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An Asymmetry Observed: Partisan Obituaries
Let's talk about Donald Rumsfeld, sort of.
As longtime readers know, I generally cleave to the theory that the two American parties are symmetrical: in general, for every bad thing Party A does, Party B is doing exactly the same thing to exactly the same extent. Most people who think The Other Party is implacably evil (while Their Own Party is implacably incompetent) have, to be frank, lost perspective. For every scoundrel on the Right, there is an equal but opposite scoundrel on the Left, and vice versa. Once you've proved this a few dozen times, you can tune out 80% of partisan news.
However, this theory of partisan symmetry makes it all the more interesting when you come across a genuine asymmetry. And you do come across them from time to time! Right-wing and left-wing news-media consumption habits, for example, are profoundly asymmetrical. Why is there an asymmetry there when so much else is symmetrical?
Tease out those answers and you can tease out the Real Truths of American politics. For example, there's a Scott Alexander article I often link to because I think its explanation of the media asymmetry is both compelling and reveals a great deal about how our politics operates.
I confirmed another interesting asymmetry this week, and now I'm puzzling over it: Why is the Left so much crueller toward the opposition's dead?
Here is how mainstream partisan left-wing sources (listed in the Media Bias Chart v3.1) covered Donald Rumsfeld's death:
THE NATION: "War Criminal Found Dead at 88"
JACOBIN: "Donald Rumsfeld, Rot In Hell"
DEMOCRACYNOW: "He was a Disaster"
SLATE: "Donald Rumsfeld, who served as the youngest, the oldest, and very possibly the worst secretary of defense in American history, died on Wednesday at the age of 88... It may be that, for all his experiences, talents, and maneuverings, Donald Rumsfeld was, at bottom, a shallow man."
We see this general vibe whenever a prominent right-winger dies. Even if said right-winger has been out of the national eye for years, even if the right-winger's final years were marked by great personal suffering and/or virtue, the Left writes plain and simple damnations of the man (or woman) based on their interpretation of the figure's public record. We saw it with Maggie Thatcher. We saw it with Rush Limbaugh. (I refuse to link to the Limbaugh ones. You remember.) We will see it again when George W. Bush dies.
Meanwhile, let's consider how the parallel camp on the Right covers deaths.
Take Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Upon her death, I wrote simply, on this wall, that I pray for her on her passing and that I thank her for the good she did as a litigator in the 1970s.
I left out the fact that, in terms of public policy, she was one of the worst human beings to come out of the 20th Century and that she deserves to be damned by history as thoroughly as Roger Taney. She openly confessed her disdain for the Constitution she'd sworn to uphold, and showed it by her constant evasions and elisions of constitutional text, throughout her judicial career. As a direct result of her perfidy, not only was American law almost irretrievably screwed up, but millions of people died--a death toll Don Rumsfeld could only dream of. If any American in my lifetime has ever deserved the hatred of fellow Americans, it is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But I don't believe in hatred, especially of the dead, so I didn't write that. Instead, I wrote about the good in her life and prayed that she would rest in peace and meant it.
The Right, in general, agrees with my assessment of Ginsburg. (You may not, but, then, I probably don't agree with your assessment of Rumsfeld.) But did they say so while her family was still mourning?
Again, we'll use the Media Bias Chart to make sure we're looking at comparable sources:
Here is how mainstream partisan right-wing sources covered Ginsburg's death:
NATIONAL REVIEW: multiple stories, including a brief, respectful obituary; a recounting of her friendship with Scalia; a piece titled "May Her Memory Be A Blessing"; a piece about the horror of the pancreatic cancer she suffered through; an editorial about replacing her that opened, "While we did not agree with many of [her] views about the Constitution or the judicial function, we never doubted her industry, dedication, gumption, civility, or patriotism. We send our condolences..."; and a critical but respectful retrospective by Kevin D. Williamson (much like the Damon Linker piece on Rumsfeld linked above).
THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE: a respectful obituary and an article entitled, "When Ruth Bader Ginsburg Got The Fourth Amendment Right": "The late justice was often in error. Yet one of her opinions involving warrants and civil liberties is worth celebrating."
REASON: a respectful obituary by Ilya Somin ("It is easy to praise judicial opinions we agree with. In Ginsburg's case, it is worth noting that I often found much of value in her writings even when I thought she was wrong."), a roundup of tributes, some praise for her time as a professor, and a brief article about the Scalia-Ginsburg friendship.
THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER: "Tributes pour in for Supreme Court Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87"
Of course, down in the fever swamps, a bit further down the Media Bias Chart's right-side slide, everyone is garbage and reporting is entirely driven by rage-clicks. Surely the folks at Breitbart and Newsmax were informing their largely Christian audiences that RBG was now burning eternally in the fires of Hell?
NEWSMAX: [out of every right-wing news source I looked at, Newsmax gave the worst insult to Justice Ginsburg of all. Unable to say anything nice about her, they wrote no obituary for Ginsburg. Instead, they simply ran the AP's very warm obituary instead, then got on with the political reporting about her replacement. Imagine if The Nation had thought, "Hey, maybe if we can't say anything kind, we shouldn't say anything at all!"]
I'm sure somebody out there wrote the article, "America's Worst Jurist Dies at 87," and someone else wrote, "Defender of Infanticide Dead," but I didn't find those articles in a range of mainstream and fever-swamp conservative publications. By contrast, I couldn't walk around Twitter after Rumsfeld died without bumping into those articles, published at both fever-swamp and mainstream sources.
This is normal, too. It's not like the Right is just especially fond of Ginsburg. The Right treated Walter Mondale with, if anything, even greater respect. The meanest I remember Republicans being was 12 years ago, when Ted Kennedy died... and even that was quite muted by the standards of the anti-Rumsfeld-Limbaugh-Thatcher street parties. (Here's National Review's coverage, if you want to dig into it.)
This is a weird asymmetry. I'm going to have to live with it. I refuse to stoop to the Left's level on this, and, based on experience, progressives who engage in these synodi horrenda get real upset with you if you suggest that they should be decent human beings and not speak ill of the dead.
Nevertheless, this seems to be a genuine asymmetry, as real as the general worseness of right-wing media, and I'm very interested in identifying a reason for it.
(Or am I imagining the whole thing because of my partisan lens? Let me know in the comments!)