Monday, April 22, 2013

Defending Margaret Thatcher

April 22, 2013

Perhaps the corollary to the old truism that “well-behaved women rarely make history” is that women who make history rarely go without being accused of not behaving well enough. One could hardly say she was “ill-behaved,” but former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher certainly has enemies that will say so, as the weeks after her death have tastelessly shown.

Within hours of her passing on April 8, detractors of the conservative Thatcher began playing “Ding dong the witch is dead,” as sung by Julie Garland from the Wizard of Oz, all across Britain. By April 11, the song reached number one on the iTunes download chart and it seemed to be on the climb towards hitting number one on the singles chart.

It was at this point that the British Broadcasting network BBC was faced with a dilemma. The increasing popularity of the song as well as incessant requests from listeners demanded that the insulting song be played over the airwaves. Conversely, conservative listeners pressed for the song to be banned to honor their former leader. It’s only proper, after all.

What to do?

Why not start by referencing the principles of one of the greatest British leaders of the last century—Margaret Thatcher. After all, not every public servant gets an entire style of politics named after them. What was “Thatcherism” all about? According to her Chancellor of the Exchequer (not unlike an economic cabinet advisor to the American president) Nigel Lawson, described it as a focus on “free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cutsnationalism, 'Victorian values,' privatisation and a dash of populism.”

“Victorian values” is a broad term, and could be interpreted in a variety of ways, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to take some of the great British philosophical contributions from beneath its canopy. With consideration for the works of two of the greatest and most value-oriented English writers in the nation’s history—John Milton and John Stuart Mill—the task of banning music critical of Thatcher, however crude, becomes self-defeating. It would be a betrayal of the enlightenment values of free expression, to which England has had such a proud history of contributing and upholding. Add a dash of populism to the equation and it becomes an overt insult to Thatcher’s convictions, the very ones the ban-supporters are, ostensibly, trying to defend.

Ultimately, and thankfully, BBC chose not to ban the song. We can’t speak for the dead, but if Margaret Thatcher would support the allowance of this kind of immature criticism, she wouldn’t be alone. At the United Nations conference last year, President Barack Obama addressed a similar problem with the “Innocence of Muslims” film. “It was a crude and disgusting video,” he said, but banning the video was not the right solution. “As president of our country and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will always defend their right to do so…The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression. It is more speech; the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

Of course, it is not always easy to hear such vicious criticism of someone you admire, but the best way to support your heroes is to stand for their values, and the right to criticize is certainly one that Thatcher used and stood for. If some people still worry that the "Iron Lady" will be turning over in her grave at the disrespectful aftermath of her death, Thatcher will always have her immortal response: "You turn if you want to. That lady's not for turning."

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