In one of the more macabre Christmas seasons in recent memory, three high profile deaths crowd the headlines. The man who, in 1968, proclaimed in song, "I'm black and I'm proud!", James Brown, died unexpectedly in the middle of a world tour. He's being eulogized today in an Augusta, GA hockey arena. If the hardest working man in show business had waited just one more day, he'd have read about the death of President Ford whose unfortunate legacy appears to hinge on pardoning his corrupt and impeached predecessor.
But the topper that pushes these two bumpkins to the back pages is of course Saddam Hussein. Read the Western press and you'll find it peppered with eurocentric depictions of a brutal man whose socialization bred "tribal loyalty" and led to "Corleone-like" family feuds (if his family is mentioned at all), who was dumbfounded to learn that Americans can legally insult their president, who built a Baghdad mosque that houses a Koran written in his blood, and who boldly criticized and belittled the American military. Its easy to avoid any misplaced compassion one might feel.
Although it may change, the reaction from the American public is at the moment not newsworthy. I suspect that when all is said and done most Americans, despite years of world class reportage (ahem), don't know much about Saddam Hussein, his country, or its culture. They just want their sons and daughters in the military to come home safely. The memory of the hanging will pass from their minds as easily as has James Brown and President Ford.
Sociological research on memory has shown that the ways we remember famous figures are shaped in part by periodic commemorations and the sometimes competing representations of them that different groups promote. James Brown will be remembered by some as a commercially successful performer and by others as an embodiment of Black Pride. Gerald Ford will inherit the prestige attendant with the presidency even as some highlight his unremarkable administration and pardoning of a crook. Saddam Hussein's memory, on the other hand, will find unity in death, at least in this country. He will be incessantly evoked in the coming years by politicians and pundits as the very Incarnation of Evil and no one will disagree.
I can't help but wonder, ten or twenty years down the road, how will George W. Bush be remembered? Standing strident amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center? Decked out in flight gear atop an aircraft carrier emblazoned with "Mission Accomplished"? Or counterpoised against images of a condemned and hanged Incarnation of Evil?
* With acknowledgments to Leonardo da Vinci.