Published on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 by The Nation
Never have I witnessed a gap between the mainstream media and the public, quite like the last 24 hours since the death of Margaret Thatcher. While both the press and President Obama were uttering tearful remembrances, thousands took to the streets of the UK and beyond to celebrate. Immediately this drew strong condemnation of what were called “death parties”, described as “tasteless”, “horrible”, and “beneath all human decency.” Yet if the same media praising Thatcher and appalled by the popular response would bother to ask one of the people celebrating, they might get a story that doesn’t fit into their narrative, which is probably why they aren’t asking at all.
I received a note this morning from the friend of a friend. She lives in the UK, although her family didn’t arrive there by choice. They had to flee Chile, like thousands of others, when it was under the thumb of General Augusto Pinochet. If you don’t know the details about Pinochet’s blood-soaked two-decade reign, you should read about them but take care not to eat beforehand. He was a merciless overseer of torture, rapes, and thousands of political executions. He had the hands and wrists of the country’s greatest folk singer Victor Jara broken in front of a crowd of prisoners before killing him. He had democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende shot dead at his desk. His specialty was torturing people in front of their families.
As Naomi Klein has written so expertly, he then used this period of shock and slaughter to install a nationwide laboratory for neoliberal economics. If Pinochet’s friend Milton Friedman had a theory about cutting food subsidies, privatizing social security, slashing wages, or outlawing unions, Pinochet would apply it. The results of these experiments became political ammunition for neoliberal economists throughout the world. Seeing Chile-applied economic theory in textbooks always boggles my mind. It would be like if the American Medical Association published a textbook on the results of Dr. Josef Mengele’s work in the concentration camps, without any moral judgment about how he accrued his patients.
Pinochet was the General in charge of this human rights catastrophe. He also was someone who Margaret Thatcher called a friend. She stood by the General even when he was exile, attempting to escape justice for his crimes. As she said to Pinochet, “[Thank you] for bringing democracy to Chile.”
Therefore, if I want to know why someone would celebrate the death of Baroness Thatcher, I think asking a Chilean in exile would be a great place to start. My friend of a friend took to the streets of the UK when she heard that the Iron Lady had left her mortal coil. Here is why:
“I’m telling [my daughter] all about the Thatcher legacy through her mother’s experience, not the media’s; especially how the Thatcher government directly supported Pinochet’s murderous regime, financially, via military support, even military training (which we know now, took place in Dundee University). Thousands of my people (and members of my family) were tortured and murdered under Pinochet’s regime- the fascist beast who was one of Thatcher’s closest allies and friend. So all you apologists/those offended [by my celebration] -you can take your moral high ground & shove it. YOU are the ones who don’t understand. Those of us celebrating are the ones who suffered deeply under her dictatorship and WE are the ones who cared. We are the ones who protested. We are the humanitarians who bothered to lift a finger to help all those who suffered under her regime. I am lifting a glass of champagne to mourn, to remember and to honour all the victims of her brutal regime, here AND abroad. And to all those heroes who gave a shit enough to try to do something about it.”
I should add here that I lived in Chile in 1995, when Pinochet had been deposed but was still in charge of the armed forces. I became friends with those who were tortured or had their families disappeared so Thatcher’s connection to Chile strikes a personal note with me. I also understand however, that similar explanations for “why people are celebrating” could be made by those with connections to Argentina, apartheid South Africa, Indonesia, Belfast, Gaza, or Baghdad. The case could also be made by those in the UK affected by Thatcher’s Pinochet-tested economic dictates who choose not to mourn.
It also matters because the 48 hours after a powerful public figure dies is when the halo becomes permanently affixed to their head. When Ronald Reagan passed away, a massive right wing machine went into motion aimed at removing him from all criticism. The Democrats certainly didn’t challenge this interpretation of history and now according to polls, people under 25 would elect Reagan over President Obama, even though Reagan’s ideas remain deeply unpopular. To put it crudely, the political battle over someone’s memory is a political battle over policy. In Thatcher’s case, if we gloss over her history of supporting tyrants, we are doomed to repeat them.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote so expertly in the Guardian, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with loathing Margaret Thatcher or any other person with political influence and power based upon perceived bad acts, and that doesn’t change simply because they die. If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history.”
Or to put it even more simply, in the words, of David Wearing, “People praising Thatcher’s legacy should show some respect for her victims.” That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Let’s please show some respect for Margaret Thatcher’s victims. Let’s respect those who mourn everyday because of her policies, but choose this one day to wipe away the tears.Then let’s organize to make sure that the history she authored does not repeat.