On May 1st, 2011, crowds in Washington, D.C., New York, and other major American cities gathered spontaneously to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. In the aftermath of the death of quite possibly the most hated man in the world (that is, from the American point of view), Americans were eager to express their elation. Newspapers printed headlines such as “We Got Him!” and “Rot in Hell!” The internet erupted in celebratory tweets, blog posts, and memes. An Oscar-nominated film was even made commemorating the event. Many people, though, found the post-assassination festivities objectionable, and not just Leftists looking for an excuse to bash American Imperialism. The idea of openly celebrating the death of a human being, even a terrorist, struck many as tasteless at best, and barbaric at worst. Whether or not one was concerned with the political implications of extra-judicial assassinations, the jingoistic fervor of the crowds chanting “USA! USA!” was cause for dismay.
On April 8th, 2013, another despised political figure, for obviously different reasons, passed away. After Margaret Thatcher’s death, though, it appeared to many that it was the Leftists who were guilty of reacting with morbid barbarism. Many revilers of the “Iron Lady” and what she stood for have pounced on the occasion of her death to express their disapproval. This has taken the form of both serious critical analysis of Thatcher’s political legacy, such as this impressive and nuanced obituary by Richard Seymour, or the much less nuanced comic fare buzzing around the internet (videos like this, for example). There has been no small backlash, often coming from some of the same liberal types who also found the reaction to bin Laden’s death distasteful, to such open criticism so soon after Thatcher’s death. Those guilty of disseminating negative depictions of Thatcher, either serious or comedic, are accused not only of failing to show proper “respect for the dead,” but of the kind of barbarous celebration of the loss of a human life that occurred outside the White House two years ago. Under this reasoning, for Leftists who condemned such celebration over the death of Osama bin Laden to fail to show the same humanity to Margaret Thatcher is hypocrisy at its purest.
To the charge of improper respect, I, having disseminated such materials (specifically, this meme that I still maintain is hilarious) plead guilty. But on what grounds does Margaret Thatcher’s demise require that someone show respect who was previously under no such obligation? We normally have no problem with either harsh criticism or downright insulting depictions of politicians, and Thatcher was no exception. While she was alive, she was the subject of relentless political scrutiny, and the target of unflattering cartoons, parodies, and songs. Some of these songs, incidentally, take an explicitly violent or morbid tone, which leads me to wonder why it would be unacceptable to post Margaret on the Guillotineon Facebook last week, but not for Morrissey to have recorded the song in 1988. The only response to this that I have heard so far is that it is “too soon,” and that in the immediate aftermath of a person’s death we should refrain from speaking ill of them.
This is, of course, complete rubbish. As Glenn Greenwald points out in The Guardian, the rules that apply to personal acquaintances do not apply to political figures. This is especially true for as influential a figure as Margaret Thatcher. For the 99.99% of us that never knew Thatcher or her family personally, we speak of her exclusively in relation to her politics. It was not Margaret the mother of two children who cut social services, endorsed dictatorships in Chile and Indonesia, and brought working-class movements to their knees, but Thatcher the Prime Minister. The former died on April 8th, while the latter’s political legacy is very much still alive. Therefore, I see no reason that we who find Thatcherism troublesome should show any more respect to her than we would have in 1988, 2008, or even last month. The worst that can be said about even the most insulting humorous depiction is that it is ineffective criticism or bad comedy, not that it is in any way immoral.
I must reject, however, the allegation that to use Thatcher’s death as an opportunity to criticize her politics is in any way a celebration of her death. The sentiment is understandable; given the ferocity of some of the attacks, it is easy to see how one might mistake them for the kind of barbaric satisfaction people took in bin Laden’s death, and I don’t doubt that certain people – including, quite probably, many British coal miners – do feel such a satisfaction. However, there is an obvious difference between the deaths of these two public figures: Osama bin Laden’s death has historical significance, while Margaret Thatcher’s doesn’t. That is to say that the extrajudicial assassination of bin Laden had its own political outcomes. Thatcher’s death of old age, on the other hand, changed nothing. The Abbottabad Seal Team raid resulted in, among other things, a leadership change for a major terrorist organization, soured relations between the US and Pakistan, and a symbolic victory for the United States and Barack Obama over its terrorist enemies. As far as I am aware, the loss of blood flow to Margaret Thatcher’s brain cells has had no such political ramifications. Politically, whether or not she is still alive in 2013 is irrelevant.
The crowds at the White House and Ground Zero, presumably the kind of people that wished for retribution for the terrorist attacks of 9/11, thus had something to celebrate. Anti-Thatcherite Leftists have no such thing. Some might insist otherwise, but if their opposition to Thatcher’s neoliberalism is serious, they’re foolish to think that her death is worth their cheers. So why the barrage of editorials and cartoons? The same reason that Thatcher’s admirers have come out with their own stream of glowing obituaries and tributes: the death of such an influential public figure is an occasion to reflect on the role she has played in shaping our political landscape. On such an occasion, what we say matters. To praise Thatcher’s legacy of unfettered markets, union-busting, and minimal public services is to accept it as the ideal state of the world. Yet, for some reason, it is only the Leftist criticism that is seen as “political.” By requiring that discussions of Thatcher’s death remain “respectful,” we define support for her politics as the acceptable, neutral position. I see no better way to to prove Thatcher’s own dictum correct, to assure that, truly, “there is no alternative.”