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February 22, 2007

"How We Die" author Nuland disses Anna Nicole Smith

Newsweek is giving the public play-by-play commentary on the decomposition of Anna Nicole Smith's body. I'm not kidding.

The thing that bothers me is that one of my favorite authors gave such an uncharacteristically catty and hypocritical quote:

What’s your view of how this case has been handled?
There should have been a very quick decision by the judge as to embalming and as to where she should have been buried. Every so often I see a bit of this so-called hearing and I am embarrassed that people should engage in this public indignity and inhumanity. I think we are seeing the worst manifestations of our culture and at the time of death, the dead deserve the best manifestations of our humanity. What we have created is a media circus with no dignity whatsoever. This woman chose to have precious little dignity in her life, but the least we could do to a fellow human being is to have sufficient compassion to provide for her some dignity in death. [Emphasis added.]

Sherwin Nuland is professor of surgery who teaches bioethics at Yale as well as a prolific author of popular works on medicine and the medical humanities. I highly recommend the book that got him the Newsweek interview, How We Die.

Nuland is one of my favorite writers, in part because his work evinces genuine compassion. I'm disappointed that he would take a swipe at any recently deceased person, especially while criticizing others' disrespect in the same breath.


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I'm not sure it's a "swipe" at Anna Nicole, but more of a statement of fact. Offhand I can't think of anything that she did in her entire adult life that in any way demonstrated dignity.

Maybe you're reacting to his apparent violation of the old cultural norm of not speaking ill of the deceased. Considering that, maybe you're right to respond to his comment in such a fashion. But I don't think that Dr. Nuland's assessment of her is inaccurate. Maybe it's just in bad taste. Very little bad taste, IMHO, given how she chose to lead her life.

And for the love of God, PLEASE let there be no one to express the opinion that she was somehow a "victim", because even if anyone actually did "use" her, she most assuredly "used" him or her too.

This will be my very last comment about Anna Nicole Smith anywhere, regardless of the specifics of the discussion. There are simply more important things to discuss. Like Iraq, or alternative fuels, or fucking bellybutton lint.

I think Nuland was being hypocritical. He's going on about how everyone else is failing Anna Nicole Smith and robbing her of dignity--but has to make it backhanded by opining that she never had any dignity anyway.

I don't have much respect for Anna Nicole Smith's career, per se, but it's an awfully harsh thing to say that a fellow human being had no dignity in life. Even Duke Cunningham has some dignity just in virtue of being being human.

Anna Nicole Smith has no dignity at all. Never did. She was an idiot, and now she's dead. Good. One less idiot in the world overpopulated by idiots. It may be harsh, Lindsay, but that doesn't mean it's not true. A lot of true things are harsh.

The real indignity here is that so many people are concerned with her death, or that this person is being asked about her when there are hundreds of thousands of more important issues he could be spending his brainpower on. How about asking him about the ethics of the medicare (medicaid?) cuts to pay for billions of dollars in tax cuts for the super-rich? How about asking him about the ethics of putting returning soldiers in hospital rooms with cockroaches? How about asking him about the medical ethics involved in potential cures for cancer going underinvestigated because the drug involved is past it's patent date?

He should of refused to be interviewed for this piece if he is concerned about a media circus...

I think John Lucid has it exactly right. To call her life undignified is to speak ill of the dead but it is a statement of fact. The question of taste involved is: "is it necessary to speak this way of her?" Because if it's not then as a matter of courtesy we should not. Nuland's comment was by way of perspective on her treatment in death, and as such I believe it had value.

We need to understand how the media and ourselves as individuals react to fame and celebrity. Smith's death exposes the negative side of our response to this... the jackals have been circling Smith for a long time but they do so because the public enjoys the awful spectacle. Her life and her death are part of this pattern and we as a society should be looking closely at what sickness makes such a circus entertaining.

Err, didn't you casually brand some anonymous woman as a stupid racist bitch based on a couple posts asking for advice in a photography newsgroup? Splitting hairs over how Nuland treats a public figure who lived willingly in the spotlight seems a bit hypocritical.

I wasn't aware you could make a "statement of fact" about someone's dignity level, John, Tom, and Martin.

