Monday 20 November 2017

I am ambivalent about his death

Yesterday I received notice, sensitively given, that someone I had once worked for had died.

He was a beloved public figure and was well liked by many in the community I moved among back then.

He was also an abusive, dishonest, and exploitative employer. During my time working for him I was not only treated unethically (and in fact illegally) but was repeatedly asked to be party to unethical practices. He happily admitted to having lied to large numbers of people in a professional capacity but didn't see why this was wrong. Before I started working for him, I was as dazzled by his charisma and charm as many other people were. After barely a week in his employ, I realised I was in the presence of a huckster, a con man. Others saw a leader with vision; I saw a common bully.

This is all incredibly vague. Of course it is. I do not want to name him. He died, as far as I know, with his reputation intact. We do not mourn for a person, we mourn for our idea of them, and our relationship with them. To talk about their flaws and crimes (he was not a criminal: few of his abuses were actionable, and besides, a criminal is mainly someone who has been caught) is to miss the point.

More than that, it's an act subject to no small social censure. It makes you look small, bitter. It makes you the villain. Worst of all, it's tasteless. It's a thing you just don't do. 

But as a friend said to me yesterday, death doesn't improve people, and so an outpouring of grief among people I know for a man whose presence in my life was a blight that I rarely talk about, that's an awkward thing.

I wrote some time ago about how saints happen, about how the saint is never really the fallible, morally fragile human being, but an ideal clothed in the trappings of the person. And many of the characteristics that make one eligible for election to sainthood are in fact incompatible with being an actual saint: rigidity, narrowness of vision, a knack for self-promotion.

And that's why the inconvenient biographical details of saints get swept under the carpet – and this very much includes our secular saints, like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, neither of whom were by any means perfect.

A potential saint often has to leave us before a critical mass of people notice that they're not the person we imagine – if, for example, Aung San Suu Kyi had stepped down or some tragedy or act of violence had claimed her early, the world would surely not be so very disappointed in her.

My former boss left town just before the cracks had begun to show, and so his reputation here remained intact. He is fondly remembered by many. He will be much missed.

And I'll sit on my anger and I'll be silent, as the victims and survivors of these men so often are.