Back in 1994, there was no Twitter. Maybe that’s why the rantings of Hunter S. Thompson, upon the death of Richard M. Nixon, really stood out.
If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.
That was HST being HST. Nobody was much like him, and he was not much like anyone else. Two weeks before Antonin Scalia died, the NYT published this rather prescient essay. Because in 2016, we are all gonzos on this bus.
We all know what happened on Saturday night. Twitter erupted in an obituary firefight. Partisans on both sides dug in and began shooting. A typical trope: “In Lieu of flowers, the Scalia‘s [sic] ask that you go out and kick a homeless person tonight.”
Some of the journalists I respect most made eloquent and persuasive-seeming arguments for pumping as many rounds as possible into the good justice before rigor mortis set in. Glenn Greenwald: “The ONLY reason we’re talking about him is because of his political impact. So of course it should be politicized.” Jack Shafer: “It would be particularly strange to withhold our opinions of a man, newly dead, who wrote opinions for a living.” Dave Zirin: “If you are unable to assign ugly truths and actual history to someone’s legacy after they die, you get airports named after Ronald Reagan.”
I love Zirin, but the notion that, if we had only crapped on Reagan harder in those vital 48 hours after his death, Americans would not have named stuff after him, rings false.
Speaking of false, Bianca Jagger or someone tweeting as her offered this: “I have never forgotten this quote ‘Mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached’.” This was heavily retweeted. It appears not to be real. Not far from his actual sentiment, but not words that really came from Scalia.
I was frequently appalled by Scalia’s opinions and shocked by the way he talked about his fellow Americans. It would be fair to say that he stoked the very blaze that is scorching his memory now. As we turned into “Animal House,” he was an avid food-fighter.
The counter-argument has less to do with the way we poison the market of expression and more to do with how we poison ourselves. Nobody would argue — especially after the Republican debate that followed Scalia’s death — that we suffer from a surfeit of decorum here in 2016. We have tiny little islands of decency in our stormy, venomous sea. You can argue that those islands just get in the way of what you want to do. Or you can argue for (at solemn moments) swimming toward those islands, hauling yourself up on the sand and taking a little breather. Death, for the dead, is the ultimate caesura. For the rest of us maybe it’s a smaller caesura, a tiny musical moment when we stop our bickering and remind ourselves to be human.
Jesus (I’m paraphrasing) says we can’t give up on anybody, even people like Scalia who appear to have given up on many others. Give yourself a few days to ponder the way you and Scalia are bound by forces more elevated than hate. If you really need to think about it this way: be a little better than he frequently was. Don’t worry. Nobody’s renaming any airports until the cold weather breaks.