De mortuis nil nisi bunkum

Glen Newey

De mortuis nil nisi bunkum, as they say, and in this week of deaths it’s often been a job to tell the pearls from the balls. Unsurprisingly, the seldom missable Pyongyang Times has churned out snuff-guff prolifically of late, marking the dear leader Kim Jong Il’s passing ‘from a sudden attack of illness’, later amplified as myocardial infarction. The PRK has been convulsed by a spasm of grief, with North Korean telly screening continuous-loop footage of women rending their garments on a (stationary) escalator. Kim’s mortal coil lies in state like a beached dugong, in a glass case oddly reminiscent of Benedict XVI’s Popemobile. It’s rumoured that the corpse, like Kim Il Sung’s, will be whisked off to Moscow for embalming if Pyongyang can scrape together the dosh.

To judge by the public reaction, North Koreans seem little consoled by the Times’s assurances that ‘the great comrade Kim Jong Il will be immortal’, and that the 27-year-old heir presumptive, Kim Jong Un, ‘another great person produced by Korea’, is ‘identical to Comrade Kim Jong Il’ – so in fact the senior Kim is still with us, in the way of the reincarnated Dalai Lama. Other pages from the PT, amid the paeans to over-fulfilment of output norms and Japan-bashing, suggest that the great comrade is as active as ever. One shot shows Kim in his trademark shades and what looks like a brown rat-fur hat, visiting a knitwear factory; another has him appraising some gourds. Meanwhile, preparations for his birthday on 16 February are in full swing. The PT reports that committees have been formed to run a whip-round for Kim’s big day as far afield as Ukraine and Egypt, where you might think they have enough on their plate already.

No-bitchery taboos also reign in the free-speaking west. Lampooning the estate-agent tropes makes for a passable parlour game. Adolf Hitler: ‘a conviction politician of energy and strategic vision, tireless in pursuing the best interests of the Volk’. Ted Bundy: ‘resourceful and self-reliant, with a passionate, lifelong interest in human anatomy’. There are exceptions. One of the people on this week’s mortuary roll was Donald Neilson’s. The ‘Black Panther’ serial killer, who’s died in Norwich jail, has had a milder version of the Myra Hindley treatment, but then she was a woman, and female murderers always get a warm send-off from the red tops (‘Rot in Hell’ etc.).

 Václav Havel has had a slightly more nuanced reception than Kim or Neilson. His obits have been leavened with mention of his penchant for moral didacticism and even his colostomy, though his spirited backing for the 2003 Iraq invasion has got less airplay.

The same couldn’t be said of Christopher Hitchens, who has also received mixed valedictions, though both detractors and admirers seem to agree that Hitch was a piss-artist of Herculean stamina, the point of contention being whether this adds lustre to his aura or a nail to his coffin. As with lamas and the late dear leader, the search is on for his reincarnation. In an otherwise measured appraisal, Jason Cowley in the New Statesman notes with apparent regret that the old bruiser leaves ‘followers and disciples but no heir apparent’.

Hitchens’s moral courage failed him when faced with the possibility that he’d called something wrong. On Iraq, he segued fluently between saying that Saddam should be whacked because he would turn out to have WMD, that the absence of WMD was due to a cover-up, and that WMD weren’t the point. In this he occupied a world not so different from the Pyongyang Times, which barely falls short of imputing divinity to the leader – for a while state propaganda made out that the late Kim had been spared the need to defecate. Last year, in a debate with Tony Blair, Hitchens described the kingdom of God, plausibly enough, as ‘a divine North Korea’ because of its moral totalitarianism. And, as with the terrestrial version, it can be fiendishly hard to blag a visa out.


  • 24 December 2011 at 12:26pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Well, he'll soon find out won't he, as he waits in line between Il and that other great leader Havel. I imagine that the recording angels might get a little perturbed with Hitchens who is probably claiming that they don't exist while they try to check his papers.
    And for something completely different, how about the death of Loriot? Never heard of him, you say? Well he was the proof that not only do Germans have a well-developed sense of humour, they can also laugh at themselves. Unlike your three, a big loss in a mad world.

