I see a lot of sudden celebration of John McCain as a legendary hero in response to his diagnosis of brain cancer.
I don’t wish illness or death on anyone. This isn’t about withholding sympathy or empathy. You can be sad that someone is sick or mourn their passing without ignoring their flaws. But our collective willingness to suddenly cast the sick and the dead as heroes is not honest or helpful.
When it comes to the life and death of public figures, it’s a chance for society to reckon with the quality of their character. Famous people, whether they like it or not, become role models by mere virtue of their presence. They are examples of what sort of lives can be lead. How we talk about their example is one of the many ways that we define the meaning of a good life, of a life well-lived. When we speak in glowing terms of someone’s story, there is an implication to everyone listening that this person’s actions are worth mimicking.
I’m not a student of John McCain’s life. All I know is what I’ve seen for the last decade or so.
To me, he’s the guy that picked a woman he barely knew as his vice presidential candidate. He launched Sarah Palin – a dreadful harbinger of Trumpian behavior and rhetoric – into the national spotlight. He’s a guy that frequently goes on television to critique Trump, but still votes with him over 90% of the time. He’s an active participant in the political party that denies climate change, limits civil rights, that actively enacts policies that intentionally harm the poor, the needy, and the suffering.
No doubt, he appears to be a more decent human being than many of his colleagues. He shows respect for others. He has a history of voting across party lines (even if that hasn’t been the case recently). He went out of his way to call Obama a decent human being during the ’08 election. He doesn’t speak with venom or malice.
But that doesn’t make him a hero. It means he’s not a terrible person, that he does what a lot of us do every day of our lives. He looks great because he’s surrounded by such abhorrent individuals.
I think that’s what people are reacting to, more than anything else. It’s not about him specifically, but the fact that the one guy who lets out even a fart of reasonable attitudes might be out of the game. That we’re one step closer to political insanity.