Update 09/14/22: I’d hope it wouldn’t need to be said, but “showing grace after someone’s death” doesn’t include “screwing over people needing essential services in a display of extended performative wealth-hoarding.” This post is seeming increasingly tone-deaf the more I hear about how England is handling the mourning rituals, but I was exclusively talking about people debasing themselves on Twitter either for yuks or narcissistic self-righteous indignation. Also: nothing in this post applies to the recent death of Ken Starr. Make fun of him all you want, because that guy was a really irredeemable bag of shit.
When I wrote about Michael Schur’s book How to Be Perfect, I mentioned how I was disappointed that he’d chosen to praise two of my least favorite essays ever published on the internet. One of those was John Scalzi’s probably-well-intentioned but disingenuously tone deaf analogy for the concept of “privilege” as playing a video game on the easiest difficulty. The other was an absolute piece of garbage from Gawker titled “On Smarm.”
I’m not a good enough writer to describe the visceral reaction I had to reading that essay; it was as if the concentrated nugget of evil from Time Bandits had been converted to HTML and was actually being praised online by seemingly dozens of people who should’ve known better. If I remember correctly, my eyes widened and I impotently screamed and pointed at the obscenity, like Carrie White’s mom, then ran away and took a shower, knowing that I’d never be able to wash myself clean of the stain of it.
Ostensibly, the essay was about the tendency of politicians, pundits, corporate media, and “authority figures” in general to stifle criticism or opposition via insincere, overwrought tone-policing. We saw a perfect example of this recently, when Beto O’Rourke called out some trash in the audience who was laughing after O’Rourke was talking about the Uvalde children who’d been murdered in their school. Plenty of people — including NPR, in their desperate attempt to both-sides everything — instantly began deflecting from the epidemic of gun violence in the US, instead running to their fainting couches and worrying whether it were appropriate for a prominent gubernatorial candidate to be using the f-bomb.
On the surface, that sounds fine, even if it’s too shallow to qualify as significant social commentary. That kind of smarminess is abundantly obvious, and it doesn’t actually fool anyone who isn’t already eager to be fooled. Call out that nonsense if you want, but it’s not a genuine threat because nobody of substance is actually buying it.
The problem is that that trivially-true observation was used as the vehicle for defending the awful mission statement of Gawker, the candy coating wrapped around the poison pill that had passed undigested through Nick Denton’s intestinal tract. The morally bankrupt notion of shittiness as a public service. The disingenuous idea that being gossipy, crass, petty, bitter, hypocritical, and narcissistic is okay as long as you can make the case that you’re “punching up.”
If you had the misfortune of being on Twitter last Friday and the following weekend, seeing the reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, you’d quickly see that that although original Gawker is dead, that mindset is still alive and in full force.
In both varieties, too. There was the predictable wave of smarmy and insincere In Memoriams, from politicians eager to distract attention away from whatever they’re doing wrong at the moment, and from corporations too eager to show how reverential they are. Even here in the US, they were excessive, so I can only imagine what a barrage of insincerity it was for people in the UK and other places that still have the Queen on their money. And in addition to being predictable, they were pretty transparent.
What stood out a lot more to me, though, were the people practically stumbling over themselves to be shitty about the death of a much-beloved woman. A lot of it was dumb and obvious but probably harmless; I’ve fallen hard off the wagon and have almost returned to my 2009-era levels of posting nonsense on Twitter, but even I’m knew enough not to make hacky jokes about chess, bees, or Freddie Mercury. But I was more struck by how many people were doing the virtual equivalent of dancing on her grave.
And then, the part that reminded me of Gawker and “On Smarm”: throwing a days-long shit fit when they got called out on it. They will not be tone-policed by royalists! “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is not just wrong, it is anti-journalism! Repeated comments on how this was a joyous occasion for Irish or Scottish people. And of course, all the variations on how people of European descent have no right to be telling “folks” from places that had been colonized by Europeans how they should be reacting to the death of their oppressor.
Now, I’m an extremely white guy from the United States, but I’m pretty confident in saying that one thing that unites us across cultures and nations is that talking trash about someone who just died is petty and shitty. Different people have their own ideas of when it’s justified, but that doesn’t make it any less petty or shitty.