  • 24 December 2011 at 10:32pm
    alex says:
    I actually found one thing likeable about C. Hitchens; he seemed to have a just estimation of his own merits, as a fast journo with a good sense of humour who relied mainly on his memory. It's not really Hitchens but the fawners who claim to be in awe of his 'erudition' that are the real berks.

  • 25 December 2011 at 1:35pm
    outofdate says:
    I don't know, de mortuis seems a reasonable maxim. The idea is that it doesn't do the living any good to persecute someone beyond the grave. It's to quiet the ghosts, see: you don't want them hanging round forever, agitating us and rattling the furniture. Let them go. So he was a bad drunk, he wrote awful prose, but why not remember all the fun we surely had and let be.

    It's different with someone like the dear leader or (please at long last) Dr Kissinger. They're in the Asian sense 'big people', they tend to turn into gods when they die, so there is a case for denying them the incense they need to sustain them (and even then many people would think it's best to let them have something to keep them placid). Or in slightly more robust terms, the evil that they did was on such a scale and of such a nature -- the North Korean regime, the 'pragmatic' school of mass slaughter -- that even the faintest praise might in one way or another help perpetuate it. But Hitchens? He was just one of those figures like Stephen Spender who are famous exactly as long as they're around to draw attention to themselves and are then utterly forgotten. R, as they say on the interweb, IP.

    • 25 December 2011 at 10:00pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      Let it sound like nitpicking, but one form of incense we might reasonably dispense with is referring to Kissinger, and other Ph.Ds, as "Dr".

    • 26 December 2011 at 1:49am
      outofdate says: @ Bob Beck
      You're right in principle, but I like 'Dr' here, it makes him sound more evull.

    • 26 December 2011 at 8:31pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      I'll have to give you that one. If there's nothing so sinister as a doctor (i.e., a real one) gone to the bad, there's nothing so pathetic as an "intellectual" who ends up a courtier. Which I suppose leaves Kissinger both evil and pathetic, and Hitchens almost entirely pathetic, but anyway.

    • 27 December 2011 at 1:07pm
      alex says: @ Bob Beck
      I think it depends on cultures. In the US it's actually more respectable to have an intellectual qualification and I have to say that's a good thing in general, irrespective of the calibre of a few individual exemplars. In Canada, or so a friend from that country told me, dentists often make it into high politics.

    • 27 December 2011 at 5:41pm
      Bob Beck says: @ alex
      I don't know about "often" -- in fact I'm at a loss to think of one who's been even a provincial cabinet minister (than which, I have to say, there is nothing more provincial). We've had the usual number of lawyers, and our current PM is an economist. Whether that's an intellectual qualification is left as an exercise for the reader.

      Anyway I wasn't talking about professional politicians so much as servants/stenographers to power, as the late Hitch became.

    • 27 December 2011 at 6:39pm
      alex says: @ Bob Beck
      If you're Canadian, I cede readily to your superior knowledge of dentists on the road to power in that country.
      Kissinger (who you seemed to be talking about too) was more than a mere court scribe, he got to be Secretary of State.
      About Hitchens, my point was that he was less of a hypocrite (or gave less of a shit) than some of his admirers.
      We had an intellectual PM with a doctorate but no-one liked him much (Brown), especially when he was right - calling a bigoted member of the electorate a bigot was considered a low point.
      They probably would have liked him less if he'd made them call him Dr. Brown.

    • 27 December 2011 at 10:10pm
      Bob Beck says: @ alex
      Agreed about Hitchens; as for Kissinger, I know about his career but still think of him as a courtier, albeit more exalted than most. I think of most US Cabinet Secretaries that way, perhaps because they're not elected.

      I didn't know, or had forgotten about Brown's doctorate. In Canada, the closest we've had to an intellectual in politics would have been Trudeau. He could get away with calling bigoted voters bigoted, or equivalent, not because people respected his intellect but because he was wealthy and stylish. We'd had one or two plutocrats before, but no-one before or since with any trace of panache.

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