Death Be Not Proud – everyone sort of knows those four words, and they sound vaguely impressive, and you sometimes see them inscribed on a gravestone or you hear them at a funeral. They represent a sort of defiance, a bit of thumbing your nose at Death itself, or at Death himself. Yeah, the Grim Reaper, with his spooky black robes and scythe and all that, thinks he’s hot stuff. But he isn’t. People’s lives aren’t meaningless and just don’t stop. So and so may be dead, but he or she will live on after death, in the hearts of others, or in his or her good works, or in some sort of memories. So yes, Death shouldn’t be proud – expect that people’s hearts, over time, find new affections, and good works, and evil works too, are eventually superseded by something else even better, or worse, and memories fade. Invoking those four words is a bit of whistling past the grave. You do know better.
But there’s more to it, as the four words come from a famous sonnet by John Donne – and Donne was making a slightly different point. Admittedly, the Metaphysical Poets of the early seventeen century are not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, but this sonnet is pretty cool. It is addressed to Death, telling him not to be proud, because death itself, as a concept, just isn’t that scary. And the arguments are that sleep is a type of death, after all, and sleep is rather pleasurable, and if that is so, then death must be even more so. No? Then consider that death is a slave to fate – just when folks buy it is not in Death’s hands – and there’s chance, accidental death – and then you have kings, who of course have the power of life and death, the ability to levy war and order executions – and you have desperate men who do dumb things. Hey, if all this is so, the Grim Reaper must be kind of like a municipal street sweeper or trash collector. Donne doesn’t put it quite that way, but the idea is clear enough. What’s the big deal here?
Curiously, Donne wrote that sonnet around 1610 and it was first published posthumously in 1633 – a bit of death-defying irony there. But don’t think too hard about that. It will only make your head hurt, which many a frustrated English major over the years has suspected was what those odd Metaphysical Poets of the early seventeen century were aiming at anyway. What’s more interesting are those contentions that Donne makes. Death is no big deal. We here on earth deal it out all the time – and we seem to love it.
Of course we do. There’s a reason that the audiences at the recent Republican debates cheered when Rick Perry’s record as the governor who has ordered more executions than anyone in our history came up, and cheered loudly at the idea that someone without the means to purchase health insurance, when they suddenly get ill and slip into a coma, should be left to die in the streets, and cheered at the idea that the unemployed should starve to death, as their unemployment and resulting poverty is their own damned fault – they chose not to be rich, after all. And there was Herman Cain also saying he wanted an electrified high-voltage fence at the Mexican border – touch it and you die. Yes, there would be piles of fried bodies at the border, rotting in the sun – the bodies of those desperate Mexican men, women and children who thought they could break our laws. That seemed to be the idea. But he then said he was sort of kidding. And then he said he wasn’t kidding – if you were trying to follow all that.
This is odd stuff, but all of this is about dealing out death, far and wide, which is being framed as dealing out justice. The two may be the same thing, sometimes or often or always or never, but that’s a thorny metaphysical question. We find it useful to assume they are the same thing. It makes life simpler.
But this is not about the conservative right and those evangelical values-voters who talk of the Muscular Jesus who will smite folks just to see them die – this is about the progressives and liberals and the vaguely left too. Consider this from Steve Benen:
I saw someone joke the other day that if Republicans win the White House next year, the new president should ask Barack Obama to stick around – he should be put in charge of killing bad guys and taking down dictatorial regimes.
It was just a joke, of course. But the point behind the joke got me thinking: maybe the assumptions about parties and strengths are due for an overhaul.
Folks on the left can deal out death too, after all:
At least for my lifetime, there’s been an unshakable conventional wisdom as to which parties are identified with which issues. Democrats had credibility on health care, education, and the environment; Republicans had credibility on the military. Dems are seen as caring about helping families; Republicans are seen as caring about hurting bad guys. Dems are thoughtful; Republicans are tough. But these assumptions are clearly out of date…
And he cites Greg Sargent in this item in the Washington Post asking whether Republicans still have any claims left on any supposed advantage on national security:
Beyond Obama’s reelection, it’s worth asking whether Obama’s string of victories on foreign policy will have a more far reaching effect by putting an end to the GOP’s dominance on the issue for a long time.
Putting aside the entirely legitimate criticism of Obama’s penchant for secrecy and his disappointing civil liberties record, the Obama administration got Bin Laden, decimated Al Qaeda, and helped set in motion the fall of Gaddafi. He has done this while taking steps to improve relations with the broader Muslim world and, now, while essentially ending the Iraq War, which once was the most polarizing issue in this country. His outreach to the Muslim world and initial opposition to the Iraq War once got him branded as weak, but in light of his larger record anyone pointing to these things as signs of softness on national security will come across as hollow, spiteful, and unpersuasive.
In other words, Obama has completely scrambled the traditional calculus. GOP criticism of Obama’s policy on Libya – and Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama’s announcement today – sounds confused and incoherent. The neocons seem to have lost their grip on Republican candidates and officials, with many of them now veering between ill-defined isolationism and a desire to avoid foreign policy completely. The GOP seems rudderless on the issue.
