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May 7, 2011 5:56 AM   Subscribe

I am not English and am trying to understand if The Economist's Osama Bin Laden obituary should be read as serious and humanizing or tongue-in-cheek humorous.

For example, the line "Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey..." - I just don't know any more!
posted by beisny to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
To my reading, it's entirely straight.

I don't think the obit aims the "humanise" Osama Bin Laden, but simply to paint as full a picture of his character as can be fitted into a single page of the Economist.
posted by pharm at 6:12 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chatfilter ... but it strikes me as satirical, but not about Osama, but about the form of obituaries themselves. As if someone wrote about Hitler and said, "Say what you will, but the man really loved his dog, Blondie." You can struggle to add context so much, you start to miss the forest for the trees.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:15 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


To me it reads as serious, not satire, and is a remarkably fair-minded portrait of the man within his own context. I am really glad that someone did this. I don't think you could get away with that much thoughtfulness in major American media.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:26 AM on May 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Humanize?" He was human all along.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:30 AM on May 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


It is serious. His misdeeds are never far from his more human qualities in the piece. They are not praising him, but are trying to show why so many radicals thought him praiseworthy.
posted by bonehead at 6:31 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's an excellent obit. Not a parody of the style, or the man. I don't understand why you think it would be. Because they don't make him a cartoon ogre?
The scariest villains are the ones who are sure they are in the right, the true believers.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:39 AM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


It is of a piece with the Economist's general style for obits. To read it as anything other than serious is to show a lack of familiarity with their style of obituaries.
posted by dfriedman at 6:43 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, it's really easy to say, "Well, that guy was uniquely super-evil, it's not something we have to worry about." Hannah Arendt wrote on the banality of evil in the wake of the Holocaust, how it WASN'T uniquely super-evil people, it was regular everyday people.

Osama bin Laden was not a cartoon supervillain. He was a person, with human motivations, which other humans can try to understand, who ended up doing some super-evil things. Reducing him to a cartoon eliminates our ability to understand and cope with similar threats.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:43 AM on May 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


Thanks guys.

FYI, I don't object to the obit, nor would I prefer a "cartoon orgre" portrayal. I was simply wondering if perhaps there was something I was missing something in terms of tone. The sentence I highlighted above simply struck me as a bit funny the first time I read it (and I am a long time reader of the economist).
posted by beisny at 6:46 AM on May 7, 2011


Yeah, I think the tone is meant to be read against the backdrop of everyone ELSE in the media portraying him as a super-evil cartoon ogre. I think it's deliberately meant to stand out by showing these unexpected sides of him, to illustrate the banality of evil.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:11 AM on May 7, 2011


Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey...

Read, a complex individual who is full of contradictions - and yeah, and like say Hitler who loved dogs, Italian food and walks in the park, was - well Hitler. Incongruous and all that.
posted by the noob at 8:01 AM on May 7, 2011


there is a British tradition of obituaries that is considered eccentric and/or mean by American standards. The Wall Street Journal did an article (which I can't find now) a few years ago on a particularly extreme case - the obituaries of alumni published by King's College of Cambridge University.

The Economist obit of Osama is serious, and is also a variation of the "eccentric" British obit tradition - instead of the obit writer being "mean" to someone who has died that we would normally be respectful towards (a more common example of the British tradition), in this case the reverse happens - the obit writer is respectful towards someone who is a hate figure. There is also something of the British respect for the underdog mixed in here too
posted by Bwithh at 8:38 AM on May 7, 2011


It's an excellent obit. Not a parody of the style, or the man. I don't understand why you think it would be.

i don't understand why you wouldn't understand. it is a big contrast from the media's general reporting on bin laden. and whether you agree with it or not, there are obviously many people who think bin laden gave up his membership card in humanity long ago. i likely would have made the assumption that it wasn't entirely serious and not bothered to clarify it as beisny did.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 8:43 AM on May 7, 2011


dfriedman is right: I'm a weekly reader and this is entirely in the economist's normal style, especially when it's someone controversial. They have an honourable tradition of writing obits for people who will be overlooked by mainstream obit writers, or when it's a big name, refusing to write the obvious. Always serious, but also always looking to show the stuff we don't already know.
posted by dowcrag at 11:24 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


As an Englishman, I have to say that this reads like a classic example of cleverly understated English irony. It most certainly is a straight obit, on the surface. But the arch way it takes such obvious pains to be a straight obit, given who and what Bin Laden was, and the manner of his death, is the giveaway to the ironic intent.

Irony, at it's best, is a subtle beast that makes you wonder if it is ironic. Good irony, almost by definition, is not obvious. I enjoyed this obit a lot.
posted by Decani at 11:33 AM on May 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's a funny.

Humour with the extra 'u'.
posted by run"monty at 4:01 PM on May 7, 2011


I love the Economist. 'Merican, here, but I read this as ironical.
posted by bearwife at 4:54 PM on May 7, 2011


It is irony, broadly, or wryness. But this is college-level irony. I believe the rhetorical device being employed is apophasis^, which emphasizes one element by essentially denying the importance or validity of others. Thus, the man who liked sunflowers and hunting, in the first part of the paragraph, is rhetorically dominated by his love for jihad. If anything, it is positing his humanity, only to reject it.

For a famous example, I suggest the final stanza of "Casey at the Bat".
posted by dhartung at 6:15 PM on May 7, 2011


As another Englishman, I wouldn't say this was ironic at all. Just an obit.
posted by Lleyam at 6:21 AM on May 8, 2011


I was thinking this was a good obit and entirely straight, but after a second and third reading, it just seems a little...over the top.

I think the author and publisher were looking for something better than "Yay!! He's dead!! U.S.A.!!! U.S.A!!!" But it's not well written enough to convey either a sense of irony or just a straight piece that's trying to be different and better. I am not saying the wordcraft is poor - I am saying that the conceptual choice isn't perfectly clear, and that's bad.

"Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday, sometimes mounted, like the Prophet, on a white horse. He liked the comparison. Yet the best thing in his life, he said, was that his jihads had destroyed the myth of all-conquering superpowers. "

Seriously, that last line is totally jarring. It's as if the author realized he was wandering off into foo-foo territory, then tried to wrangle the prose back into "obit-for-Western-audiences".

And this?

"Whether or not he resisted when the Crusaders’ special forces arrived, their bullets could only exalt him. "

Nice try there, but that's just too much. He isn't Mohammed or Jesus. If this is satire, it's too subtle. If it's straight, it's too fawning. I personally like it, it's a refreshing take, but it really needs to be reconsidered by the author and editor.
posted by Xoebe at 1:17 PM on May 9, 2011


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