Judging The Dead

Posted: January 29, 2019 in Uncategorized

“Past … crimes are still put on trial, even if the system under which they were committed had different standards and is a thing of a past (or so we hope). Moreover, even if the dead cannot face justice themselves, it does make a difference how we remember and relate to the dead.”

If you have ever been at a rock or pop concert, you might recognise the following phenomenon: The band on the stage begins playing an intro. Pulsing synths and roaring drums build up to a yet unrecognisable tune. Then the band breaks into the well-known chorus of their greatest hit and the audience applauds frenetically. People become enthusiastic if they recognise something. Thus, part of the “greatness” is owing to the act of recognising it. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that people celebrate their own recognition at least as much as the tune performed. I think much the same is true of our talk of “great thinkers”. We applaud recognised patterns. But only applauding the right kinds of patterns and thinkers secures our belonging to the ingroup. Since academic applause signals and regulates who belongs to a group, such applause has a moral dimension, especially in educational institutions. Yes, you guess right, I want to argue that we need to rethink whom and what we call great.

  1. Aralia Ward says:

    I believe the greatest problem with judging the dead comes when the deceased are no longer viewed as complex people who can act in both good or bad ways but as “god like” forms that are over simplified into one or more “historical” acts. This article helped to remind me of this fact. It all seems quite random on who is remembered and who is not. For example, Hobbes was dismissed because he was an atheist, yet in today’s more open culture, his work is considered valuable. If this pattern is to continue, than it seems that who we remember from the past today will be placed back into the forgotten corner of history as a new generation, with new values, takes control. Reading this, I thought about Christopher Columbus who in past generations was considered a benevolent explorer. Now though as cultural trends shift, the truth is revealed that he was a sadistic murderer. This gross miss remembering of history came from a complex past of a historical fiction novel by Washington Irvine in the early 19th century. It would be easy to simply categorize Columbus as a villain but this does not fix the issue of misjudging the dead because how Columbus’s legacy will be interpreted in the future may change. Even today it is a lesser known fact that the false legend of Columbus as a hero may have helped early Italian Americans gain some respect from their oppressors. The mistake with judging the dead is that it becomes difficult to acknowledge both the good and bad they caused at the same time. If a living human cannot be reduced to a hero or villain, then do this to the dead takes away the last bit of humanity they have left.

    • This is an interesting response. I have never before heard of Columbus’s legend as lending legitimacy to Italian immigrants. It may well be the case, despite my lack of awareness.

      My reasons for posting this material was to get students thinking about what happens when we monumentalize historical figures and turn them in the tradition. I think you’re observations about evolving reputations are quite correct. This very much runs in line with Eliot’s belief that each new piece of legitimate culture causes us, if only slightly, to adjust everything else in the canon or the museum. Or course Eliot is talking about artists and not explorers or discoverers, but the analogy seems still to apply. While especially critical mind might want only to topple monuments and return our attention to the complexity of actual persons and historical events, Eliot will argue we do still need monuments and tradition. The point, though, is that tradition never be set in stone, once and for all. New developments must regularly cause us to reevaluate everything we previously imagine would stand intact and unqualified for all time. “The mind of Europe”, as Eliot might have put it, must constantly be making itself up.

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