The Absurdity and Chronology of a Thatcher Obituary in the Paper of Record

I found it necessary to bring back the blog from stasis to scratch an itch, since no one else in the media have decided to do it for me.


The theoretical audience of people who read my recent tweets must have been awfully confused the day Margaret Thatcher passed away:

You’ve got to be shitting me: http://t.co/Su6keKTYb5.1

and

Only a matter of time before a #FakeNYTobit reaction:

“To enemies, GWB’s war in Iraq, torture, and trillions in new debt were bad policy.”2

and

Worst part of that Thatcher obit in the New York Times is that it is one they must have prepared years ago.3

The paragraph link in the first tweet no longer works, but thanks to the fine folks at NewsDiffs, you can read the original article I was commenting on here or in a syndicated column at the Sydney Morning Herald. Turns out, this may not have been the article the Paper of Record had on hand in preparation for the seemingly predictable expiration of a carbon-based lifeform4; the initial obituary was written by Alan Cowell and read:

LONDON — Margaret Thatcher, a towering, divisive and yet revered figure who left an enduring impact on British politics, died on Monday of a stroke, her family said.

“It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning,” a statement from her spokesman, Lord Tim Bell, said.

Lady Thatcher had been in poor health for months. She served as prime minister for 11 years, beginning in 1979. She was known variously as the ‘Iron Lady,’ a stern Conservative who transformed Britain’s way of thinking about its economic and political life, broke union power and opened the way to far greater private ownership.

She was leader of Britain through its 1982 war in the Falklands and stamped her skepticism about European integration onto her country’s political landscape for decades.

This is is a fairly sober and innocent article. Albeit anodyne, it is hardly one to ruffle the feathers of the likes of yours truly.

The Revisionists!

Cowell’s work was later replaced by the object of my tweets, penned by Joseph R. Gregory. This was a different beast whose uncompromising, bellicose tone mirrored that of the Iron Lady. Behold the first paragraph I originally intended to link to:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialism, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died Monday. She was 87.

What. The. Fuck.


Without a clue as to what the “35 years of socialism” refers to, let’s proceed to count some of the ways she changed the world:

A party revolt was thwarted, the Tories hunkered down, and Lady Thatcher went on to achieve great victories. She turned the Conservatives, long associated with the status quo, into the party of reform. Her policies revitalized British business, spurred industrial growth and swelled the middle class.

Sounds swell.

At home, Lady Thatcher’s political successes were decisive. She broke the power of the labor unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalized industry, redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market.

Yay!

In October 1980, 17 months into her first term, Prime Minister Thatcher faced disaster. More businesses were failing and more people were out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. Racial and class tensions smoldered so ominously that even close advisers worried that her push to stanch inflation, sell off nationalized industry and deregulate the economy was devastating the poor, undermining the middle class and courting chaos. At the Conservative Party conference that month, the moderates grumbled that they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street and the exigencies of realpolitik. With electoral defeat staring them in the face, cabinet members warned, now was surely a time for compromise. To Lady Thatcher, they could not have been more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.” In an address to the party, she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s popular play “The Lady’s Not for Burning” in insisting that she would press forward with her policies. “Turn if you like,” she told the faltering assembly. “The lady’s not for turning.” Her tough stance did the trick. A party revolt was thwarted, the Tories hunkered down, and Lady Thatcher went on to achieve great victories. She turned the Conservatives, long associated with the status quo, into the party of reform. Her policies revitalized British business, spurred industrial growth and swelled the middle class.

Did you notice how the last emphasized part of that quote was the exact same as the first one? What the hell is up with that? Sounds like a robotic talking point in defence of Thatcherism.


Moving on, though, let’s take a look at the attempts at a critical assessment of her reign:

Britain’s arts and academic establishments loathed her for cutting their financing and considered her tastes provincial, her values narrow-minded. In 1985, two years into her second term, she was proposed for an honorary doctorate at Oxford, a laurel traditionally offered prime ministers who had attended the university, as she had. The proposal, after debate among the faculty, was rejected.

“The uppity people within the arts and academia found her to be be an unwashed rube” is, I’m sure, a completely fair characterization of their problems with Thatcher’s policies.


The ending paragraph of the obituary is an example of “the view from nowhere” for the history books:

“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”

What a fucking weird note to end on, considering that you might just as well use this description in the obituary for her chums Pinochet and Pol Pot, none of whom are mentioned in the context of her foreign forrays, mind.


