Burying Thatcher: why celebrating death is still wrong

[This article originally appeared at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Today, a funeral ceremony will take place for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Outside, protesters will be turning their backs on the coffin as it passes through central London.

This final act of defiance is, compared with much of what we’ve seen in the days since Thatcher’s death, quite mild. Street parties were held from Brixton to Glasgow to celebrate her death. So many people bought Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead that it went to number two on the UK charts.

Even here in Australia, the University of Melbourne Student Union passed a motion “unreservedly” celebrating the death of Baroness Thatcher.

This has touched off some interesting debate about whether there is something unseemly about celebrating the death of another human being. But there are at least two importantly different issues in play we need to keep separate here.

The first is the idea that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Is this just a matter of etiquette, or does it have an important moral dimension as well?

When someone dies, we begin to tie up the narrative of their lives, finalising and knotting off the strands of meaning that they wove while they lived. It is a time for consoling the bereaved, but it is also, inevitably, a time for forming judgements.

At the moment of death, a person’s life will always and forever be just what it was. We reflect on the totality of that life and form a view of the whole, much as we do when the credits roll on a movie or we finish the end of a book. The notion of a “final judgement” of the dead in another realm, which features in religions from ancient Egypt to Christianity and Islam, largely reflects what humans do down here already.

With Thatcher, who left so much anger and pain in her wake, this was always going to be an unusually fraught and raw process. But that doesn’t mean it should be put aside in the interests of delicacy. And as Glenn Greenwald has argued in recent days, maintaining a respectful silence may allow the discussion to be co-opted for political ends.

That doesn’t imply that anything goes, however. Philosophers from Aristotle onwards have argued that we have moral obligations to the dead, even though the dead no longer exist. The arguments used to justify this claim are quite ingenious, but I won’t rehearse them here. We don’t simply refrain from slandering the dead because it will hurt their loved ones, but because this somehow harms the dead person themselves. Likewise, we go out of our way to right past injustices because this is what we owe to the dead, not just their survivors or descendants.

Our dealings with the dead are just as ethically governed as our dealings with the living. And the dead are especially vulnerable – “prey” to the living as Sartre put it – because among other things they cannot defend themselves. That was part of Julie Bishop’s rationale in attacking Bob Carr for describing apparently racist comments Thatcher made in his presence. That the dead can’t speak for themselves shouldn’t give them a free pass from criticism, but it does make the responsibility for making that criticism fair and defensible all the more pressing.

But speaking ill of the dead is one thing; celebrating someone’s death is something else.

When a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden, there were scenes of spontaneous rejoicing in the US. Few stopped to ask whether celebrating a death, even of someone as evil as bin Laden, was appropriate. At least in that case, many people believed that bin Laden’s death constituted some sort of justice, and made the world a “safer place”. It’s hard to see how Thatcher’s passing, at eighty-seven years of age in her bed in the Ritz Hotel, looks like “justice” to even her most forgiving opponent.

Some might say that what’s being celebrated is not the death of Thatcher herself, but of what she stood for. But in that case, the party comes both too early and too late.

It’s too late in that Thatcher stopped being prime minister more than two decades ago. If we’re just relieved that she’s gone, well, she’s been “gone” for a very long time.

Yet it’s also too early in that Thatcher’s legacy is still with us. Indeed, the neo-liberal policies she pursued have become entrenched orthodoxies, well beyond Thatcher’s sphere of direct influence. The death of a frail, elderly dementia patient does nothing to change that.

So what we’re left with, despite protestations to the contrary, seems to be glorying in her death itself. That does take us into very different moral territory. In this case we don’t simply judge a person’s life or actions but repudiate them as a human being. Rejoicing in someone’s death is tantamount to denying them even that most basic moral regard. That should indeed trouble us, however harshly we may judge Thatcher and her legacy.

There will be a moment on Wednesday, late in the ceremony, when the priest will “commend to Almighty God our sister Margaret”. This simple, stark phrase reminds us that at the centre of the drama of death is a person: someone who cared about their life and was loved by others. That fact, unsettling and even infuriating as it sometimes is, cannot be ignored without degrading the regard for even the worst of us that holds the moral sphere together.

Every death, as John Donne reminds us, diminishes us. Rejoicing in death only diminishes us further.

Marriage Really Matters, Archbishop? Then Stop Denigrating Mine

[Originally published at The Conversation – feel free to join the discussion in the comments section there.]

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Archbishop Peter Jensen. But his latest foray into the public space was right about at least one thing: it’s time for a serious, grown-up discussion about the nature of marriage.

But just how serious a discussion we can have when figures like Jensen refuse to acknowledge that “secular” understandings of human relationships might be just as deep as religious ones?

The latest stoush is over the Sydney Diocese’s proposed new prayer book, which has brides (optionally) promising to “love and submit” to their husbands.

