Why are we so polite to problematic public figures when they die?

(180818) -- UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 18, 2018 (Xinhua) -- A portrait of the late former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is seen at the UN headquarters in New York, on Aug. 18, 2018. Officials from across the UN system paid tribute to Kofi Annan, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 80 in a Swiss hospital. (Xinhua/Li Muzi)

Over the past two weeks, three giants from vastly different backgrounds passed on. First the Nobel Literature prize winner Vidiadhar Surajprasad “VS” Naipaul died in his home in London, followed by India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who passed away in Delhi and, most recently, Kofi Annan, the former head of the UN died in Geneva.

Each personality left gigantic imprints in literature, politics and diplomacy. Each left an ambivalent history. Tributes have poured in. Hagiographies upon hagiographies – be it through published op-eds, tweets or Facebook posts – were published in their honour.

Naipaul was described as “one of the greatest writers of our time” while Vajpayee was said to have been “a great human being and true statesman”. For his part, Annan was remembered as a “great leader and reformer of the UN” and “making the world he has left a better place than the one he was born into”.

If you had a selfie with Annan, a letter signed by Naipaul or perhaps a quote from Vajpayee, it was time to flaunt it. But all three leave fraught histories. Take Naipaul, for instance. A brown man in a white man’s world, his writings were legendary for their level of self-hate, disdain towards people of colour and racism. He once said Indian women who wore a red bindi on their forehead signified an empty head.

Naturally, Palestinian academic Edward Said described Naipaul as “a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him”. Still, Naipaul was knighted and won a Nobel prize for his efforts.

Or take Vajpayee, who ignited an arms race with Pakistan, incited the RSS, the Hindu right-wing organisation, to destroy the Babri Masjid in 1992. The incident, in large, paved the way for the rapid Hindutva communal politics that defines India today.

He also made a series of anti-Muslim comments – in essence blaming the victims – when he was head of state during the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. He did nothing to punish the perpetrators (one of whom is the prime minister of the country). Today, he is eulogised as a softer, more liberal face of the BJP when it was he who took the RSS ideology of Hindutva to the mainstream.

And then there is Annan, who is perhaps the most ambiguous character of the lot. As the first black African secretary-general of the UN, he has always been portrayed as breaking barriers and “a guiding force for good”.

His cool resolve as an African diplomat also makes him evermore endearing. Not so much if you were a Bosnian Muslim or Rwandan Tutsi. Annan failed miserably as head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, where about 800 000 people were killed in 1994 and Srebrenica, where some 8000 Muslims were massacred in 1995. In Rwanda, Annan decided against acting on a telegram from UN peacekeepers who warned of a massacre to come.

What’s more, he was never held to account for his failures and was even promoted to secretary-general of the UN in 1997. Together with the UN, he won the Nobel Peace prize in 2001.

Though his subsequent actions as a global statesman are said to have been shaped by the failures of the 1990s, his popularity is also an indictment of the global system that continues to tolerate tragic failures.

“In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organisation into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination,” UN secretary-general Antonio Gutierrez said without irony.

Look no further than Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan or Rakhine State in Myanmar when counting the foundering of the UN system.

This is not to say that criticism of the leaders have not come to the fore after their deaths. But social norms dictate that criticism is tempered, at least until the mourning period thaws. And as the Latin saying goes, “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” (Of the dead, say nothing but good), it is generally considered inappropriate to speak ill of the fallen.

Why is it that we are understood to be disrespectful to the families of these “leaders”, celebrated thinkers or politicians when they leave a trail of destruction or a series of failures that affected so many lives?

While it might be understandable that one holds back on deploring the dead out of courtesy, why is it acceptable to rain praise on those who have caused so much pain? What then lies behind the polite etiquette of speaking no ill towards the fallen, especially if they were public figures who perpetuated hate and violence during their time?

One of the arguments against speaking ill of the dead is that they are no longer in a position to defend themselves. Another is that it allows the family to bury or cremate their loved ones without further agony.

But I wonder if this forces us into becoming sycophantic collaborators with power and the wealthy? I also wonder if the tradition or approach to be “decent” does not gift family members, advisers or fellow conspirators an opportunity to have first dibs on framing a memory? 

For instance, when former Israeli president Shimon Peres died, former US president Barack Obama compared him to Nelson Mandela. And yet, the truth is that Peres offered apartheid South Africa nuclear warheads. How many will look beyond the words of Obama?

Let’s take it a step further.

Take US president Donald Trump, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Who among the three will be held to account for their decisions that have hurt millions of people economically, emotionally and physically?

Take the writing of influential Pulitzer Prize winning writer Thomas Friedman, who touts lies about the “progressive” Saudi Arabia government.

How many of the fraudsters working for empire will ever lose their jobs for spreading lies? Take former UK prime minister Tony Blair for the illegal war in Iraq or former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon for the lack of action against peacekeepers who raped children in the Central African Republic on his watch. Neither party will ever bear the burden of their failures.

If the powerful are protected by their PR machines, their laws, their advisers, their societies and their media – and they are immune to being held to account while alive – then the least we ought to be able to do is tell the truth about their legacy when they are dead.

Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)