To be sure, Dems still have the advantage on domestic policies like health care and education, but given recent events, it would appear the party has also claimed the credibility Republicans used to have on national security and foreign affairs.
Note to Republicans – we kill too – and we don’t piss off the rest of the world while doing it. So there!
And here’s Benen’s final dig, that it’s not just Obama:
Bill Clinton was a celebrated international leader who won well-executed wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, while also preventing domestic terror attacks. George W. Bush failed badly on every relevant front – he failed to take the terrorist threat seriously; he mismanaged two wars; and he was reviled around the globe – only to be followed by Barack Obama, who established a rather exceptional record, not only in restoring American credibility on the global stage, but in combating terrorists, advancing counter-proliferation, and working with coalition partners to advance democracies in countries like Libya. …
Is the Republicans’ advantage over national security an antiquated notion to be discarded? If not, how much more will it take?
Well, it will take a lot more killing, as Glenn Greenwald explores in a long item on the one remaining realm of American excellence:
When President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden on the evening of May 1, he said something which I found so striking at the time and still do: “tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.” That sentiment of national pride had in the past been triggered by putting a man on the moon, or discovering cures for diseases, or creating technology that improved the lives of millions, or transforming the Great Depression into a thriving middle class, or correcting America’s own entrenched injustices. Yet here was President Obama proclaiming that what should now cause us to be “reminded” of our national greatness was our ability to hunt someone down, pump bullets into his skull, and then dump his corpse into the ocean. And indeed, outside the White House and elsewhere, hordes of Americans were soon raucously celebrating the killing with “USA! USA!” chants as though their sports team had just won a major championship.
And those were Obama’s fans, not just the usual rabid blood-thirsty right, if that is how you choose to see the right. Greenwald had previous written, on the morning after bin Laden’s death, that this gleeful reaction was understandable given what we all saw on 9/11, but now he sees something else at play, something troubling:
Such a rare display of unified, chest-beating national celebration is now possible only when the government produces a corpse for us to dance over. Some suggested at the time that Osama bin Laden was sui generis and that no lessons could or should be drawn from his killing; for that reason, even many people who are generally uncomfortable with such acts proudly celebrated his death as the elimination of a singular evil. But it seems clear that the bin Laden episode was no aberration, no exception: the American citizenry rarely finds cause to exude nationalistic pride except when the government succeeds in ending someone’s life.
Just consider it:
Since the bin Laden killing, we have witnessed a similar joyous reaction when the U.S. assassinated its own citizen, Anwar Awlaki (along with another American dubiously claimed to be “collateral damage”) – even though Awlaki was never indicted as a terrorist, charged with treason, or accorded any due process, and even though the government never showed the public any evidence supporting its accusations. Instead, Obama officials, with no evidence offered, simply declared him to be a Bad Terrorist, and that was all that was needed: hordes of his fellow Americans did not merely approve – but cheered – the news that a drone had found and killed him.
Identically, both before and after the Awlaki killing, Americans have routinely celebrated the drone-deaths of hundreds of individuals about whom they knew nothing other than the fact that the Terrorist label had been applied to them by the U.S. Government. It’s as though there is a belief that American missiles do not detonate unless they hit an Actual Terrorist.
Well, the relationship of death to justice was always a thorny metaphysical issue and that does keep it simple. And here we go again:
And now the graphic photo of the corpse of Moammar Gaddafi is once again sparking outbursts of American pride – despite the fact that he was captured alive and very well may have been summarily executed. As I wrote previously, “no decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadhafi, just as none harbored any for Saddam.” And it’s understandable that Libyans who suffered for four decades under his rule (like Americans after 9/11 or Muslims after years of violence and aggression in their countries) would be eager for vengeance. Nonetheless, and regardless of what one thinks about Gadhafi or the intervention, summarily shooting a helpless detainee in the head is one of the most barbaric acts imaginable – under all circumstances – but Gadhafi’s gruesome death nonetheless sparked waves of American jubilation and decrees of self-vindication this week.
Greenwald seems to have a problem with a nation that continuously finds purpose and joy in the corpses its government produces, as he puts it, while finding purpose and joy in so little else:
During the Bush years, I frequently wrote about how repetitive, endless fear-mongering over Terrorism and the authoritarian radicalism justified in its name was changing – infecting and degrading – not just America’s policies but its national character. Among other things, this constant fixation on alleged threats produces the mindset that once the government decrees someone to be a Bad Guy, then anything and everything done to them (or ostensibly done to stop them) is not merely justified but is cause for celebration. That was the mentality that justified renditions, Guantanamo, vast illegal domestic surveillance, aggressive war against Iraq, and the worldwide torture regime: unless you support the Terrorists and Saddam, how could you oppose any of that?
