Of the reams of commentary and hours of digital documentation about the death and week-long, multimedia-transmitted funeral of U.S. Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer last month at age 81, I thought the best-written — and most sensible – op-ed reflection was written by Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me (2014) and more than a dozen other books.
In an essay highlighting “complexity” and “critical discussion,” the very opposite of the “simplistic binary thinking that plagues our country and steamrolls politics,” Solnit, playing on a famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, begins, “I come not to praise Senator John McCain nor to bury him – plenty of people are taking care of those things – but to describe him and our problems with complex people and complex descriptions.”
And then she goes on to ponder that complexity: “I found McCain a fascinating, frustrating character who often expressed high ideals and as often betrayed them. That is something quite different than, say, the ruthlessly mercenary instincts of [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or the transparently self-serving amorality of [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan. With his death, the last shreds of conscience in his party have gone, though they were often only present in him in flickers of conflicted, contradicted impulses.” Well, that phrase about “the last shreds of conscience” overdoes it a bit and is not completely true, but you get the idea. Much of the rest of her essay examines McCain’s contradictory record, and the coarsened state of public discourse in the era of President Donald Trump – with most of the coarsening provided by Trump himself. (Rebecca Solnit, “John McCain was complex. His legacy warrents critical discussion,” The Guardian, Sept. 1, 2018.)
“Getting the idea” of the political aspect of this unusual funeral was also what was on my mind – much more so than worrying about legacies, heroism, and family, though those subjects were inevitably present, even if in a minor key. When McCain died, I posted on my Facebook “timeline” an “emoji” of a candle to signal polite sorrow and remembrance of a significant public figure. (I had done the same thing, perhaps with not simply polite emotion, the week before when singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died at age 76.)
Appended to the image of a remembrance candle, I noted, with irony aforethought, that “on an internet platform devoted to the notion of Thumbs Up” – Facebook’s famous icon to indicate that you “like” something – “I’m remembering someone who, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, said Thumbs Down to an evil proposal that would have taken away health care insurance from millions of people.” I was referring to McCain’s decisive and dramatic vote (perhaps an overly dramatic imperial gesture) on July 27, 2017, to defeat his party’s and his president’s attempt to “repeal and replace” the health care reform law introduced by President Barack Obama in 2009. The Republican Party’s initial opposition to “Obamacare” became the party’s obsessive symbol of their unremitting resistance to (and even hatred of) Obama and their justification for total rejection of every significant Obama legislative proposal for the next eight years. Politically neutral government agencies estimated that the Republican “relacement” plan would deprive some 20 million, mostly impoverished people of health care coverage they presently had, thanks to Obamacare.
My brief intendedly inoffensive note about McCain on FB was written in the genre of speak-no-evil of the very recently dead, and politely recall something good about them if you can. Once they’re fully dead and buried, you can thrash them all you want under the rubric of writing “history.” Yes, it’s true that McCain had initially voted against the so-called “Obamacare” reform, and he had done dozens of other things one could criticize, but that wasn’t the point at that moment of remembrance. The point was to recall something good.
The genre of such praise is an old and perhaps fading tradition in western societies, but I tend to abide by it as a sensible courtesy to the grieving. The need to denounce political opponents instanter upon their passing and to express self-righteous indignation about their lives strikes me as one of the myriad contemporary ways to make it “all about you” rather than about others – an art of self-absorption that the current American president has lifted to the highest gutters. The instant denunciation also tends to be condescending in that it seems to assume that if you don’t explain that the deceased was a spawn of the devil, that your auditors are so benighted (or just plain dumb) that in the wave of remorse and false sentimentality that attends death they will forget that the evil that men do lives on beyond them.
No sooner had I posted my innocuous message about McCain than one of my FB “friends” felt compelled to inform me, with a harumph, “and that was pretty much his only redeeming vote.” Well, not so fast. What about the time, during the 2008 presidential campaign that pitted Obama versus McCain, when a McCain supporter at one of his rallies denounced Obama as an “Arab” (a “dog-whistle” term for a non-American-born foreigner, or maybe even a terrorist) and McCain instantly intervened to say, “No ma’am, he’s not an Arab,” and then went on to praise his opponent as a decent person devoted to family and country? Or what about the more recent occasion when McCain took to the Senate floor and called for “regular order,” a code-term reminding his colleagues of the violation of legislative norms and courtesy by the Trump administration? I could probably find several other such incidents, I mused aloud.
My FB “friend” was not to be placated. “It’s telling,” he sneered, “that ‘several’ is a generous estimate of his occasional high points.” Well, I sighed, when the time comes, may we both be so lucky as to find obit writers able to remember ‘several’ high points in our own lives. By then, someone else had weighed in to ask if the small amount of good McCain had done “redeemed everything else he did?” Anyway, she added, “Why is the entire world talking about him and his toxic swamp?” For good measure, she provided a link to a year-old article from a minorstream leftist publication denouncing McCain as nothing short of a fascist warmonger. (The ungainly link, if you must have it, is Mehdi Hassan, “Despite what the press says, ‘Maverick’ McCain has a long and distinguished record of horribleness,” The Intercept, July 27, 2017.)
A couple of days later, I alerted my circle of FB friends to a New York Times article about how a dying McCain had choreographed his entire funeral service – especially the decision to invite former presidents (and former rivals) Obama and George W. Bush to deliver his eulogies and, equally pointedly, to not invite the current president to the proceedings at all. The article made clear that it was McCain’s way of sending a message of disapprobation about the mode of politics that Trump had initiated. (Michael Shear and Katie Rogers, “Planning his funeral, McCain got the last word against Trump,” New York Times, Aug. 29, 2018.)
