Whenever somebody famous dies, and the inevitable public debate gets underway about whether it’s OK to criticize their legacy, I think about something Jia Tolentino wrote about David Bowie’s death in 2016. Bowie was a musician who had sex with young girls, the most famous being 13-year-old Lori Maddox, who later, as an adult, characterized their encounter as “one of the best nights of her life.” The piece argues that Bowie’s behavior cannot be assessed separately from Maddox’s feelings about it, or from the social and sexual mores of the time — an era when the “culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote in a Facebook post at the time.
Tolentino and Solnit were not trying to exonerate Bowie, but to contextualize him so that he and Maddox could be understood less as predator and prey than as humans navigating a culture that valorized predation — an important shift, Tolentino argues, for understanding why we have a better vocabulary for identifying the power dynamics of sexual relations today.
Whatever you make of these conclusions, what stuck with me was the refreshing focus on the particulars and their context. It was a helpful point of contrast to the crude declarations about what these people are — rock messiah versus groupie, rapist versus victim — that hagiography and vilification both demand. It was helpful because the impulse to make sweeping claims about messy and often harmful people can, even under the well-meaning auspices of protecting their humanity, lead us remarkably far away from who they actually are.
In the case of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state who died on Monday at age 84 from COVID-19 complications, one misapprehension that this impulse leads to is the idea that Powell’s legacy needs protecting at all. For many upwardly mobile Black people and others steeped in the racial uplift dogma of elementary school Black History Month programs, Powell was a pathbreaker and role model, someone who overcame great odds and discrimination to occupy some of the most powerful offices in the land. He also used that power to facilitate atrocity at a massive scale.
The biggest example, which Powell has since characterized euphemistically as a “blot” on his record, was his knowing use of shoddy intelligence to justify the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, which he presented to the United Nations in 2003. When his diplomatic effort failed to marshall international support, and Bush invaded anyway on the false basis that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, Powell continued to back the war, which ended up killing more than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
By most anecdotal accounts, Powell was also a nice guy who was generous with his time and good to the people who worked for him, traits that have combined to make his legacy fertile ground for contestation. Judging by the remembrances that have flooded social media in the last day or so, he obviously meant something to many people. For those defending him, his amoral conduct was “complicated” by the fact that he did it in spaces traditionally reserved for white people — a perverse kind of “progress” that turns defying racial odds into a fetish.
This has led to several weird dissonances. Representative Jamal Bowman, a vocal progressive and member of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Squad, used the term “rest in power” in his Twitter eulogy of Powell, applying a phrase typically reserved for marginalized people who fought against powerful interests. Attorney Benjamin Crump praised Powell’s “poise and dedication to honor” with the caveat that he was putting “politics aside” in his appraisal — an incredible glossing over of the fact that the secretary was responsible for a military campaign of historic barbarity.
Even people who were more critical seemed to recognize that caution was in order, making it clear that their judgment was rooted in “honesty” rather than naked condemnation. Then, of course, there were those who tried to foreclose any debate over Powell’s legacy whatsoever, under the broad conviction that respecting death’s sanctity means suspending judgment until further notice.
Powell himself seems like he would’ve been much less fussy about it all. For a man whose legacy has inspired so much debate, he was uniquely well-equipped to live with the consequences of his actions. When he famously told President Bush, “You break it, you own it” about Iraq, he wasn’t just issuing a warning about heedless interventionism. He was expressing a principle that governed much of his own working life. Powell was a career soldier who rose quickly and meteorically through the ranks of the U.S. military in large part because he was comfortable making gargantuan life-or-death decisions on behalf of people he didn’t know. This earned him plaudits at every level of American society, and the fawning courtship of politicians from both parties. But it also, by definition, required a near-sociopathic dispassion toward mass death and suffering, and a short enough memory to avoid crippling guilt.
Powell put the multi-decade cultivation of this trait to especially cavalier effect in the leadup to the Iraq War, but never seemed to let the blowback weigh him down much, even after it became clear this was going to end badly. “Let others judge me,” the secretary said in 2007, a quote that has since become the last line of his New York Times obituary. “All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best.”
Then there’s the fact that Powell was a fluent, unsparing, and sometimes colorful shit-talker. Neither his friends nor nemeses were exempt: a trove of emails leaked by Russian hackers in 2016 captured the secretary describing former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Representative Liz Cheney, as “idiots” who wasted time co-authoring an irrelevant book that most Americans wouldn’t care about. (He was right.) Donald Trump was “a national disgrace.” Hillary Clinton was “a friend I respect” but someone he’d “rather not have to vote for,” in part because “she kind of screws [everything] up with hubris.” Bill Clinton, as of Powell’s writing in 2014, was “still dicking bimbos at home.”
The impulse to protect and ennoble Powell’s often sordid legacy, whether due to personal affection or some misguided urge to lionize him as a Black hero, seems almost perfunctory in this light. Engaging with particulars gives us a better guide to how we should assess our time here. Even a short survey of how Powell responded to criticism suggests that he was actually fine with you thinking he sucks, and more than happy to talk about how much you suck, too.
This is not to say he had any special love for honesty, even the brutal sort — the secretary lied fluidly to secure his objectives, and routinely helped other big-time liars with theirs. But it seems like a lot of the oxygen being spent trying to protect Powell’s legacy, at least, could be saved if his defenders chose to approach this project the way he did — which is to say he lost very little sleep over it, and certainly won’t now.