The blokes, not surprisingly, aren’t asked to submit to their wives. This is being spruiked as an improvement over the older “love and obey” – not because “obey” is more morally problematic than “submit,” but because there is more scriptural warrant for the new wording.

At the heart of all this is St Paul’s analogy between a man’s love for a woman and Christ’s love for the church. Jensen argues that while the wife promises submission to her husband, the husband in turn makes the far more onerous commitment to show the same self-sacrificing love for his wife that Christ offers the church.

Now, how Anglicans understand and officiate over marriage is, strictly speaking, none of my business.

But I do find myself spending a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian, and miserable weirdo Søren Kierkegaard. And for someone whose only stab at romance ended in a messy broken engagement, Kierkegaard has some very interesting things to say about marriage.

For one thing, he tells us that the duty to love our spouses is continuous with our duty to love everyone:

Your wife must first and foremost be to you the neighbour; that she is your wife is then a more precise specification of your particular relationship to each other.

In other words, the basic demand to respond to other people with selfless concern is just as much at the centre of your relationship to your spouse as it is in your relationship to the stranger sitting next to you on the bus.

OK, but what does the “more precise specification” consist in? After all, I don’t love the person sitting next to me on the bus the same way I love my wife, so what is the distinctive character of marital love?

In answering that question, Archbishop Jensen smuggles in an essentialist claim about “masculine” and “feminine” qualities that really has nothing to do with the fundamental ethical encounter at the core of our relationships.

The husband promises “to be a man of strength and self-control” for the benefit of his wife and any children they might have. This in turn will apparently serve to “enhance the feminine and personal qualities of his wife”.

It’s curious that Jensen can’t bring himself to tell us what these qualities are, or why we should believe there are “naturally” masculine and feminine qualities, or why we should take them as morally obligating even if there are. (Beware the Naturalistic Fallacy: we might think humans are “naturally” selfish, for example, but that doesn’t make it morally right or good to be selfish).

Many young people, Jensen tells us, want to be “husbands” and “wives” rather than simply “partners.” Apparently being a “husband” rather than a “partner” poses a “special challenge to the man to demonstrate the masculine qualities which he brings to a marriage”.

I’m faithful to my wife, but not because being a “husband” poses some special challenge that’s not present in the term “partner.” I’m faithful because a good person doesn’t betray the people given to him or her to love. To shoehorn in historically contingent ideas about gender, and the power relations that are coded into those ideas, simply alienates people from the exhilarating, terrifying intimacy at the heart of the distinctive kind of love we have for our spouses and partners.

Jensen makes much of the importance of making promises in front of witnesses. But marriage doesn’t begin at the altar. The vows we take come, in effect, too late. The commitment to each other is already there long before the wedding day; the promises are already present, spoken and unspoken, in the way we share our lives.

That, I’d suggest, is what marriage has come to mean now co-habitation has increasingly become the norm. It recognises an existing state of affairs, namely, that two people have already started building their life together and have already committed to each other – selflessly, fully, unreservedly.

Ah, but that can’t be right, because according to Jensen “secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism” that is “inconsistent with the reality of long-term relationships such as marriage and family life.” If you’re not making a promise to God you’re clearly just out for what you can get. You can’t possibly be as morally serious as someone who makes a vow before God.

This, I think, really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with many religious critiques of secular relationships. They assume that if you take God out of the picture, you’re left with “friendship recognised by the police,” or as Raimond Gaita puts it in his discussion of marriage equality, “loving friendship plus sex.” Such views refuse to accept that atheists experience love with the same depth and commitment as believers, or that secular marriage or de facto relationships can be wholly adequate to this dimension of human experience.

Jensen claims there is “great wisdom” to be found in the Bible on these matters. Surprisingly, I agree.

You don’t have to believe in God to find important moral insights the New Testament – or the Tanakh, or the Qur’an, or the other foundational texts of the world’s faith traditions.

And this atheist is happy to suggest that we could probably learn a lot from the Sermon on the Mount, with its vision of self-emptying love for our neighbour. But if there is to be meaningful dialogue of the sort Jensen calls for, we can’t begin by denying the depth of each other’s moral universes.

The Ethics of Bravery: Why a Black Saturday ‘Hero’ Lost His Award

[Originally published at The Conversation – feel free to join the discussion in the comments section there.]

Last week, I received an email with the subject line: “Bravery award for baby killer.”

It urged readers to sign a Change.org petition calling on the Royal Humane Society of Australia to rescind a bravery award. Paul McCuskey, a volunteer firefighter, had been given a “Certificate of Merit” for helping to save the life of an elderly woman during the Black Saturday bushfires.

Yet McCuskey is now in prison for a series of vicious assaults on his partner Jeannie Blackburn – attacks that caused a miscarriage and left her blind in one eye. In the face of 18,000 petition signatures and calls from Humane Society patron Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the remarkably courageous Ms. Blackburn herself, the Society finally withdrew the award.

