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About mourning or insulting the dead

MEMORIES / When we draw unfinished memorial pictures that suit us, we offend the dead.


Church leader Desmond Tutu and former prime minister Dear Willoch has run out of time, but hailed with beautiful words of remembrance in recent weeks. Influential commentators reverence and bow reverently. They were leaders we will miss.

But it strikes me how Tutu and Willoch undergo the same treatment as other of my heroes, like Dag Hammarskjold, nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain and MK Gandhi – words of memory that render them harmless, and bind them to the past. They stood for dialogue, understanding and forgiveness. Yes, that's right, but both Tutu and Willoch stood for things I missed in the memorial speeches given in church services, or for example in Aftenposten and the Guardian: – like their provocative speech into our days, their demands for justice, change, compensation and settlement in our time.

Do I hear somewhere in the memorial speeches that Tutu mourned an unfinished Truth Commission (TRC), which had failed the blacks and let the abusers off too easily. Or that the ANC party had become thoroughly corrupt, and that apartheid was uglier in Palestine than in Soweto?

Memories press and tell us that Willoch applauded the last? Willoch was "involved in Middle East politics", it was said. I hear Willoch hammering ungentlemanly under the coffin lid, he who burned for the cause of the Palestinians – which they reciprocated by giving him their highest award for his solidarity commitment. Then he was also scolded for showing "racism and hatred towards Jews".

What the media did not mention

Or did the media remind us that Mandela's first trips after his liberation were to Gaddafi, Castro and Arafat? Because they had shown solidarity in practice, "when we needed it".

Is it emphasized that Gandhi's greatest victory was pragmatic policy to drive imperialist England out of India? Or that Churchill ridiculed and hated him for it?

That Luther King was killed on the anniversary of his condemnation of America's war in Vietnam? The Peace Prize laureate said he could not reprimand black gang criminals in America's slums while their government waged the most violent wars in history.

Dag Hammarskjöld inspects a Swedish UN company in the Congo in 1960. The Swedish diplomat was UN Secretary General 1953-1961. tan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961.

Or that Hammarskjöld believed that the rich countries in the aid elite DAC committee (which was on the drawing board in 1961) would make Africa a "happy hunting ground" for the West? He furiously reminded us that these "kind countries" were the same ones that had stolen Africa in the Berlin conference in 1885. It was the UN itself that was supposed to drive international solidarity through aid – he believed – and not the rich OECD countries. Today the world aid government DAC committee consists only of rich countries, not one Muslim country, not one recipient country. Did we hear the party speeches' "ownership"?

And Mark Twain, then, who is always remembered as a word artist and funny man (Tutu is also often drawn as a clown). Twain, who in his day was feared for his public meetings with ironic, murderous attacks on American and British imperialism. He rewrote the text of the famous Battle Hymn where we find the line "As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich – Our god is marching on."

The media

The examples above are not random examples. They were core issues they were fighting for. Until the very end.

When we draw unfinished memorial pictures that suit us, we offend the dead. An offense for which the media has extra responsibility, because it is they who attach the words and images to the story. A violation that renders harmless those who are apparently being honored – and which is possible because we do not hear the knocking from inside the graves.

Today, I am particularly thinking of Willoch, who spoke his party, NATO and the AP, yes, the entire Storting, in opposition to the very end: He warned against the dangerous warmongering around Russia, Ukraine and Crimea.

Should the legacy of Willoch also be buried?

John Y. Jones
John Y. Jones
Cand. Philol, freelance journalist affiliated with MODERN TIMES

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