I can think of at least 5 Americans alive today for whom news of their death will fill me with glee, because death is the only way they’ll ever face any consequences for all the terrible stuff they’ve done. I fully admit that I did feel satisfaction and vindication hearing of Rush Limbaugh’s death, for instance, and also Ronald Reagan’s, and being reminded that there were probably, somehow, people who loved them in life and were sad at their passing didn’t affect that feeling of petty satisfaction at all. That doesn’t make it any less petty, though; it’s just a level of personal shittiness on my part that I’m willing to accept and won’t try to defend by claiming it’s justified or at all righteous.
As adults, we can acknowledge that two things can be true at the same time: 1) The Queen served as a kindly, grandmotherly face on centuries of atrocities done in the name of the British Empire; and 2) That kindly, familiar face of stability was hugely important to millions of people. Of course it’s true that the image of a nice old woman who loved her dogs and had a pretty good sense of humor, is inseparable from the history of stolen wealth, colonialism, and scandals, both decades old and recent. Both as a figurehead, and as someone who was complicit to one degree or another. But if they’re inseparable, that means that you have to accept both.
There was a video going around on Friday, in which a member of the royal guard was telling a pretty charming story about the Queen’s sense of humor: An American tourist encountered them in passing, but didn’t recognize the Queen. When the guard said that he’d met the Queen before, the tourist got excited and asked Elizabeth to take a picture of the two of them together. It’s cute, but it’s also an example of how even a story intended to humanize her is entirely based on her being the Queen of England. The role was universally recognized even if the person wasn’t, and the vast majority of people in the world will never know the difference, or even if a tangible difference exists. (How much of a unique person is left when you’re born into a role and spend your entire life publicly serving it? Do I need to watch The Crown to know the answers?)
Anyway, for anyone trying to turn this into a teachable moment about the history of colonialism, imperialism, stolen crown jewels, or any of the other evils from a century’s worth of world history: your meme of the Queen meeting Margaret Thatcher in Hell ain’t it. Neither is your video of Irish dancing in front of Buckingham Palace. But then, they’re not truly intended to be teachable moments; they’re narcissistic displays that people try to dress up as being more righteous when they get called out for being vulgar or lacking grace.
That’s the part that reminded me so vividly of “On Smarm” and Gawker in general: the lengths to which people will defend their right to be shitty and awful. Mocking the death of an elderly, much-beloved woman is not just my right, but my duty! The thing I found most repulsive about the whole mentality of “On Smarm” was that it was so deeply cynical to the point of nihilism; it didn’t just reject insincere displays of false compassion or sympathy, it refused to even entertain the idea that public compassion or sympathy — or just plain good taste and grace — could ever be genuine. All of Gawker Media was rooted in the assertion that every one of you is as awful as we are, you’re just not brave enough to admit it! It’s an ethos that somehow manages to be more repulsive than Randian Objectivism, because it so frequently sucks in people whose opinions I actually care about.
And that’s not even getting to the rancid, rainbow-colored oil slick of hypocrisy floating on the top of it: it’s its own kind of smarminess, evident in the sheer outrage at being tone-policed by white Europeans who can’t understand the history of oppression that’s embedded in shitty, opportunistic mockery of somebody who just died. It’s still disingenuous self-righteousness, but at least the people who are publicly performing their Reverence For Her Majesty as a distraction are aware at some level that they’re being disingenuous.
Personally, I’m anti-imperialist (both in British and American flavors), and I think the monarchy should be abolished. Those aren’t in any way bold or controversial claims; I think they’re just table stakes for being a decent person in the 21st century. Which is what the whole question of “grace” ultimately comes down to: being a decent person. You don’t have to respect the United Kingdom, or the monarchy, to still be able to respect the people who are affected by it and who lived their entire lives surrounded by it. A lot of people, including myself, could be better educated about the details of history of imperialism and colonialism, not from the point of view of the colonists, but of the people affected. But there’s a time for that, and it isn’t when someone is really sad because it feels like their grandma just died. Even if they’re sad because they’re focusing on the positive aspects of a public persona, and choosing not to focus on the bad while they’re in mourning. If you’re the type of person to stand outside of a funeral and shout “Your grandma is in Hell because of the British Raj!” there’s a word for you, and it’s not “activist” or “educator.”