[Note: This post contains major spoilers for the S-Town podcast.]
I‘ve been listening to S-Town, the popular and controversial new podcast from NPR reporter Brian Reed. It was undeniably fascinating as a work of literature, a modern spin on the Southern Gothic genre. But after finishing it, I shared the concerns that others have had about it, and I wanted to write about why.
The genesis of the podcast came when Reed was contacted out of the blue by John B. McLemore, a resident of a rural and deeply conservative region in Alabama, who wanted a journalist to look into a rumor that the police in his town had been paid off to cover up a murder. Under John’s insistent prodding, Reed eventually comes to town to investigate, and the two of them strike up a friendship.
The true-crime angle is a red herring, as the murder-and-coverup story turns out to be nothing but a rumor. The real subject of the podcast is John himself, and the big twist comes at the end of the second episode when he suddenly, shockingly commits suicide. The remainder of the podcast is Reed’s attempt to understand John, to unravel his life story and figure out why he did it.
At first, John seems to be the stereotypical colorful Southern eccentric, a liberal gadfly living in the poorest, reddest region of a deep-red state. But as Reed peels back his life story in excerpts from the many interviews he did with him, John’s hidden depths emerge. As it turns out, he was a brilliant but misanthropic genius: he was an expert in the field of antique clock restoration, one of only a handful of people in the world who were capable of it. He excelled in repairing clocks for which there’s no manual and no standardized parts, guided by nothing but an ability to guess the intentions of the original designer. His hobbies included carpentry, horticulture, chemistry, metallurgy, and recreating ancient technology like astrolabes for fun.
But while John had a voracious and wide-ranging intelligence, it was corroded by deep pessimism. His life was animated by the cynical certainty that everyone and everything was irredeemably corrupt, whether it was rampant crime and ignorance in his hometown or his certainty that climate change will destroy civilization. (“S-Town” is a bowdlerization; the real name of the podcast is Shittown, after the epithet John used to describe his home.)
While John made a worthy subject for a biographical portrait, I felt an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism while listening to the podcast. There was no wider relevance to the story, no news value beyond its deep dive into the life of one admittedly complex, fascinating and flawed man. Reed leaves no stone unturned when it comes to John’s life: his love-hate relationship with his hometown; his sexuality and his homoerotically charged friendships with troubled younger men; his mental state and his addiction to a masochistic ritual that was half BDSM, half self-mutilation; the rumors that he had a fortune in gold buried on his property; and even the last moments of his life and the text of his suicide note.
Granted, John contacted a reporter in the first place, and willingly spoke to him at length knowing he was being recorded. He did ask Reed to keep a few things private, and Reed complied with those requests. Even so, it’s not clear to me that he knew he was going to be the subject of the podcast. There wasn’t even the excuse of him being a public figure whose life can rightfully be of interest to others.One of Reed’s justifications for releasing this story as he did is that John was an outspoken atheist who, by his own stated position, would cease to exist upon death. Therefore, he couldn’t be harmed by anything said about him afterwards.
I wanted to examine this argument and the larger question of whether the dead have privacy rights that the living ought to respect.
It’s true that the foundation of morality is harm. Nevertheless, common sense supports the idea that the dead have some rights which the living are obligated to respect. For instance, a dead person can make a will setting out their wishes for what to do with their property. It would also strike most people as wrong to dispose of dead bodies by, say, putting them out with the trash.
Strictly speaking, no one would be harmed by this. Even so, a society that follows the principle of respect for the dead is better than one that doesn’t, because of the suffering it would cause people who are currently alive to know that their last wishes wouldn’t be honored.
The same reasoning leads to the conclusion that a person’s privacy rights aren’t extinguished by their death. It would cause any reasonable person distress and dismay to know that, as soon as we die, the intimate details of our lives become fodder for the curious to gawk at. Although I reject the idea that you can no longer criticize someone after they’re dead, it also seems unfair to present a possibly distorted or incomplete picture of someone who can’t offer their own version of the facts.
At the same time, there have to be limits to this principle. As Thomas Jefferson put it, the dead are nothing and nothing cannot own something. To grant limitless rights to the dead would end up in a world where the past could never be studied, because living people’s rights would be enclosed and choked off by the far greater number of rights claims of the deceased.
As an example, it strikes me as ridiculous to suggest, as some have, that we shouldn’t do research on ancient Egyptian mummies out of privacy concerns. People who lived centuries or millennia ago – King Tut, Richard III or Kennewick Man – have long since passed beyond the point where they could have any expectation of continuing to exert their wishes against the scientific curiosity of the living.
It seems like a reasonable compromise to say that, immediately after their death, the dead should enjoy the same privacy protections as the living, but those protections slowly diminish with time. That would mean that the recently deceased, like John McLemore, are entitled to peace free from scrutiny. But fifty or a hundred years later, when their lives and their culture are more distant from ours, that consideration may no longer apply.
Other posts in this series: