at the time of death, and the death of someone who had in the past done Wrong Things but who was not in a position to do them any longer.

          OBL was an actively part of the Al’Q leadership; killing him may (may!) have reduced the amount of terrorist activity perpetrated by Al’Q and saved lives. Thatcher was a senile old lady, she no longer had any power to do anything of import – although her legacy lives on in British politics and her ideas continue to influence today’s leaders her death will not bring that to a stop.

          So I think that makes a difference.

          However I also don’t think that there’s any reason to “not speak ill of the dead”. Nor to “respect” people who have no earned my respect.

          Also to the point of the post – many people are making a huge fuss about “respect” and so forth and saying it’s just *dreadful* that people are dancing on Thatcher’s grave. Both sides of the argument are out in force here…

  5. Alexis Kennedy says:

    Another key difference is that Thatcher died peacefully in bed in the Ritz at the age of 87, and bin Laden was shot by US troops in his archvillain lair. If Thatcher had been assassinated, the reaction would be much more muted even from those whose communities she destroyed.

    • Aris Katsaris says:

      I think that difference speaks ill to the *other* direction. Osama Bin Laden was an active leader of Al Qaeda — it was felt that his death did *good* to the world.

      Likewise for Chavez — he was an active leader of Venezuela. People that celebrated his death may have felt that his death did good for the world.

      But Margaret Thatcher has not been involved with politics in a long time for more that a decade, and not been a political leader for more than TWO decades — and I don’t think anyone is thinking her death benefit the rest of the world in any way, or will change the face of UK politics.

      The expressed joy over death seems therefore less like actual joy over an actually good event, it seems just sadistic glee.

      “If Thatcher had been assassinated, the reaction would be much more muted even from those whose communities she destroyed.”

      Yes, out of a mere sense of self-preservation, one doesn’t publicly express public support for an *illegal* murder, even if one really really supports such a murder. But now that she was not murdered, it’s okay for her opponents to wish that she had been — e.g. expressing disappointment that she wasn’t assassinated by IRA back in the 1980s.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This strikes me as definitely correct – people would have been more respectful if Thatcher had been assassinated – but I’m not sure why that should be.

      I mean, yes, assassination would have been even more traumatic to Thatcher’s family and personal friends, but I think we’ve gone well beyond the point where we’re optimizing for their convenience here.

  6. MugaSofer says:

    Still looking for the stealth pun. Is it something to do with the fact “clod” is an insult?

  7. From a consequentialist point of view, Thatcher did huge damage by popularising the idea of selling off useful public resources to private rent-seeker parasites, whereas Bin Laden killed off many hundreds of the same sort of parasites (admittedly with a lot of unfortunate collateral damage), possibly delaying the financial crisis by 6 months or so. It’s distasteful to me to equate a bold but flawed activist like Bin Laden with a monster like Thatcher.

    • re: possibly delaying the financial crisis 6 mo: analysis of counterfactual worlds near always comes out the way your ideology would like, doesn’t it? To save time, just skip the ‘analysis’ part – you already have an oracle.

    • DaveK says:

      Replying to an ancient post, but I am very curious.

      I understand that you are opposed to capitalism and imperialism. I also understand that Bin Laden was against imperialism, and thus in a sense a potential ally.

      Where I get confused is the following: Whereas communists (perhaps that’s not what you would call yourself, from looking at your blog I think I can correctly assume you identify with some form of socialism and the hard left) want to destroy capitalism/materialism and replace it with communism/socialism, Bin Laden wanted to (at least ideologically) destroy imperialism and replace it with theocracy. Now, I suppose you could make the qualification that he was specifically against imperialism in Muslim lands, and for returning those areas to local control without western influence.
      I understand there is an argument that certain figures such as Al Bassad or Putin may not be ideal communists/socialist, but in so far as they are enemies of imperialism and the west, they are fighting the good fight.

      Would any type of person who was looking to expel foreign infleunce, or work against the west, be seen as a flawed activist? What if they were an anti-imperlaism, anti-west person, but wanted fascism in their own country, ruled by their own fascist party?