Privacy, Privilege and Prince

Two of the biggest names in the arts and politics died this year: Prince and Antonin Scalia. While it's hard to find much in common with these two men, there is one thing they should have in common: the way their deaths were handled.

When Justice Scalia unexpectedly passed away in February, there was no autopsy and a death certificate was issued without any examination of the body. Contrast this with what happened to Prince after he passed away. Not only was there an autopsy, but authorities were hunting for any evidence of drug use and news about their findings seems to be released daily.

At the time, Dr. George D. Lundberg, a former editor of the American Medical Association publication JAMA, called the handling of Scalia's death "almost unbelievable." Even in the absence of a full autopsy, a simple insertion of a needle could have determined evidence of toxins, drugs or chemicals. Instead, we were left to focus on the legacy of Scalia's powerful career and his life as patriarch of a large family. Don't get me wrong; I assume the circumstances of Justice Scalia's death were probably completely innocent. However, Prince is entitled to the same exact dignity and privacy. We should have taken the determination of no foul play as a signal to allow Prince the privacy in death that he treasured in life.

The Prince and Scalia dichotomy isn't a solitary phenomenon. This case is emblematic of a larger trend in our society where people who conform to certain norms are granted privacy and the benefit of the doubt and those who don't have their lives scrutinized and scrubbed. Take the case of former speaker Dennis Hastert, a quintessential avuncular midwestern Congressman. Quiet and humble, it also turns out he was a serial child molester. Nonetheless, many of his fellow political figures, including the former CIA director, sent letters of support to the judge overseeing the case, pleading for leniency.

At the same time, other politicians were busy passing laws designed to shame and stigmatize innocent transgender people by legislating which restrooms they use. Their rationale? "Transgender people pose a threat to children."

They don't. Hastert did. So why stoke fear where there is no real threat.

President Obama has endured this phenomenon for a decade. The starkest example may be how the obsession with Obama's mythical "Kenyan" birth certificate stands in contrast to the shrugged shoulders over Scalia's rubber-stamped death certificate.

It is as if we have one standard for those who conform to outdated norms of who should occupy positions of prominence like coach, congressman, judge, father and president. And there's a different set of rules for those who challenge those norms and those who dare to brave individual free expression or even do something as simple as embrace their own identity.

How else do we explain why we are going to such great lengths to add "drug abuser" to Prince's epitaph? Do we feel compelled to label those who don't conform as sordid, sick or illegitimate? Why not solemnly accept the mystery of Prince's death as we did with Scalia's? And more to the point, how is it that politicians get away with minimizing real life serial child molestation, while bearing false witness against others who have no such intentions?

What can we do?

Don't participate in the Prince obsession when it crosses over to tweeting and posting to Facebook the latest twists and turns in the circumstances over his death. Stand up to transphobia and the so-called "bathroom law" in North Carolina. Most important, we need to be mindful of our own biases about race, privilege, social and gender norms. Simply being aware of the double standard is an important and very big step forward.