I also tend to agree with John Lucid. When an emergency room physican or surgeon sees a skid row alcoholic smeared in feces who is vomiting blood it can be difficult to look past self harming behaviour that is disgusting and see the human being that deserves the best applications of one's medical skills. Surely with his deep interest in bioethics Dr Nuland must do this as well as any physican can and I believe that his comments regarding Anna Nicole Smith do indeed just represent a cold clinical analysis of her conduct balanced by his wishes for her to have dignity in death. More or less the same feelings that would help him to serve the skid row alcoholic in life. If he was hypocritical it was only a tad so with predominantly noble intentions coming from an also fallible human being who I too have great regard for.

Well you can.

For me, it's not a matter of her being "recently deceased."

If I'd seen a year ago that someone had written that Anna Nicole Smith had "precious little dignity," I'd probably wonder why the writer was putting her down.

She elicits neither admiration nor hostility from me.


Fair enough. There is no objective measure of "dignity". Having said that, I will return to my original point by saying that I cannot recall her doing one thing in her adult life that even remotely qualifies as "dignified". Lindsay also has a point, in that all human beings should be treated with a modicum of dignity simply based on their humanity, regardless of whether or not they deserve it. Therefore I believe that no one should be tortured or denied her basic human rights. However, please don't expect people to remain completely mum on the addlepated excesses of this poor excuse for a human being just because of her "dignity." She was extremely shallow and exploitative, and it also appears she was a shitty mother if we are to believe the tabloids. Based on the previous displays of her lack of character I have no problem at all believing this. That's why I don't have problem with Dr. Nuland's backhanded remark about Ms. Smith. Sure, it was probably in bad taste. (Very little bad taste.) Therefore my remarks can also be lumped into the same category. Fine; I'm no angel.

Tell me this, anyone:

When do we hold our tongues about the deceased and when don't we? Anna Nicole was no Augusto Pinochet, but still are we to accord everyone the same level of dignity in death, regardless of how they lived their lives? I'm not saying, "Rot in hell, you disgrace!", but if asked my opinion (which Lindsay was doing by posting this), should I say no more than, "Rest in peace", even when the wretched excesses of her life are being brought into question?

So much for my previous comment being the last one about Anna Nicole. Oh well, Iraq, alternative fuels, and bellybutton lint can wait another day.

Aeroman, good to see you!

I'm a huge fan of Nuland's, which is why I'm disappointed in what I see as a lapse from his extraordinarily high baseline of compassion and respect.

I've read stuff he's written in which he discusses far less sympathetic characters than Smith with a lot more warmth.

If you're not a Nuland fan, it probably seems weird to single out this relatively mild remark in the middle of the whole ANS maelstrom. But if you've read his stuff, that catty comment seems totally out of character.

The thing is, I don't really care about ANS one way or the other, except to say that it's always sad when a young mother drops dead. I do care about Nuland. I think his little dig is symptomatic of the way that celebrity dehumanizes people. If Nuland was talking about an anonymous alcoholic streetwalker who dropped dead on the sidewalk, I doubt he would have thought (let alone said on the record) that she had no dignity in life.

I truly wish I understood why this story is so big. I recall in 1994 I was taken off guard by the interest in the OJ Simpson trial, but I later convinced myself that issues of race were involved, and so, I thought, that is why there was such interest. But what is the larger issue here, with Nicole's death? Something about social class? What, exactly?

Lawrence. I have an answer for you. People have violent urges, and sexual urges. Sometimes these issues co-mingle. In our society, these urges are repressed. Watching Nancy Grace stories about white women getting kidnapped and raped is a way society channels these sexual and violent urges. The viewer can watch the story from a position of moral outrage that conceals outright fascination. When we see Anna Nicole Smith is dead, we get to look at her hot body and think about playboy, and at the same time, we can sublimate our disgust at our own violent and sexual urges into condemnation of the dead slut. It's a very elementary defense mechanism, and the root of the problem is people repressing their own sexuality and destructive urges.

Ironically, when you repress violent and sexual urges, they become scary because they aren't balanced by the positive urges that also exist in the psyche. When violence and sexuality express themselves healthily (perhaps as guilt free sex and righteous anger) they aren't dangerous. When they are repressed (like they are in our collective unconscious) they become much scarier.

Who are the morons in editorial positions in our MSM that decided the Anna Nicole Smith story was worth reporting in the first place? We have a world full of extraordinary events and amazing people, and our fucking media bombard us with the lurid details of the life and death of a no-talent bimbo?

WTF ????

