Politicos are horrified by our disdain for John McCain at his death. Good.
Senator John McCain has finally passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He is currently being remembered fondly on media, especially social media, by many of the same liberals who were once his ostensible “opponents.” Sure some of this is political opportunism, a convenient martyr who was attacked multiple times by the sitting president and those around him. And some is a credit to John McCain’s ability to use media, a ham to the end through maneuvers like advancing a bill so he could make speeches against it. But let’s put this into perspective — we are talking about a guy who has repeatedly let racial slurs slip and had Sarah Palin as his running mate when he ran for president in a campaign constructed to incite racial animus against his opponent Barack Obama through contrived characters like Joe The Plumber. He loved attention, but he was not some master media manipulator.
No, the reason why the politicians and pundits are so effusive in their praise for the late McCain, and so outraged by even simple statements of how violent or racist he was, is ideological. They uphold a cultural norm of absolution for even the crudest and most reactionary (see also Jerry Falwell, etc.) in the hopes that they will also one day be absolved. If people like John McCain are absolved, it means the people who sold the lies of the Iraq War, who profited off the fossil fuels that have ruined their childrens’ futures, who promoted racial stereotypes to boost TV ratings, they must be absolved as well.
Let’s end that practice once and for all.
U.S. culture has a lot of hang ups about death. The Christian ideas of an eternal afterlife seem to do little to dull the existential pain of knowing that one day we will all die and that we will live to see many people die. Even for the believers of heaven, there is much consternation about how we will be remembered and we project our insecurities onto the deaths of others to assuage our doubts about whether we will earn warm remembrances and honor in death. We only seem to break from this practice for the most hated of enemies.
But that’s not quite true. After all, the largest racial justice movement in U.S. history was the reaction to how little U.S. people care about when Black people die, especially at the hands of the police. The Black youth killed by police in this country are immediately demonized. It is unconscionable that a 12 year old Black child shot by the police is smeared by the media while a person like John McCain is whitewashed in the name of respecting the dead.
The explanation for this disconnect comes down to how accountability, especially criminal and legal accountability, works in this country. Black youth are always held accountable, including for the behavior of their friends. Black mothers are always held accountable, including for trying to support their family. Working class people are always held accountable, including for $0.27.
The powerful and wealthy are not held accountable. Executives at corporations are not prosecuted for their abhorrent conduct. The bankers who caused the foreclosure crisis did not see any jail time. Police who kill unarmed Black people are acquitted again and again and again. It has only been recently that a few high profile sexual predators are being held somewhat accountable, but most continue to evade justice.
The disdain of people like me on the passing of John McCain is not the crude bemusement with suffering shown by Trump and his supporters. To the contrary, we are the ones who empathize with the sick and suffering through fighting to provide the kind of healthcare that McCain received to every person regardless of income. Rather it is our own mourning, mourning the loss of opportunity for a person who committed despicable acts (including criminal ones) and bemoaning a political establishment that will not even let us try to hold him accountable in the historical record by accurately relaying who he really was.