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News And Features; Opinion

A Dishonesty To Sanctify The Dead No Matter The Life

Padraic P. Mcguinness

769 words

21 October 2003

The Sydney Morning Herald



(c) 2003 John Fairfax Holdings Limited. Not available for re-distribution.

SPEAK only well of the dead seems a fine principle at first glance, but is inappropriate in many cases, most obviously when one is speaking of evil mass murderers like Stalin or Hitler. Even then there are those who object to telling the truth about the recently deceased. I was at school when Stalin died, but remember the outcry at Frank Packer's Daily Telegraph front page announcing Stalin's death with a drawing of a crocodile shedding tears.

But the Tele got it spot on, as tabloids sometimes do; there were still many people who thought of themselves as on the left of politics who wanted to believe that Stalin's crimes were only American Cold War propaganda and that he was the saviour of democracy and social progress. This was despite the ample documentation of the show trials and of the existence of the gulags, and the witness of many postwar immigrants.

It was a good lesson that the truth is more important than fine feelings. Too often the universal impulse to remember only the good in people after they die, or an unwillingness to hurt the feelings of a deceased's immediate family, allows a process of instant canonisation to take place.

This was clearly attempted in the case of Jim Cairns recently, and many people who should have known better pretended outrage when one or two commentators told the blunt truth about him.

No one expects a eulogist at a funeral to denounce the subject, but to go to the lengths that the Blessed Tom Uren (whose supporters have already beatified him) went to requires some corrective. A love affair or two is of no great significance, but to sue for defamation at the revelation of such an affair and perjure oneself for gain is too significant a failing not to require at least an apology. (One would like to see charges brought against anyone else who perjured themselves in this case at least the British sent Lord Archer to jail after the revelation of his false evidence in his own defamation case against a newspaper.)

While the increase in the number of obituaries run in newspapers is a good thing, it seems increasingly the case that they are being written by the friends or family of the deceased. While this is very satisfying for them, it does not tell the rest of us much about the real character involved. And when they are written by supporters or sympathisers of a person who has been active in politics they smack of propaganda.

This seems especially the case with figures on the left, who always have attributed to them great sincerity, humanity and virtue despite the often bloodstained hands of those they were loyal to during their lives. Trade-union leaders who were notoriously corrupt are elevated into honest toilers for idealism.

The London Daily Telegraph pioneered some years ago a franker approach to obituary writing in which journalists were prepared to write about the failings and eccentricities, as well as the virtues, of their subjects. This at least made the obituaries much more interesting and amusing reading, and far from harming the subjects made one think better of them as fallible human beings.

This example stimulated a lot of others to step up their obituary notices, although the enthusiasm for frankness seems to have been toned down.

There is a lot of self-serving in the kind of obituary or memoir written about a relative or friend. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the frequent habit of the many children and grandchildren of former communists who infest the ABC talking on air about their relatives, or their parents' friends, who were Stalinists as if they had been merely dedicated idealists uninterested ever in power or in supporting spying and dictatorship.

As has often been said by honest people who decry the excesses of McCarthyism, there really were Reds under the beds. A pity McCarthy was such an ignorant thug.

No one would want the response to any death to be an instant outpouring of malice (there is enough of this already directed at the living) or lies about the deceased, now beyond the reach of the defamation law. But when the subject has been a person who has played an important role in the life of the nation as much of the unvarnished truth as can decently be told should be told, lest the deceased become a sainted tool of the living.

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