As respects the death, interest is elicited by the train wreck aspect of it.

I've watched a lot less of TV news since this came down. BBC World, the 24 hours news channel is supposedly coming to the US, not a minute too soon.

Lindsay also has a point, in that all human beings should be treated with a modicum of dignity simply based on their humanity, regardless of whether or not they deserve it.

Upon rereading my comment I realize that that particular thought didn't come out very well. Everyone deserves to be treated with basic human dignity, regardless of their past crimes or infractions. However I must admit that particularly rotten individuals like terrorists or child molesters are unable to rouse much sympathy in me. All things considered I suppose ANS deserves better than a backhanded insult from anyone. She's not a genocidal maniac or a terrorist. Still, there's just something about people like her that make it hard for me to avoid saying unkind words, even in their hour of passing. Narcissistic users like her just piss me off, having been personally used by more than one such person in my lifetime. But haven't we all been used at some time?

I guess my response reveals more about me than I would have guessed initially.

When do we hold our tongues about the deceased and when don't we? Anna Nicole was no Augusto Pinochet

Yeah, well, you know, you could have stopped right there. There are a lot of people in the world a lot worse than Anna Nicole Smith. I'll reserve my grave-dancing for those that really deserve it. Like, say, Margaret Thatcher.

`his little dig is symptomatic of the way that celebrity dehumanizes people'

That's an excellent observation, Lindsay. We feel free to make judgements about people whom we don't really know (good and bad) in a way that we never would otherwise.

Perhaps there's a difference in the way people are using 'dignity' here. Some in the comments are treating it as something acquired or displayed during life - which is a perfectly decent use of the term. Lindsay seems to have something more intrinsic to being human in mind,such that even someone with no dignity in the first sense could not be deprived of it in the second sense. Kantian much, Lindsay?

"She was an idiot, and now she's dead. Good. One less idiot in the world overpopulated by idiots."-TomK

In this world, there are many people significantly more intelligent than you. Should they be wishing you dead? Should they celebrate your death when it comes?

Anna Nicole Smith. Meh. Meh, while she lived. And now that she's dead: Meh.

The metastory is no more interesting. We've been through this cycle so many times, and the only people really learning anything are those in the media. They are learning how to exploit these events to maximum effect.

I say, screw this. Hey look, some bellybutton lint!

"In this world, there are many people significantly more intelligent than you. Should they be wishing you dead? Should they celebrate your death when it comes?"

There aren't that many. You aren't one of them, because a smart person would realize it's a question of averages. Wishing me dead would lower the average intellegence level, something a person smarter then me probably wouldn't want to do. But Anna Nicole Smiths death raises the average intellegence, something people smarter then me might generally be in favor of. So you see...

I might be an ass...but at least I'm not a stupid ass. My philosophy is to mourn the death of intellegent people (both more and less intellegent then me) and celebrate the death of evil people and dumb people who taint our collective unconscious with their idiocy. We have a population problem and an intellegence problem, so when I see and idiot has died, I think "2 less problems in the world, one step closer to focusing on real issues." I don't think every person of average intellegence should die, but maybe every dumb celebrity.

The depths of the human genome, the oceans, outer space, and information theory await our exploration. These (to quote Bill Hicks) pituary retard celebrities prevent us from achieving this whenever the media takes note of them. When I see Anna Nicole Smith on TV for the 4rth day in a row, it makes me wish the sun would supernova right now and swallow the whole planet, just to stop the display of idiocy on my TV.

Actually, it's all about love. Humans will never come to overcome the illusion of death and the hate it inspires, instead learning to love and accept each other unconditionally and working to increase knowledge and beauty in the world as long as Britney Spears is the lead on the news.

totally agree. the daily show was ragging on her pretty badly as well. i sure hope i don't develop a heroin addiction and ultimately overdose -- the press will make fun of me!

Lindsey - Can't comment on the case - tried to tune it out. But have you considered that part of your anger at Nuland is sublimated rage against the neoconservatives, since Nuland is the father - in - law of Kristol's co-writer Robert Kagan. Robert Kagan is the brother of Fred Kagan and Fred is the author of the 'surge.'

So you see in Nuland's medical commentary some metaphores for the lack of respect for ordinary life reflected in his the foreign policy efforts of his family members. You disagree with Nuland's neoconservative medicine.'s official; American journalism is dead.

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