Trying For Balance, If Not Respect

The death of Margaret (or if you prefer Baroness) Thatcher has led to a lot of debate about how we should respond to the death of public figures. This is an ethical question well outside the bounds of science, but I’m going to weigh in anyway. It seems to me that there are several things we should not do in these circumstances:

* We should not whitewash (ok unfortunate word) the dead. Hearing Thatcher described on the BBC as an enemy of Apartheid was stomach churning.

* We should not oversimplify their legacy. It is hard for major figures to do only good or harm, and whatever we think of the balance it is undesirable to sweep the minority under the carpet. The provision on not speaking ill of the dead has some force, as they cannot defend themselves, which makes me inclined to focus more on the good in the aftermath of a death, but we shouldn’t ignore either side.

* We should not celebrate an event that causes pain to some and does no good to anyone. I consider it entirely legitimate to celebrate the death of a figure of evil who is still in a position of power. General Franco springs to mind. Whatever the suffering Spain is currently going through, it is mild compared to what was experienced during his rein, and in between there were 30 good years that were impossible while he lived. However, this is hardly true of Thatcher.

I’m very fond of this video, not only for the gorgeous rendition of This Land Is Your Land, but for the quote from Obama in the middle. “If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription, who has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer – even if it’s not my grandparent.” There are certainly grounds to be cynical about this – if Obama feels damaged along with the Afghan parents whose children were killed in drone strikes it hasn’t been enough to stop him conducting those strikes. Nevertheless, I think that within the bounds of the USA he has broadly attempted to stick to these principles, even if in a more mild mannered way than I would prefer.

The concept is far from new, indeed in the same paragraph Obama made reference to one of the more famous summaries. “It is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work.” However, for something so important finding new and better ways to make the point is worthy in itself. How important is it? It is in essence a summary of one side of the most basic question in politics, the one that underlies all else.

There is plenty to debate about the most effective economic methods to achieve our goals, or whether certain legislation will help or hinder our path, but before all that we need to decide what our goals are. To do that we need to answer the fundamental question: How far do we extend our care? The psychopath, bolstered with the works of Ayn Rand* says we should extend it nowhere. We should act only in our own interests. A second camp takes a single step and worries about the needs of their family and maybe close friends. Others are interested in their tribe, class or religious affiliation, but the devil take the rest. Obama was setting out the view that our care should extend to every human in the nation. The internationalist would argue that should be every human on the planet. Animal liberationists and deep ecologists go further still. Because I love it I am going to take yet another opportunity to post this video, making the case for the last position.

Few of us are entirely consistent in the position we take, veering sometimes up and down the ladder, but Thatcher ruled for the interests of her class, and articulated a message in which everyone outside the immediate family could be largely kicked to the curb.** But opposition to her can take the form of merely reversing her focus, championing those she oppressed. Alternatively it can be about standing up for everyone, while recognising that some have needs far greater than others.

It is too simplistic to say that whether or not one believes “the bell tolls for the” divides the left from the right. Plenty of old style Tories would agree with the notion that we are all in this together, but see themselves as best placed to look after the interests of the downtrodden. However, until a week ago I might have naively said that everyone on the left would agree that the suffering of one touches all. My stupidity in this has been clearly revealed by the unseemly gloating of a portion of the left at Thatcher’s demise.

Now let me be clear; When I talk of gloating I do not mean stressing the harm her actions did. We must learn from history, and while her admirers are trying to write or rewrite it there is more than sufficient justification to point to the doubling of poverty, the coddling of Pinochet, the vicious suppression of gay and lesbian rights and all the rest. But to talk of celebration? To open bottles (real or figurative) of champagne? It is perhaps understandable that those who directly suffered under her rule might do these things, but I find it repulsive in people half a world away. How are those whose lives were blighted or lost by her actions better off now that an old woman with dementia has died? Her family may not be the most attractive bunch, but are they not too owed some duty of care to not be exposed to needless crowing?

The celebrations are also politically stupid, building sympathy for her – and therefore her policies – from anyone at all uncertain in their position.

It is particularly galling to me that so many of my facebook friends posted a quote (wrongly) attributed to Martin Luther King about not celebrating anyone’s death after Osama Bin Laden was killed, yet so few made the same point about Thatcher. True, Bin Laden was executed by the state, whereas Thatcher died of natural causes, but Bin Laden was still perhaps in a position to organise more killing, to bring more suffering in rebound on the people he claimed to be defending. The ending of this might indeed have been grounds for celebration (along with the fact that his death reduced the chance we would face a Republican president). What has been gained along these lines from Thatcher’s death?

The film Cloud Atlas makes great use of another statement of the principle of our connection. “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” Thatcher lived her life largely in contradiction to that notion. But that is, if anything, all the more reason for her opponents to live that way. To behave as if all humans matter, not just the grouping with which we identify.

In an attempt to live up to my proposal that we attempt to do justice to the complexity of the dead, and because I do prefer all my posts here to have a link to science, I’ll finish by paying tribute to the one great positive I think Thatcher did. Some people have commented on her relatively early recognition of the science of climate change – something her party has partially stuck to, but her international fans are keen to forget. In this case I’m not convinced of the significance. She was keen to shut down coal fired power stations for other reasons and global warming was a convenient addition.

Where Thatcher did make a genuine contribution was in ensuring the passage of the Montreal Protocol phasing out ozone depleting gasses. She was not the most significant figure in its passage, but it is unlikely it would have happened without her, at least so soon. For this we should all be grateful. It is hard to know how bad things would have got with even a few more years of CFC emissions, but the answer is probably “very bad”. Tens of thousands of extra deaths from skin cancer are just the iceberg’s tip. Evidence is emerging that the food chain of the Southern Ocean, on which a large part of the planet’s ecosystem depends, is suffering severe damage from the additional UV light to which it has been exposed. We were probably close, maybe very close indeed, to a tipping point that would have wreaked untold disaster on animals, plants and humans living in and around the major ocean basins of the Earth. Who knows whether even a year’s delay might have been enough to tip us over? Thatcher helped pull us back from that particular cliff. For me it is not enough to undo all the harm she did, both at home and through the adoption of her policies abroad. But I do think it should be recognised.

* I accept that this may be an over-simplification of Rand’s view. But if so it is an oversimplification that seems popular with most of her followers.

** Yes I know that the famous “there is no such thing as society” seen in context is more a statement that the money needs to come from somewhere, but there was plenty of other expressions that made this point less succinctly but more explicitly.

Update: Several people posted the link to this piece by Russell Brand, but I’ve only just read it. It really is very good, and much broader than the title suggests.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Non-science (but not nonsence), Other forms of politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Trying For Balance, If Not Respect

  1. Drew says:

    Another great piece – thanks Stephen.

  2. Pingback: Hobbit Father Dies | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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