Nil nisi bonum

>> Friday, March 02, 2012

I was wondering if I was too hard yesterday, even as I wrote the thing. I won't lie, I enjoyed the hell out of writing it; the thing gave me a savage pleasure in addition to making myself laugh at what I thought were a few choice lines. But I wondered. I was raised with Nil nisi bonum, "Do not speak ill of the dead". It's impolite, it's undignified, it's cruel to the survivors of the deceased.

But, you know, I also thought this: I thought that if I died, I'd hope that people would say nice things about me, not because they were obliged to, but because they were true. And if they had nothing good to say about me at all, because there was nothing they could say honestly and they were unwilling to lie, how pathetic would that be? Wouldn't that be a terrible indictment of my life, to only be able to dismiss it with silence?

It also occurred to me that the question for anyone who thinks I might have been the least bit unfair to Breitbart might ask if he was the least bit fair to Shirley Sherrod. I know, it's generally bad form to answer a question with a question, but I think that one is more than fair.

I'd hope that everybody--even my worst enemies, if I have any--would say that VanNewkirk, for all of his considerable faults as a man and human being, was kind at times, wise at times, did his best to make things just a little better all around. I don't know if anyone will be able to say these things if I drop off tomorrow. I hope, though. I hope nobody feels obligated to keep their mouth shut because they feel pity for my folks.

Andrew Breitbart was 43. He seemed older to me. Not by his actions, which were inevitably juvenile, but by that shock of white hair and the lines on his face. I'm forty, I'm only three years younger; we've never been at the same geographic location at the same time, so far as I know, but temporally speaking we were in high school at the same time, at college at the same time. I can't think of myself as being particularly old even when I feel old in the morning or find myself reading something or meeting someone that calls out my age, my era. But I'm not actually young, and neither was Breitbart, really. Forty, forty-three, it's somewhere in the middle of life, even if we've culturally pushed "Middle-Aged" up into the fifties (and the fifties aren't far away from forty; they're undeniably closer than the twenties). Not that this matters, actually: teenagers get cancer and twenty-year-olds get hit by buses and thirty-year-olds die of unspecified natural causes--you get no guarantees, even if you have good genes and work out and look twice both ways before you cross the street (and always at the crosswalk, too); and if you're twenty and the bus mows you down in the middle of the street so thoroughly an open casket funeral is beyond all hope of discussion, well, will everybody say nice things or are they merely going to be polite?

Gods help you if the nicest thing anyone can think of is that while you were an asshole, at least you were a funny asshole.

Or this: that you loved your wife and kids. Gods, I know this is probably me getting cruel and unpleasant again, but I think I have thick callouses from playing those strings all the time. Confession: I peddle that shit, myself; I hate talking about work, but here we are: sometimes I go in front of a judge with a client and I say something like, "Your Honor, he's a good father to his kids," a lot of times having to leave out, naturally, the "when he isn't locked up." Sometimes that really is the one good thing you can say about somebody, and when you're pleading for leniency, you've got to say something that's good, and you absolutely don't lie to the Court (if people think that's what lawyers do, and I know people do, they're not getting that the only lawyers who lie to judges are bad lawyers--not just unethical and setting themselves up for Bar proceedings, but also squandering the lawyer's most valuable currency, which is the value of the lawyer's word to opposing counsel and the Court in a system where the workings are oiled with trust and good faith).

But what is that really saying about someone? You're supposed to be a good father or mother to your children: there's a biological imperative to be a good parent, and people who fail in that basic duty through some fault of their own are rightly regarded as monsters, incapable of following a basic natural instinct (and those who fail through no fault of their own are typically regarded with pity). And there may be no biological imperative to be good to your spouse, but the Western tradition is you stand up in front of people and swear--commonly in the presence of your deity, if you believe, setting yourself up to break a promise to Him, Her, It or Them on top of everything else--swear to be faithful and true and protective and honorable and good; i.e. being a good husband or wife is kind of the least you're supposed to do, isn't it? Presumably you got married intending to step up your obligations to someone else, right?

The real question is whether you were good to strangers, isn't it? Not how you treated the people you were expected to be good to.

It nags me that there's an irony here. I am angry with the late Breitbart, a stranger to me, for his unkindness to strangers like Shirley Sherrod, whose career he destroyed. So I am unkind to him (or, depending on how you want to look at it, to his survivors), and I have just said whether you were good to a stranger is a criteria for judging whether you, yourself were good in life. Am I failing to be a mensch or is this a distinguishable case? Is Breitbart even worth raising the question over? I'd like to say this is distinguishable, but then I would like to say that, wouldn't I? It's self-serving of me to think these are different situations, self-serving of me, perhaps, to even raise the question as if trolling for friends and family who read this blog to possibly reassure me I'm not an asshole (of course taking the risk they'll assure me I am).

It nags me, I dismiss it. Perhaps too easily.

And now I think I've said everything I needed to.