Another thing I noticed is that while Thatcher is cheered on as a figure who won the Falklands War and led the West through the Cold War while parroting that one weird snippet, this is the only authorial criticism of Thatcher in the obituary:

By the time she was ousted in another Tory revolt — this time over her resistance to expanding Britain’s role in a European union — the economy was in a recession and her reputation tarnished.

Every other criticism accorded Thatcher continues the rhetorical trick of “the view from nowhere” in the ending paragraph through a “people say” proxy, proxies emphasized by me:

After leaving office, she was honored as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. But during her first years in power, even many Tories feared that her election might prove a terrible mistake.
In October 1980, 17 months into her first term, Prime Minister Thatcher faced disaster. More businesses were failing and more people were out of work than at any time since the Great Depression. Racial and class tensions smoldered so ominously that even close advisers worried that her push to stanch inflation, sell off nationalized industry and deregulate the economy was devastating the poor, undermining the middle class and courting chaos.
At the Conservative Party conference that month, the moderates grumbled that they were being led by a free-market ideologue oblivious to life on the street and the exigencies of realpolitik. With electoral defeat staring them in the face, cabinet members warned, now was surely a time for compromise.
To her enemies she was — as Denis Healey, chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson’s government, called her — “La Pasionaria of Privilege,” a woman who railed against the evils of poverty but who was callous and unsympathetic to the plight of the have-nots. Her policies, her opponents said, were cruel and shortsighted, widened the gap between rich and poor and worsened the plight of the poorest.
Despite her being the first woman to lead a major political party in the West, she rubbed many feminists the wrong way.
Britain’s arts and academic establishments loathed her for cutting their financing and considered her tastes provincial, her values narrow-minded.

Once again, just for the hell of it:

“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”

At the end of the day, this is the authoritative legacy according to the authoritative Author who does not need to defer to “others” to write her hagiographic epitaph:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialism, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died Monday. She was 87.

“People might say” this is a tad myopic, but who are we to question the New York Times.

Do you see the narrative this creates? It is one in which Thatcher is the author’s favoured protagonist who overcomes the “critics”, the “skeptics”, “the others”, and “the doubters” who stand between her and her vision, resolute and unwavering as she is; keep in mind that she defied “even close advisers” who did not see the light. Thatcher was never wrong—only held back and ever so rarely forced to compromise on her vision.

To Lady Thatcher, they could not have been more wrong. “I am not a consensus politician,” she had often declared. “I am a conviction politician.”

What to us may sound like the stubborn monomania of a rogue missile is spun into a story of an Iron Lady who knows what’s right and gets her way—until she is tragically displaced by the mutinous “others”. Euripides wept.

The subsequent extensive additions to the obituary did nothing to betray this narrative—I love how the only depiction of the strike violence details how “a taxi driver taking a miner to work was fatally injured when a concrete slab was dropped on his cab.” I also have to quote this amazing line:

After speaking to the Queen, calling world leaders and making a final speech to the House of Commons, she resigned on Nov. 28, 1990, leaving 10 Downing Street in tears and feeling betrayed.

The Corrections

One of the highlights of hilarity is the editorial circus of polishing this turd, epitomized by this later revision:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who pulled her country back from 35 years of socialismleft-wing government, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

I repeat:

socialismleft-wing government

This wound up getting changed (again), adding to the amateurishness of it all:

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who pullturned her country back from 35 years of left-wing governmentin a sharply conservative direction, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

One more time!

Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” of British politics, who turnedput her country ion a sharply conservative directionrightward economic course, led it to victory in the Falklands war and helped guide the United States and the Soviet Union through the cold war’s difficult last years, died on Monday. She was 87.

The constant revisionism was at its most active in the ever-shifting headlines, however. Make up your minds, already.


The Paper of Record, never one to linger by its mistakes, went on to finally bring a correction at the end of their article:

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:


Correction: April 8, 2013


An earlier version of this obituary misquoted Lady Thatcher when, in an address to her party, she played on the title of Christopher Fry’s play “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” She said: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” She did not say, “Turn if you like.”

All sorted out, then.


The New York Times’ slogan is “All the news that’s fit to print”—it says as much in the top-left corner of its front page. This obituary, however, is just for burning.


  1. First tweet

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  4. Lab results still pending.