I guess that these days we would describe the overall message as a meme, as such things are known. Those interested in matters of semiotics – the study of signs and symbols, and their interpretation – will know that a meme is “a unit of cultural information, as a concept, belief, or practice” that is intended to spread from person to person and become part of their perspective. “Meme” is short for “mimeme” (a combination of “mimesis” + “-eme”) and was coined by British biologist Richard Dawkins.
In this instance, McCain’s meme was aimed at getting certain people to recognize the ideal of a bi-partisan, at least minimally civil, version of politics and to encourage them to reject the bombast, cruelty and ignorance that Trump’s “populism” has brought to American civic life. Further, the meme was primarily aimed at segments of McCain’s own Republican Party that had succumbed to the crude blandishments offered by Trumpism, as well as to a significant sector of so-called “independents” who don’t necessarily identify with either of the two major parties. That this was delivered with an eye to the forthcoming mid-term congressional elections in November could hardly be missed. Given that the outcome of those elections will likely be decided by a narrow sliver of the middle-of-the-road electorate, appealing to those voters from your deathbed is hardly a small thing.
Yet, a surprisingly large number of observers seemed intent on ignoring McCain’s meme, which I thought to be as crucial to the overall event, if not more so, as the predictable, but heartfelt encomiums to the deceased from mainstream liberal and conservative commentators, and the equally predictable, if far less impactful denunciation from the further left end of the political spectrum. Naturally, there was bound to be evaluative commentary about McCain’s “legacy” (the more profound version exemplified by Rebecca Solnit’s discussion), and it was no doubt inevitable that denunciations of perfidy would be heard in the echo chambers of the left. What was interesting to me was how much McCain had insisted, in leaving the world, on its present condition.
At the funeral itself, in Washington’s National Cathedral on Sat., Sept. 1, the meme was the undertow of the ceremony. Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, told the 2,500 invited guests: “We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who’ll never come near the sacrifice he gave so willlingly, not the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.” Again, you could disagree with the claims of greatness, but you had no doubt whom she was referring to when she talked about “cheap rhetoric.” Earlier in the week, Trump had made matters embarrassingly worse when he refused to order the White House flag to be flown at half-mast or to issue the standard proclamations of respect, until public and professional disapproval forced him to back down.
When Meghan McCain bluntly insisted, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” there was, as the press reported, a momentary pause. “Then, unusually on such a solemn occasion, the air under the cathedral’s high vaulted ceiling filled with the sound of spontaneous applause at the direct rebuke” to Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again.” The issue was not about whether America had ever been great, or was occasionally great, or whether it needed to be made “great again” by Trump, the point was that Ms McCain was reminding middle Americans that the current president was a pathetic parody of any notion of political authenticity. (David Smith, “John McCain funeral: Obama’s eulogy denounces ‘insult and bombast’ in politics,” New York Times, Sept. 1, 2018.)
Her remarks were seconded by former presidents Obama and George W. Bush. “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse,” said Obama, “can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.” Could anything be pettier than Trump’s behaviour about whether or not to lower a flag – this from a man who heckled and threatened football players for taking a knee during the performance of the national anthem to protest police violence against unarmed black men. “It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear,” Obama said.
George Bush reiterated such sentiments, during a day that the press described as one “full of coded repudiations of Trump’s nationalism and demagoguery.” Bush praised McCain as someone who “loved freedom with the passion of a man who knew its absence and, perhaps above all, detested the abuse of power and could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.” By then, the object of his description had retreated to one of his nearby golf courses for a tour of the greens.
When I “shared” the story about McCain crafting his own funeral on FB, I duly noted that coverage of the ceremonies honouring the late conservative senator was no doubt a bit over the lachrymose top. I also noted that a lot of leftist ideologues were not the least bit interested in the internal debate between the McCain supporters of public decency and the post-truth squads of Trump, even though a mid-term election possibly hung in the balance. Soon enough, and sure enough, there was the predictable leftist FB “friend” to inform me of the “shameful” “crimes against journalism” by the liberal press, and to set us all straight that “we have been fed a ‘childlike narrative of McCain as brave truth-teller, rather than the predictable champion of war and empire who occasionally makes toothless references to human rights for the purposes of image curation’.”
And just in case I missed the point, he appended a several-thousand word article from one of the more excited leftist publications reviewing McCain’s entire career, and finding every warmongering fault imaginable. I can’t remember if the article mentioned that after McCain’s five-years-plus captivity in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, he was welcomed to the country some 20 or more times as a visitor and politician, and as a senator campaigned successfully for the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Maybe the article mentioned it and I missed it. Oh well, never mind.
Of course, the reason I’m more interested in left-wing criticisms of McCain than in conservative praise is because I think I’m a leftist and that I share political ideas and convictions with these FB “friends” and the authors of the articles they post to make sure I’m not backsliding. What strikes me about much of this leftist commentary is how strangely tone-deaf it is. Even on the day of the death of a political opponent, such people have a hard time saying anything gracious about the deceased. Instead, they feel compelled to rub our noses in their version of the truth as if the rest of us are so stupid that we’ll fall into perdition if we aren’t reminded of that truth at every moment. I often wonder who such publications think they’re writing for, as if they don’t know that their limited readerships are already lefties who already know more than enough about alleged miscreants like McCain. Maybe they’re hoping to reach wavering liberals who have yet to be persuaded that McCain was something other than a fairly complex conservative, as Rebecca Solnit suggests.
In the meantime, maybe McCain’s meme will make a small contribution to resolving, as Solnit puts it, “our problems with complex people and complex descriptions.” Or, failing that, will persuade some voters in the aproaching mid-term elections to repudiate the temper (and temper tantrums) of the times.