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From Karl Lagerfeld to George H. W. Bush: When Is It "Too Soon" to Criticize the Dead?

In the end, there are two options. The first is a full and frank assessment of a life in power, and the second is an edited celebration where the rough, negative abuse of that power is sandpapered away.

The recent funeral of former U.S. President George H W Bush. But here's the main point, writes Christensen: "Either we discuss legacies, or we don't." (Photo: AFP/Getty)

The passing of legendary fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has once again raised the question: “When is it too soon to publicly discuss the less-than-positive legacy of a dead person?”

To me, the answer depends on a single factor: How much power the person wielded in life. The more powerful the individual, the more influence they had on the world around them, the more their words and deeds are fair game to be raised, discussed and analyzed. And, let us be clear: I do not mean salacious details about the private life of the dead, or some minor social infractions. I mean actions and public statements that were of broad social significance

The same day it was announced that former US President George H. W. Bush had died, I tweeted out the fact that, as the former head of the CIA, Bush had overseen the support of military dictators in Latin America who had murdered, in the most horrific fashion, thousands of innocent civilians. This tweet was spurred by the spread on Twitter of a letter Bush had left in the Oval Office for then-incoming President Bill Clinton, a letter many on the social media platform held up as evidence of both Bush’s fundamental decency and the loss of civility in US politics in an age of Trump. Such a definition, I tweeted, would likely strike the families of those killed with the support of the CIA as somewhat ironic, if not perverse.

To many, this type of commentary was considered rude and distasteful. “Show some respect for the family,” “Let them grieve” or “It’s too soon” were common responses. Even if you have differences with the person who died, we are told, manners and decorum dictate a time gap between death and criticism. I understand the argument. In the case of George H.W. Bush, however, I did not think it applied.

"Either we discuss legacies, or we don’t. And, all to often, the “manners” argument is used to silence those who wish to discuss the real legacy of the powerful, and as a self-serving tactic meant to stifle dissent through shame."

Where, I wondered, were the same issues of mediated “decorum” and “manners” when innocent civilians were killed under his watch? Nowhere. Why is it “too soon” to discuss those deaths, when the relatives of those who died lost their loved ones “too soon” have been forced to live for decades with that pain?

When, one might then ask, is it the “right” time to bring these things up? A day later? Two? A week? Because the mainstream media airbrushing of Bush’s legacy would render those late, incoming critiques ineffective or meaningless. Either newspaper obituaries and biographies are proper chronicles of a life of power and influence, or they are just puff-pieces that wipe controversy from history. Unfortunately, the latter have a tendency to dominate.

Either we discuss legacies, or we don’t. And, all to often, the “manners” argument is used to silence those who wish to discuss the real legacy of the powerful, and as a self-serving tactic meant to stifle dissent through shame.

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This brings us to Karl Lagerfeld.

As expected, Lagerfeld’s death was met with proclamations of his genius and contributions to fashion. Less discussed, however, were his comments and attitudes regarding the #MeToo movement and Muslim immigration to Europe. On the former, Lagerfeld had said that models complaining about sexual assault should “join a nunnery.” On Muslim immigrants to Europe, Lagerfeld commented: “One cannot – even if there are decades between them – kill millions of Jews so you can bring millions of their worst enemies in their place.” On the day of Lagerfeld’s death, I looked at the initial obituaries posted online by the BBC, New York Times, CNN and Guardian. No mention of Lagerfeld’s comments on #MeToo or Muslims was made by the BBC, CNN and New York Times. The Guardian did not mention #MeToo, and gave Lagerfeld’s offensive criticism of immigration just one sentence. (The BBC has since posted a piece about Lagerfeld’s “controversial genius,” as has CNN.)

I am in no way a fashion expert, but it would seem to me that Lagerfeld’s comments about #MeToo, in addition to his well-known views on women’s bodies, would be supremely relevant when considering the life of a man who had made his fortune in women’s fashion, and, thus, made his fortune off of women.

There is one, final aspect of airbrushing the legacies of the powerful and famous worth mentioning. And this is the key aspect. By downplaying things like bigoted comments or the approval of sanctioned violence against innocent civilians, we are telling those at the receiving end of that bigotry and violence that their pain and suffering is somehow less relevant and important than the achievements of those who died. That professional and artistic talent trumps discrimination and human rights violations. The more powerful the deceased, and the less powerful the victim, the more likely we are to see this practice of image rehabilitation.

In the end, there are two options. The first is a full and frank assessment of a life in power, and the second is an edited celebration where the rough, negative abuse of that power is sandpapered away.

Which one is the better example of “bad manners” and “poor taste”?

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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