Funeral Ethics, Lies and Acknowledging Bias
Surely the Scoreboard wasn’t alone in grinding its metaphorical teeth upon reading accounts of Ken Lay’s funeral, during which he was hailed as a “straight arrow” who was unfairly and cruelly hounded to his death by a vicious media’s lies and an “over-zealous prosecutor.” Yes, this was a gathering of family and friends, and a funeral is a time to celebrate the best of a person’s life, not the worst. And Ken lay undeniably did a lot of good things in his life. He was a community leader; he was a major mover in many projects, and raised millions for charity. There was plenty of good to celebrate in his life. This was not one of those funerals, and there are some, in which the best thing anyone present can think of to say about the dearly departed is that he’s dead.
That does not mean, however that it is proper or appropriate or right for Lay’s mourners to send him to eternity on the wings of an unsupportable lie. When a Fortune 500 company shows itself to be built on smoke, mirrors, deceptions and lies like Enron was, when millions of employees and investors suffer financial harm as a result, when retirees who were assured that their Enron stock would allow them to live comfortably in their “Golden Years” are reduced to living on Kennel Rations, a prosecutor is not being “over-zealous” by indicting the man in charge. That was Ken Lay. He denied his obvious responsibility for the disaster and the crimes of those whom he hired and supervised, to his enduring disgrace. His family has no right picking up his refrain, not now, not after a jury found him, as the judge in “The Producers” finds Max and Leo, “Incredibly guilty.”
Those who attended Richard Nixon’s funeral talked about the former President’s many accomplishments, but they did not have the miserable taste to claim that Watergate was a conspiracy of the liberal press. We can assume that when O.J. Simpson shuffles off these mortal coils, his mourners will recall his football exploits and his funny bits in the “Naked Gun” movies without opining that “Nicole had it coming.” We can keep our fingers crossed that when Bill Clinton finally meets his maker, the assembled will spare us lectures about how technically he was telling the truth when he said he “never had sex with that woman.” It depends, I guess, on whether Lanny Davis is one of the speakers.
One speaker at Lay’s funeral, the Rev. William Lawson, even said that Lay’s prosecution was the equivalent of “a lynching,” which was jaw-dropping insult to the innocent victims of real lynchings. Enough. It is understandable that people who are close to those who have done terrible things often cannot permit themselves to accept what is blindingly obvious to everyone else. This is the power of bias and loyalty, and we’re all familiar with it. None of us want to accept the fact that are children may be rotters or our parents are degenerates or our ancestors were pirates. But surely we know that such steadfast loyalty is based on emotion rather than fact, because we’ve all seen the phenomenon so many times from the other side, as with the TV interviews with mothers of serial killers who are always certain that their baby boys are being framed.
We know it, and so do the family and friends of Ken Lay. Their use of his funeral to imply that he was blameless for crimes of his company cannot be excused because it springs from the human flaw of bias. We often cannot control our biases, but we have an obligation not to let them control us. The Scoreboard would have even preferred the family’s liberal use of the detestable “one mistake” argument, as exemplified by a former Enron employee who told the Washington Post that Lay was a good man who just made only one “big, big, mistake.” Right: one big mistake that was made up of thousands of conscious decisions, hundreds of misleading statements, scores of harmful acts, all over a period of many years. Just one.
But at least that sentiment doesn’t deny that Lay was responsible for what he did. To the generally wise rule that one should try not to speak ill of the recently deceased, it is important to add that one shouldn’t lie about them either.