It’s a tragic case, and one that, as Suzy Freeman-Greene points out, raises complex issues. But whether you think websites like Change.org, GetUp! and All Out are genuine forces for progress or mere conduits for feel-good “slacktivism”, complexity is not something they are set up to handle well. Like their ideological opposite numbers in talkback radio, they need to present clear-cut narratives of right and wrong, with an unambiguous call-to-action at the end.

Yet these issues are unavoidably complex. In fact, the language we saw last week involved a clash between two ancient, competing understandings of morality.

The Humane Society’s objective is “to give public recognition to acts of bravery by bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives in saving or attempting to save the lives of others”. The emphasis here is focused on the moral quality of particular actions. It could be maintained – as the society reportedly initially did – that McCuskey’s actions on Black Saturday were morally praiseworthy, whatever else he’s done. But this way of thinking can easily lead to a sort of ethically crude arithmetic, as if we’re supposed to weigh rights against wrongs and come out with an overall score.

Much of the anger directed at the Humane Society’s decision to award the certificate in the first place, on the other hand, used a very different type of moral language: not evaluation of the action, but evaluation of the agent. Awards, we’re told, are for heroes – and a man who beats his partner cannot be a hero.

This focus on character belongs to the “virtue ethics” tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Virtues, according to Aristotle, are a job lot: you can’t be a generous thief or an honest glutton, because your vices will eventually disrupt and defeat your virtues.

But moral heroes often turn out to be flawed. Oskar Schindler, for instance, saved thousands of lives yet was unfaithful to his wife.

Even more troubling are the monsters who seem distressingly normal in other contexts. We find Stalin warmly addressing his daughter as “my little sparrow, my great joy” or tucking Beria’s children into bed disturbingly humanising, as if these scenes somehow mitigate his crimes. Or perhaps it actually makes him more monstrous somehow.

So, what should the Humane Society have done?

Let’s go back a step. Why do we have bravery awards? Not because we want to reward the virtue of courage per se, nor because we want to reward people for saving lives; otherwise every skydiver and surgeon would get one.

Rather, we give such awards in the aftermath of crises where the value and meaning of human life has nearly been obliterated by the absurdity of senseless, arbitrary destruction.

We reward those who hold that threat back, who in risking their own lives testify to the depth of the ways in which we value each other and thereby keep the moral sphere from coming apart. In chaotic moments that threaten to engulf us in meaninglessness, those who perform such acts keep the fabric of our moral universe temporarily intact.

You might say that a violent person can still perform such an act. But the “domestic” in “domestic violence” doesn’t just refer to a location, and the evil of domestic violence is not simply in the horrific physical and psychological harm it causes.

To understand the scale of its moral obscenity we must appreciate the depth of what it violates: the web of vulnerability, love, trust and security that unites us to those we live in the greatest intimacy with. An assault on the people given to us to love unconditionally shatters the moral sense and meaning of our most vital relationships. It is not simply violence in the home, but violence against the home, with everything that “home” implies.

Domestic violence is therefore more than violence: it’s a treason against the moral sphere itself.

To award someone for preserving the moral sphere who had also betrayed it in such a repugnant way would have been perverse.

Grappling with questions like this is hard work. It takes patience, an openness to dialogue and a certain degree of humility. But when our main avenues for talking about these issues are through soundbites and tweets, those virtues can be in short supply.

Online petitions are great – I’ve signed quite a few myself. But let’s not pretend we can just click our way out of moral perplexity.

The Decline and Fall of the Decline and Fall

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011A few days ago Christian Price, my comedy co-conspirator and the man behind the hilarious ‘Age vs. Herald Sun’ blog , posted a fantastic analysis of why most classic ‘80s movies couldn’t be made today. In a nutshell, he argues that these days we’re all too overprotective, too computer-bound, too lawyered-up and too heavily policed for the plot of movies like Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, The Never-Ending Story, The Goonies and The Karate Kid to get off the ground. (Because, of course, the events depicted in those movies are otherwise wholly believable).

It’s a great piece, and I really hate to disagree with one of my oldest and dearest friends, but I’m a philosopher so I’m basically paid to disagree with everyone.

So first of all: Ferris Bueller wouldn’t have gone to jail for hacking. Ferris never existed at all, except in Cameron’s mind.

But more seriously, reading about how much more peaceful, authentic and innocent life was back when folks of my vintage were riding our BMXs to the milk bar to buy a Bubble O’Bill, my immediate reaction was: hang on, the Eighties? They had much of the same bad stuff we’ve got – corporate catastrophe, HIV, international terrorism, even a war in Afghanistan – and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, not to mention endless movies about loveable losers trying to save the summer camp from greedy developers in cahoots with the rich kids’ camp from across the lake and/or lose their virginity before the end of summer vacation. That’s the golden age from which we’ve fallen? Continue reading “The Decline and Fall of the Decline and Fall”