Talking about dead people

Dear Son,

The rule against speaking ill of the dead is overrated.  Like all rules it was intended to serve a purpose; and I think those purposes are 1) that if you believe in ghosts they could very well be watching you, and 2) if they have a living family the family might hate you.  For those of us concerned about #2, it's probably better to watch your mouth, and for those of us concerned about #1, it's a wonder we don't live better lives in general.  If grandma and Jesus are watching you from the heavenly bleachers it's done little for humanity in general; and if the whole of our dead ancestry really is spying on us and keeping tabs of everything we've done, we're in for a hell of a reception.  No man is a hero to his valet, they say.

On the other hand, perhaps the fact that we've all been seen at our worst is likely to have grandma treat us the best. After all she's been seen too; and our security lies less in good behavior than in the sheer number of our failed relatives.  We arrive in heaven, should it exist, get an uncomfortable handshake from an also-guilty series of fools and bad parents and slackers and wankers, and this endless parade of shame keeps going, despite Christ's promise to come quickly, because of the unparalleled amusement God gets from watching it.  Instead of sending us to Hell He gets a good laugh and an I-Told-You-So -- a wholesome trade for a loving God.

Since the fear of God has done so little for Christendom, my guess is that people are actually more worried about angering a family -- which is a shame since dead men give us lots of good things to talk about.  I knew one man, probably the most meticulously clean man I ever knew, who died of AIDS: a good warning against gay sex if I ever saw one.  Up to the day he died the medications made him miserable, and he hinted frequently at wanting to die.  We were warned, by someone in a position of authority, to never tell anyone how he died.  A giant raspberry to this still-living blow-hard.

I know another fool who died while crossing the road to get cigarettes -- an excellent warning against jaywalking, perhaps the most underrated and underpunished of our sins.   He took our sins upon him in the form of a bus.  And as I've already mentioned, grandpa D died alone because he never cultivated his family, and beyond this he died alone because he made the mistake of not making more children* -- at this point, aside from a treacherous altruism and an affinity for black culture, the chief sin of the white man.

Going back to the dead, there are some cultures who've had the opposite policy, and Montaigne says of the such-and-such people that while their kings were alive they never spoke ill of them, but the moment they died they were allowed to air all their grievances.  I prefer criticism of a leader while living, and consider honest criticism from any direction the primary strength of a democracy; but the principle at work here is obvious.  We need people to believe in authority so we can not live in anarchy, and when he's gone we draw on the past to direct the future.  Still, one wonders how you can direct the future when you're incapable of criticizing the present.

Others beyond this have a "do not judge" policy in general, which sounds a lot like not having a policy at all -- a greater sleight-of-hand, and more ruinous to our listeners, than picking their pockets.  At first glance you'd believe it has to do with not having any rules; but actually the opposite is true, and this embarrassing attempt to let yourself off the hook by "letting everyone else off" too, has never actually been practiced seriously.  In short they merely choose which things they consider judgmental, and these are the things they judge.  Then they shame everyone else for judging the things they approve**.  It's exactly the same thing everyone else does but has the obvious tinge of hypocrisy, and the best thing you can do to stop someone from preaching non-judgmentalness is to poke him in the nose and make a move on his wife -- something I highly recommend, not only for pure fun, but also for the sake of public morality.

In short you pick how you want to judge the dead, and just make sure you do it rightly.  The important thing is not whether you judge or don't judge since all preference is judgment, but whether you judge openly or quietly, softly or harshly, and whether it ends in a changed mind and a better life or a lost friend and a broken nose.  Christ said to not cast your pearls before swine and almost none of His followers believed Him: a disobedience responsible for a slew of alleged saints and martyrs.  But here the question is the same.  Yes, of course you died for the Gospel.  But if you did it recklessly, are you a hero -- or are you an idiot?

Your father,

*On this issue of not making more children my grandpa has some excuse, and it's that his first child was so angry from the moment she was born that it sent my grandma looking for a reason.   And refusing to believe it was her own fault, and hearing from the Mormons that everyone had a past life with a past personality and sins to go with it, she believed she drew the short straw, got a new set of Sunday clothes, and started going to church.  This conversion didn't last, my grandpa ended up becoming an atheist because of it, and my Aunt C remains a pain in the ass to this day.

**As I've mentioned before, you'll notice, if you pay close attention to the "non-judgmental," that you never hear a sermon about not judging racists or Republicans or capitalists or sexists or rich men or white men or fit men or leaders; and that the whole of their judgment, exactly like the "judgmental" person they enjoy criticizing, is reserved for the people they disagree with.  A truly non-judgmental policy would only cover the people we disagree with, and beyond this it would leave everyone alone who disagreed about the people we let slide. But this is never how it works. The only person a "non-judgmental" person is incapable of judging is himself.

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