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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Monolithic Memory

This weekend the news broke that justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Immediately there were tributes to him and his legacy. I've written about the sentiment that we should not speak ill of the dead before (with the passing of Margaret Thatcher). In the time since, I've paid more attention to the media circles following the death of a public figure. I've noted that there seems to be a tendency to memorialise a celebrated person as either terrible or wonderful with a rather limited capacity to portray the complex nature of their legacy.

I had previously argued that media are wont to not speak ill of the venerable dead, despite their "divisive" status before death. Given the recent death of Scalia, it's interesting that these two figures -who are such clear representations of partisanship - receive such a uniform treatment posthumously.

Yesterday was Presidents' Day and there were enough memorials of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Woodrow Wilson to give me pause. Why is it that individuals who have such patchwork legacies, or at the very extreme have committed heinous acts, can be remembered so positively when they pass away?

With respect to Scalia, he made three impacts that lacked ethics. Despite the fact that he was clearly a brilliant man, he was also instrumental in adversely affecting the lives of millions of Americans. Unlike a private citizen whose opinion is not going to widely impact those around him, Scalia's value system had direct affects on society at large.

Firstly, under his watch the Supreme Court made significant changes to the Voting Rights Act which have allowed for voter suppression. As far as the integrity of a democratic society goes, this is a significant problem. Jon Oliver has an excellent piece on this if you're interested in learning more about the finer points. Consider as well that he was behind the implementation of Citizens United, an initiative the removes transparency from political donations.

Secondly, it was clear that Scalia had a terrible record on civil rights. He was very much opposed to affirmative action, basing his argument on the notion that the constitution should provide for equal treatment. He believed strongly in society's interference in women's reproductive choices. He was very critical of last year's landmark Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

Thirdly, Scalia helped create personhood laws which provide massive economic and legal protection for corporations in the United States. With the idea that there are so many similarities between a person and a business, Scalia argued that corporations are "indistinguishable from the individual who owns them". Corporations need to have certain rights, but the balance of protections awarded to large multinationals at present is very much thanks to Scalia. In the 1980s he played a role in legal precedents that paved the way to corporate personhood.

If I may, I'd like to mention that failing to air the negative elements of public figure's legacy when they pass away is not insensitive. It is disingenuous. This reminds me of when, after the shooting at Sandy Hook, there was a push to refrain from talking about gun control because it was seen as an inappropriate time to have the discussion. It couldn't be a better time. If we don't talk frankly about Scalia now, when will we?

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