9 comments:

Janiece Friday, March 2, 2012 at 12:19:00 PM EST  

Hm. I think the distinguishing characteristic is that Shirley Sherrod was, by all accounts, an honorable employee who did her best for her clients, and did nothing to invite the attention (and subsequent fallout) generated by Breitbart.

Conversely, the criticisms of Breitbart's yellow journalism were entirely justified and justifiable.

John the Scientist Friday, March 2, 2012 at 1:02:00 PM EST  

Eric, look at it from the other side. At which point do you call someone, even after death, out on their bullshit. All evil needs to prosper is for good men to do nothing, right?

So let's start on the scale where no one would disagree. I'll avoid Godwin's Law and start with Stalin. I wouldn't have made you an evil person to trash Stalin in '53 would it? How about Madoff, when he kicks the bucket? How about Dennis Kozlowski?

What I'm getting at here is that some people need a good kicking, even when they die, maybe especially when they die if some whitewashing is going on.

It's not the indulging in some posthumous bashing that makes someone bad or hypocrticial, it's on whom and how often, and to what end, right? Do unto others works both ways, no?

Eric Friday, March 2, 2012 at 3:05:00 PM EST  

Thanks, folks. John, that's actually a useful and insightful angle I hadn't thought of. Yeah, some people maybe do need to be shellacked post-mortem; that was part of the beauty of Hunter Thompson's "He Was A Crook", after all.

Mr. Know It All: math was never one of my favorite subjects, though I did enjoy junior high Algebra up to a very limited point for the puzzle solving aspect of it. It was kind of like a game or a mystery, though at some point too many expressions thrown in started to make my eyes ache. Just to clarify before I take a crack at it: F+u=ck seems pretty straightforward, but the double-equals symbol you use to say that each is equal to the expression ln+g is new to me: is it a special mathematical expression I've forgotten in the decades since I last took a math class or did you simply mean to use a single equals, i.e. F+u=ln+g and ck=ln+g, also?

If I get a chance to take a crack at it this weekend, I will. And yeah, you're right, I am kind of an idiot at math, which is probably part of why I didn't enjoy it after the first bits of Algebra I and Trigonometry, which I also sort of enjoyed. Mostly I hate math, though, just to be clear.

Carol Elaine Friday, March 2, 2012 at 6:45:00 PM EST  

Eric, you're probably an asshole in some area (we all are), but not about this. I like John's take on it. Besides which, Breitbart was a duplicitous asshole who got his rocks off destroying others who, frankly, didn't deserve it.

Nathan Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 12:29:00 AM EST  

Let's play a game of Six Degrees of Breitbart. Can you establish a close enough connection so that there's a snowball's chance in hell a family member or close friend of his might be reading your blog? I doubt it. In which case you totally get a pass for calling him mean things posthumously. (I also give a pass to actual journalists with large followings, but only if they were maybe a tad less gleeful than you were.) :)

On the other hand, if you send his wife telegrams, show up at her front door or picket his funeral, then you might be an asshole.

It's not like he was a 13-year-old neighbor and you hacked his facebook account to ruin his life. (That was more his style, actually.)

Warner Saturday, March 3, 2012 at 9:04:00 AM EST  

== is the equality operator in the programming language C

Breitbart's not being kind to strangers means he was a Sodomite. I'm certain he would love to known as such.

Mama Karen Monday, March 5, 2012 at 6:26:00 PM EST  

I don't chime in much. And I'm usually reading a post a few days (at least) late due to my crazy schedule. My take-the post was sort of asshole-ish. Not to say you ARE an asshole, just the post leaned that way. I tend to want to speak well of everyone-dead or alive-the whole "if you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all" idea. Maybe I show my naivete by taking advice from a cartoon rabbit but then I'm not the one questioning my own character for writing a mean eulogy. Breitbart was not on my list of favorite people to say the least. I can't say you really said anything untrue about him. But it seems a bit inhumane to take the opportunity to badmouth someone at the occasion of their death.
I don't feel your other commenters have done you justice in supporting the post. If this was in response to Shirley Sherrod's unfair firing, absolutely you would be right in posting this, but for it to be brought about solely but news of his death seems just mean-spirited. In terms of your own profession, is it not like trying a man in court without allowing him representation?
I hope I haven't offended more than can be forgiven. I do enjoy your writing and don't think you an asshole overall...nor do I agree with our math "friend".

Eric Monday, March 5, 2012 at 11:14:00 PM EST  

No offense taken, Mama Karen. I appreciate it, in fact.

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting! Because of the evils of spam, comments on posts that are more than ten days old will go into a moderation queue, but I do check the queue and your comment will (most likely) be posted if it isn't spam.

Another proud member of the UCF...

Another proud member of the UCF...
UCF logo ©2008 Michelle Klishis

...an international gang of...

...an international gang of...
смерть шпионам!

...Frank Gorshin-obsessed bikers.

...Frank Gorshin-obsessed bikers.
GorshOn! ©2009 Jeff Hentosz

  © Blogger template Werd by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP