Among the multitude of memorable moments in the works of Shakespeare is Mark Antony’s brilliant and devastating exploitation of the death of Julius Caesar to secure revenge on his killers and power for Antony himself in Imperial Rome.
Mark Antony’s careful manipulation of the crowd begins with these at once stirring and oddly disturbing words:
Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.
Julius Caesar – Act 3, Scene 2
The protocol of a funeral, of course, is to honor the dead. By suggesting that he will not do so, Mark Antony prompts his audience to attend more closely to his words, to wonder at this peculiar refusal to do as proprietary demands. Such wonder and attention is exactly what Mark Antony seeks, for he hopes to turn their grief into murderous action . . . and to benefit from the result.
The media circus that has followed upon the announcement of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia reminds me forcibly of such Shakespearean machinations. They also have directed my thoughts to the remarkable extent to which our political culture has changed, I believe, for the worse.
In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, there is extraordinary pressure from the press on public figures to answer questions now, not later. It takes strength of character and a commitment to courtesy, respect and/or diplomacy not to feed this voracious monster.
By the same token, many political players (whether elected officials, consultants, pundits or other players) see in each major news story a potential opportunity to prosecute a particular political agenda, promote a particular candidate, or score more points against a rival.
The resulting frenzy of declarations and accusations, assertions and denials of factual claims, and struggles to scale the heights of the political media, often leave us breathless . . . or perhaps, more accurately, aghast.
I will state here, for the record, that the late Justice Scalia was not one of my favorites. That’s not a judgment against him; it is an acknowledgement of important differences in perspective and in style.
But whether one was a fan or a critic of Justice Scalia, honesty and propriety demand that we acknowledge him as force in American jurisprudence and in contemporary American political ideology. That he believed what he said and what he wrote, that he believed he was right, and that being right mattered to him, also must be acknowledged.
That his passing and his legacy should, in the course of 24-48 hours, be nearly eclipsed by political struggles over whether or not a successor will or should be nominated or confirmed (a strictly political contest of wills and wishes) . . . well, I guess it was to be expected.
But it is unseemly to use his death, before the body has even had a moment to lie in state, before those who knew him and those who admired him have had even a moment to attend him on his final journey, to fire up the crowds with political rage and urge them to the barricades of partisan (and internecine) combat once again.
Can we not honor the man for his service, at least a little, before we return to the bare-knuckles brawling that has characterized so much of Washington politics for so long?
I won’t point fingers. Someone started this particular round of brawling, though there might be some debate about exactly who it was. But others joined in . . . otherwise, it wouldn’t be a brawl.
Both sides have contributed, once again, to the diminution of the respect that should be awarded to dedicated public service. Such respect has been replaced, in the public’s mind, with a prudent cynicism of all things political. Because, you know, even the death of a towering figure in American political life is, first and foremost, an opportunity to gain political advantage. Eulogies and remembrances must be spoken and written, of course, but the real work is making sure the death produces a favorable wind that blows one’s particular cause good.
I can see the urgent fundraising emails now . . .
Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears! Can we not praise the noble dead before we bury them in ignoble political maneuverings?