The Truth About the Dead

The Truth About the Dead

The Truth About the Dead

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 31 2009 11:28 AM

The Truth About the Dead

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Mark Steyn is upset at the insufficient attention being paid to the unseemly part of Ted Kennedy’s character. There is something to this, and it’s perhaps more obvious to those of us inclined to see Kennedy as a privileged member of a political dynasty who worked very hard to keep power consolidated in the hands of the political class. But at the same time, I wonder what use there is in moralizing about public mourning.

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The public Ted Kennedy is, as Matt Welch says , a political abstraction. He hails from the most famously mythologized family in American culture. People of a certain generation feel connected to this story, the mythos of the self-sacrificing "public servant," the drama of a dynastic curse. We’re all trained to puncture mythologies, as well we should. On the other hand, mythologies give people permission to share a symbol and a sadness. Maybe there's something valuable in the spectacle of a bunch of strangers sharing a loss, even an idealized loss, with one another. In her wonderful book T he Happiness Myth , Jennifer Michael Hecht argues that celebrity funerals ought to be more outlandish, more emotionally climactic, and thus more cathartic for the rest of us. The scolds who would criticize us for picking unfit subjects of mourning-princesses instead of saints-are missing the point. Public expressions of grief are a human constant. They're not rational, but they're meaningful. Save the logical assessments for the thick biographies to come.

I suppose I’ve swerved rather dramatically from Mark Steyn’s stern moral calculus. But then, I’m not sure Steyn will want to apply that same calculus when a Republican dies. Ted Kennedy's one pointless killing was horrific in its intimacy. The pointless deaths for which, say, George W. Bush is partially responsible are horrific in their magnitude. Somehow I do not anticipate a 2030 National Review column bemoaning the lionization of Bush upon his demise.

Photograph of Sen. Ted Kennedy's funeral by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.