Hopefully people have already seen some of the pushback on the sainting of George Herbert Walker Bush because of his legacy of human rights abuses in Panama, pardoning Iran-Contra conspirators, allowing people to die needlessly of AIDS, lying to the U.S. public about the invasion of Iraq, his involvement in Plan Condor, and his racist Willie Horton ad, to name some. But regardless of the specific person or their place in history, invariably it seems to go like this: some major political figure dies and the social media RIPs start rolling in. “I didn’t agree with you on everything but you were an honorable person and I respected you. Rest in Peace.” If we consider ourselves political at all, and if want to be capable of resisting injustice, then we need to stop automatically paying our respects to politicians when they die.
First of all, the fact that someone had grace, or carried themselves with honor or manners, is not a good reason on its own to show them respect. In fact it usually just means they are rich and powerful (or “patrician”). Have y’all never seen Gone with the Wind? Those white people of old carried on in high fashion and extremely mannerly ways! Their white supremacy was extremely high fallutin’! I do not however respect it, or the people who perpetrated and participated in it, just because it demands respect. It was something extremely ugly dressing itself up in nice clothes and an elaborately coded system of manners and interactions. Do not fall for this.
Second of all, in the case of a deceased head of state or politician, when we say we disagree with their “policies,” we are actually talking about human lives, and often their deaths. I refuse to reduce human to policies. And while the politician may no longer be in power, the effects of their policies are usually still with us. In the case of George HW Bush, I saw several of the same people express sadness about his death who are also angry about Trump’s handling of the “migrant caravan” from Central America. The thing is that by and large it isn’t Trump’s policies that have created the migrant exodus (because he hasn’t had enough time to do that kind of structural damage), but those of previous administrations. The migrant exodus actually has a lot to do with George HW Bush. As president he escalated the devastating War on Drugs, which continues to devastate people throughout Latin America, in addition to the devastating “anti-communist” violence and coup d’etats he perpetrated as vice president and Director of the CIA. The legacy of this violence, in addition to actions by other leaders including Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama who facilitated the 2009 coup in Honduras, has created the structural instability leading to the mass exodus of refugees from Central America today. So, how can we say that we respect Bush but be in solidarity with the migrant exodus or people in Central America today? You can’t.
Finally, and perhaps most simply and importantly: if we aspire to resist the policies of our government when they are wrong and unjust, we have to stop our habit of automatically bowing to the King! We are not obligated to express sadness when a former head of state dies. We are not obligated to say they had good qualities or were a good person or look on the bright side. Ask yourself why you are doing this. Is it possible it’s because you’ve been conditioned to respect authority? Or to respect those who seem “patrician”? If it makes you uncomfortable to speak ill of the dead, then try practicing just not saying anything. After all, a public political figure is different from a neighbor down the street or another person that you know. They and their family will never know what you said. Their legacy is a matter of making the historical record, not simple politeness. But most importantly, if you practice bowing to the king over and over, even when you think it doesn’t mean anything, you will never be able to disobey his orders when given, no matter how unjust they are. And that is supremely dangerous.