When Hector faces Achilles, he knows he is about to die. He gives a little speech and prays that he will not die ingloriously, with his great deeds living on after him. Achilles wins the fight, aided by supernatural forces. As the life is rushing out of him, Hector makes a request of Achilles:
Then Hector said, as the life ebbed out of him, “I pray you by your life and knees, and by your parents, let not dogs devour me at the ships of the Achaeans, but accept the rich treasure of gold and bronze which my father and mother will offer you, and send my body home, that the Trojans and their wives may give me my dues of fire when I am dead.”
Achilles glared at him and answered, “Dog, talk not to me neither of knees nor parents; would that I could be as sure of being able to cut your flesh into pieces and eat it raw, for the ill have done me, as I am that nothing shall save you from the dogs- it shall not be, though they bring ten or twenty-fold ransom and weigh it out for me on the spot, with promise of yet more hereafter. Though Priam son of Dardanus should bid them offer me your weight in gold, even so your mother shall never lay you out and make lament over the son she bore, but dogs and vultures shall eat you utterly up.”
Hector with his dying breath then said, “I know you what you are, and was sure that I should not move you, for your heart is hard as iron; look to it that I bring not heaven’s anger upon you on the day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo, valiant though you be, shall slay you at the Scaean gates.”
Achilles doesn’t honour Hector’s request. Instead, he drags Hector’s body around tied to his chariot and does doughnuts on the plains outside try. The whole event plays to the idea that Achilles is the mythical monster of this human drama. There are no Nemean lions, or minotaurs, or fearsome dragons… just Achilles who is both superior and inferior to the other humans on the battle field.
The question of how we treat the dead recurs throughout literature: what do we owe the dead? When a person’s contribution to the world has been overwhelmingly negative, should we celebrate the few times he did something that wasn’t negative? How should we mourn Bill Leak?
I have written a few posts about mourning celebrities and politicians. With regard to David Bowie, I wrote:
We don’t mourn the actual person – whose reality is entirely unknowable to us – but we mourn the loss of something within our world. I mourn the loss of a person who made things that I enjoy. I regret that I will not have the opportunity to be an audience to more of his work. I am genuinely upset that what there is is all that there will be.
And although I didn’t feel the need to mourn the loss of Thatcher, I wrote:
But what I do feel is that her passing gives us an opportunity to reflect upon who she was, what she did, and what we need to learn from the period in which she was influential. Perhaps more than just an opportunity. Perhaps it’s an excuse. As a society, we feel the need to find excuses to think. I worked as an adviser to an influential special interest group and developed a quick appreciation for the need to capitalise opportunistically when spaces happened to open up in the agora for new ideas. It seems we can’t cold call the public with new ideas; we need to wait until they’re in a frame of mind to listen. The death of a public figure puts people in that frame of mind to consider ideas. The death of Thatcher puts people in the frame of mind to ask questions about conservative politics, women in politics, and the near total colonisation of the political sphere by the economic sphere.
Bill Leak was neither a Bowie nor a Thatcher. He was a man who fell off a balcony and lost the ability restrain his sadistic impulses to upset people who had less power than he did. He dedicated his life to being a cancer in public discourse, producing material that was objectively offensive and had no place in the pages of the national broadsheet.
Few things have demonstrated the disquieting gap between the mainstream public and the media ‘elites’ (a weird word to use for people who are so thoroughly mediocre) quite as well as the death of Bill Leak. Where the public had great delight in jokes at his expense, the mostly Anglo journo corps tut-tutted the public for its lack of decency. The message was clear: you don’t get to shamelessly rip on people who can’t fight back unless you have your own column in the mainstream media. That’s what freedom of speech means, after all.
It is virtue-signalling, pure and simple. Even though Bill Leak was a blight to the community, the media has to say nice things about him because he was one of their own. ‘You might not agree with what he had to say, but he was Your Better.’
This form of rhetoric is a kind of civility politics. You force people to put aside their legitimate grievances and expressions of outrage in order to maintain a status quo that privileges the people insisting on civility. In this case, the media. The eulogies for Bill Leak reveal an anxiety: ‘I might be a provocateur of public discussion to pay the bills, but people will still say nice things about me when I die… won’t they?’
The eulogies for Leak are double-edged. When you celebrate his very minor achievements and remain silent about the damage that he caused, you are stating to the minorities that he attacked that their needs and rights are lesser than.
But let’s return to Hector. We all need people with whom we disagree. If we are to have progress in society, we need conservative and radicals to engage with each other to open up the field of public debate. I know people with whom I disagree passionately and fundamentally, but I still recognise the excellence of their thoughts and arguments. When they die, I will mourn them. Hector and Achilles were both excellent and recognised that excellence in the other. When Achilles disgraced Hector’s corpse, he said to the wider world: ‘There is no depths to my depravity. I will not honour the excellent.’
But Bill Leak is not Hector. He did not contribute anything worthwhile to the public and so nobody should be surprised when the public does not honour him in death.