So we stand and cheer and feel righteous and proud each time the government produces a new dead Bad Guy. And it seems that Greenwald would like to decouple death from justice:
Even at its most necessary and justified, the act of ending a human life with state violence should be a somber and lamentable affair. There’s something bloodthirsty about reacting ecstatically. To react that way when guilt is unproven (Awlaki), or when the person is unknown (most drone victims), or is killed by acts of pure barbarism (Gadhafi) is the mind of a savage. But it’s now been more than a decade since 9/11, and this has been the prevailing mentality in America continuously since then (to say nothing about the lengthy, brutal wars fought before that).
What happens to a citizenry and a nation that so frequently erupts into celebratory dances over the latest dead body its government displays?
This is also saying Death Be Not Proud – in a completely different way. It’s our pride in our ability to call down death that Greenwald sees as the problem.
But then, where else can we turn to engage in political celebration, nationalistic pride or collective moral purpose? Maybe the problem is that we have nothing else going for us right now:
There is a widespread perception for the first time ever that America is a nation in decline. Faith in the country’s leading institutions and political figures is shockingly (though appropriately) low. The country is plagued by mass sustained joblessness, oceans of debt, loss of entire industries, a disappearing middle class, exploding wealth inequality, declining class mobility, and a deeply corrupted political system that now resembles an oligarchy far more than a democracy. For many, the shame of the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib and the torture regime endure. Everyone desires something to celebrate, to feel good about, and the country’s political organs can now offer little more than Bad Guy corpses to enable those feelings.
Putting bullets into people’s skulls and exploding them into little bits and pieces by sky robots is one of the very few things at which America still seems to excel.
Well, we are exceptionally good at that. But Greenwald goes on to argue that is what “the political class feeds to the population to keep them convinced of the country’s exceptionalism and righteousness.” He just thinks that it’s a toxic diet. And it is a diet we love:
What’s perhaps most revealing about these death-celebrations are how reflexive – how visceral – they have become. For a President to claim the power to target his own citizens for death – and to do so in total secrecy, with no rules or oversight – is literally one of the most radical powers that a political leader can seize. The Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process” was intended to prohibit exactly that, as was the Constitution’s heightened requirements for proving “Treason” in a court of law. Had George Bush seized this power, it would have led the list of progressive “shredding-the-Constitution” grievances against him. But all of that was washed away in the celebrations over Awlaki’s death, drowned out by the blind ritualistic war cry of He was Bad and so I’m glad he’s dead!
And there was Gadhafi’s death:
This was someone who ruled a tiny country for four decades. He was a repellent tyrant, but certainly no worse than dozens of others – not on the level of Saddam, or the Assads in Syria. Other than Ronald Reagan’s attempt 25 years ago to kill him, nobody cared about Gadhafi one way or the other… To the contrary, the West had all sorts of cooperative agreements with him over oil and weapons. There was no clamoring for action against him.
But the minute the U.S. Government targeted him for death and his corpse was produced, many Americans reacted as though he were the living, breathing incarnation of Adolf Hitler – that basic morality was simply inconsistent with allowing him to live any longer – the same person the U.S. worked with in all sorts of ways for years and years. There’s a psychological and emotional benefit – a big one – in celebrating your country’s killing of Bad Guys, and that produces an eagerness to grab it and a corresponding unwillingness to hear objections or concerns that would dilute the joy.
And here he lays into those on the left who love this sort of thing:
But this is exactly the sentiment that was produced among many progressives by the killings of bin Laden, Awlaki, Gadhafi, and the dozens and dozens of drone attacks launched under President Obama that killed people whose names they never even heard. More amazing, that death-celebrating reaction comes from people who detest the death penalty on the ground that killing convicted murderers – even after they have been convicted of the most heinous crimes in a trial upheld by multiple appeals – is barbaric, excessively empowers the state, and coarsens the national culture.
But that is where we find ourselves:
That’s how foreign policy greatness is established: by how many heads the Emperor can display on a pike. The President is not just entitled to kill anyone he wants in multiple countries around the world – with no oversight, transparency or accountability, no evidence presented, no obligation to capture or try them, no need to even explain the principles that guide these killings – but is to be celebrated for doing so. And the piles of corpses of innocent people produced by this onslaught – of teenagers, infants, innocent women and men – are simply to be ignored. This is what Jeremy Scahill meant last night when he wrote on Twitter: “‘America, Fuck Yeah!’ is basically our foreign policy.” And it’s what Chris Hayes meant when he wrote: “I don’t think it’s a good thing for the nation’s soul to be constantly celebrating people we’ve killed.”
But all this has become fully bipartisan:
And it’s hard to see how this will change any time soon: once one goes down that road, it’s very difficult to turn around and go back. That’s true both individually and of a nation.
So there was this in the Los Angeles Times:
For a president who promised to end the gunslinger ways of his predecessor, Barack Obama has proven himself comfortable with the use of lethal force… All told this year, he has sent U.S. troops into action on land or in the skies of seven countries on two continents.
Yep, and one thinks of that famous quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer about watching the first atomic bomb test:
We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Oppenheimer should have quoted Donne. Death Be Not Proud. We got too proud.