Yes, We're Going To Politicize Ted Kennedy's Death.
I'm hearing a lot of whining on the right about the wall-to-wall coverage of Ted Kennedy's death and his politics, and how it's being "politicized". They're particularly concerned that Democrats might use Kennedy's death to push their health care reform package forward.
On the first point, those of us who sat through weeklong tributes to Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford - heck, even Jerry Falwell! - are pretty amused at this complaint. If nothing else, Ted Kennedy spent 46 years in the world's most deliberative body and has his name on over 300 pieces of major legislation. Celebrity politician deaths are practically the only time we hear anything substantive about political ideology and political positions, and there are plenty of living Republicans who will go gently into that good night someday, so it seems to me this will even out at some point. A fairly important American died. We'll get back to some guy with a sign at a town hall meeting tomorrow.
On the second point, it's similarly amusing that anyone in either party would whine and complain about events becoming "politicized." Another word for it is "the normal rhetorical connections human beings make to advance their policies." It's been done by approximately every human being in all of history. And it actually should be that way. Aimai puts this about as well as it can be put:
It's our own little dance of death. Anyone remember the fake outcry at the Wellstone Memorial's political tone? If you missed it, or can't remember, you can read all about it here. Its one of the things that really politicized Franken, and in the linked essay he draws the connection between the way the right wing treated the outpouring of grief and political activism around Wellstone's death to the way they treated Coretta Scott King's funeral. In both cases the left was lectured in how we are to understand the lives of our own members and we were ordered not to celebrate those lives, not to take up the banner of their causes, but to mourn quietly, secretly, almost shamefacedly. But funerals and memorials aren't about something quiet, private, shameful. Death and Politics are both important parts of life. Funerals and memorials are places where we gather to be together and to pursue communal goals. We mourn, but we celebrate. We gather together to remember, and to plan to leap forward.
In America, as around the world there is a natural logic to the political and social use of the funeral. The end of one life is not the end of that person's struggle. Sometimes its the key inflection point, the moment that the solitary struggle becomes public, or the moment that the lone voice, though stilled, is taken up. This is as true for the famous (see e.g. MLK, Malcolm X, JFK, BK, Ninoy Aquino, etc..etc...etc...) as it can be for the lowly member of the crowd--(Neda Soltan).
As inevitable as the use of the funeral, or the memorial, by partisans is the attempt to repress the funeral or the memorial by the forces of reaction. Wherever funerals are an important social setting--a safe place for people to turn out, grieve, communicate, and organize there will be attempts from above or below to prevent any mobilization around the body, or the cause. In Iran, to give just one example, the state decides who is a "martyr" and whose death will be publicly solemnized, and it has for years interfered with families trying to publicize or socialize the deaths of their loved ones if those deaths looked like they would cause trouble for the government. The recent death of Neda was one such occasion. In the US, of course, we have struggled for years over who owns or appropriates public deaths like those of the 9/11 victims, the Katrina dead, and our soldiers.
Funny, I seem to remember plenty of Republicans waving the bloody shirt and using the death of Neda to serve their political ends. And I remember walking back from a night of the DNC in Denver - site of Ted Kennedy's last major speech - to anti-abortion conservatives holding up pictures of dead fetuses trying to compel me to change my mind on a women's right to choose. Death has been used as a weapon by conservatives for many, many years. "Death panels," anyone?
It is perfectly normal in any society for heroes to be lauded in death and for people who admired them to honor their memory by endeavoring to secure their goals. If I die, I'd want others to politicize it by taking up the causes I favor and working to pass them. Most people would call that tribute and not an insult.
So, in the event of my passing, I want it to be clear these are my wishes:
1) Please honor me by continuing to fight for the liberal causes I held dear.
2) Explicitly state in any obituaries, memorial services, etc. that what I would have wanted was to keep the fight going
3) Impassioned speeches about the fight ahead for progressivism are especially welcome
4) Indeed, the only way to honor my memory is to double down and fight for a better world
5) Conservatives who don’t like this should shut the fuck up.
Similarly, I don't think conservatives have to necessarily stop their advocacy just because of the death of a popular opponent. It's a nice sentiment of respect, but I don't think anyone really considers it sincere. Liberals should draw inspiration from their heroes just as conservatives draw inspiration from theirs. And if each side is comfortable in their ideas, there should be no reason to censor them in the face of an untimely loss from their adversaries. We don't need loss to remind us of our goals, but it tends to put things in perspective and serve as a focal point for them. I'm assuming that leaders would want it that way.
What set Ted Kennedy apart was not his liberal scorecard or how he lined up on this issue or that issue - there are plenty of liberals who have come and gone through the Senate - but how he set his ideology in specific moral terms. Few others were willing to advocate on moral grounds for, say, the right to a living wage, or quality health care for all, or civil rights regardless of race or creed, color or class, or physical disability. He spoke not to the head but to the heart. And when someone with that worldview dies, it's perfectly natural to react in the same moral terms - to honor the legacy through carrying out his many causes, by living up to his ideal. It's how we repay the debt of a man who put himself on the line for the less fortunate.
And we shouldn't apologize for it.