by Jordan Poyner
John McCain died on August 25th and was buried today in Annapolis, Maryland, where I live. As has become somewhat commonplace after the death of a celebrated public figure, I have noticed many people on social media expressing that–contrary to what the mainstream might represent–McCain was not a good man. Some will claim there is no great loss in McCain’s death, and a few will even celebrate it. Like the death of a tyrant, a sleazy bureaucrat, or a public figure of gross, documented immorality, McCain deserves neither tears nor memorialization. One more racist, sexist, obstructionist, warmonger is dead. The indictments vary in their focus, but the gist is the same: the death of an immoral individual is no tragedy.
To be clear, I am not trying to assert that John McCain was a good man. Besides doubting whether it is healthy for individuals to be categorized as ultimately good or bad, I want to explore a different question. Wherever it is one finds oneself on the political spectrum, the decision to condemn McCain after his passing seems to be born of the belief that one’s morals contrast sharply with McCain’s. By condemning the deceased, we suggest that their ideals and actions were antithetical to the realization of a better world.
Let me ask with all humility for some reflection on this phenomenon. If you are a person who believes in the possibility of a better world, or at least acknowledges the imperfection of the one we live in (whether that be the United States, the world order of capitalistic market-based economies, etc.), a part of this belief is constituted of the idea that people should treat one another better than they currently do. The particulars are not important here; I mean to speak to any individual who might feel a keen dissatisfaction with the way things are.
I don’t expect many of us to live up to our ideals, but I believe they are worth aspiring to. The world is made better (and sometimes worse) by individuals making choices motivated by the idea of a higher good. I know we often fall short of this, but the condemnation of the deceased usually presents itself as an extension of the ideals held by those who articulate it. We feel that our morals are utterly distinct from McCain’s, that he consistently acted against our idea of the good. But is the censure of the dead truly an expression of that good?
What do we gain from this? Is it virtue signaling? Do we believe we are lighting the path towards a better world? Is it humor as a means of alleviating or escaping the burden of this society’s injustices? What are these accomplishments worth? And what do we give up by vehemently condemning John McCain or celebrating his death? In articulating rage or being glib, do we give others comfort or guidance? In basking in the death of hated individuals, is it possible that we are expressing that same aspect of their lives we denounce? The crassness inherent in celebrating death might not be far removed from the cynical disdain of human suffering we condemn.
Jordan Poyner is a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.