The Death of John McCain: How We Talk about Legacy

John McCain is dead. A war hero, a bastion of decency, a maverick. A war monger, a rude old man, a toe-the-line conservative. McCain has been attributed these epitaphs many times, by groups with varying political persuasions. And to be frank, I suspect that the last three descriptors I ascribed to the recently departed might have offended a great many of you. And understandably so. With the public mourning and his body lying in state for the purposes of national ritual, there is no denying McCain as an icon. An icon whose’s legacy is, shall we say, being cemented rather uncritically. And is that craft, the making of legacy, that makes this present moment very interesting for us as a people. How do we shape a legacy in the making?


I won’t spend too many words on the life and times of John McCain, as others have done so to great length. Suffice to say, it’s complicated. Yes, McCain has been known to cross the political divide to support bipartisan efforts such as his co-authorship of the 2005  Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act with the late Ted Kennedy, which would have established a guest worker program and path to citizenship to migrants that conservatives loathed. Yet this effort, like many of his others, failed and what is left are positions that fall in line with conservative dogma, such as his support for Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 “Papers Please” legislation, which gave Arizona police the power to detain anyone they suspected of dubious immigration status, which corresponded closely with his senatorial primary race. It’s this confusing dichotomy that runs through McCain’s life. He may have supported the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988 which helped indigenous people’s, including Arizona’s Navajo tribe, establish what would become the main economic driver for these societies, yet nevertheless would force them to relocate from Oak Flats and Big Mountain to satisfy industrial mining interests. And while he had reservations about torture, as evidenced by him speaking out against the U.S. partaking in it at Abu Ghraib, he stilled remained a staunch advocate of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and beyond. If I can summarize my feelings towards the recently departed, as limited by the para-social relationship I have to the man, McCain was an exemplar of the tendencies of liberal conservatism, for better and for worst. He was rhetorically committed to liberal values, but would often make exceptions and compromises in an seemingly pragmatic effort to remain on the good graces of corporate interests, his neoconservative allies in Congress, and his personal ambitions. Exceptions that would often hurt others, both here and afar.

Yet with the flood of obituaries and eulogies from journalists, politicians of both parties, and personal friends, that more honest assessment is being masked. His largely conservative voting record being obscured in favor of a focus on his bipartisan efforts; his consistent militarism and the accompanying fallout of said actions veiled by a focus on his civility. That is the image, the legacy that is being shaped. A legacy not just for a passive remembrance, but to actively shape the public imagination.

Who is legacy for? Is it purely for the dead, a mere record of their past deeds? If that was entirely the case, I would doubt these ghosts would still be popping up in our present conversations as often. Take Martin Luther King. To anyone who has studied him, his writings, his actions, and the culture’s reaction to him and the rest of the civil rights movement, knows of his radicalism, his stances against white centrism, and the negative reactions he received for his acts of civil disobedience and the overall gains of the civil rights movement. Yet these truths about the man are often ignored whenever a Black Lives Matter or National Anthem protest rolls around. When Martin Luther King is evoked in these moments, it’s often to cast the contemporary protests as uncivil, as spitting in the face of his memory; whether it be a protest on the street or kneeling on the field. In these scenarios, MLK’s legacy of civil disobedience is twisted to help shape the moving goalposts protestors of racial disparities have to aim for if they desire majority support.

My point in this brief aside is to introduce you to the idea that legacy is less a record of the dead, and more a tool for the living. A tool that helps shape the public zeitgeist to the interests of the sociological majority and the institutions that largely represent them. From my observations of John McCain’s funeral and the statements made in this moment of public mourning, the beginnings of crafting legacy as a tool seems to be happening once again.

Various media outlets have focused on the subtle digs at Trump that have appeared through-out the funeral proceedings by Meghan McCain, Barack Obama, and more. Indeed, with the focus on McCain’s public feud with Trump as of late and the president unsurprising tone-deaf actions in response to the famed politician’s death, such an emphasis is expected. Though such rebukes might indicate what direction McCain’s legacy will take in the immediate future. Trump and the gang of ghouls that ascended with him are emblematic of the rise of the illiberal elements of the Republican Party, figures who have little regard for liberal values, save for when they can be used to push forward their agenda, and openly align themselves with white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, and other strict interpretations of the social hierarchies of our liberal society. The alt-right in other words.  By focusing on how McCain’s legacy symbolically counters this rising storm, men and women from both parties hope to restore the liberal conservatism that McCain exemplified. A tendency that, while reliant on the after mentioned illiberal elements as a method to drum up support, was never completely consumed by them in rhetoric or values.

Some might say that this is a good thing, a way to counter Trump and his base. I disagree! Trump certainly is unique specimen of cockroach, and the alt-right is a blight I rather see snuffed out. But I feel the position I described ignores the failings of liberal conservatism.  Ever since it’s rise in the 1980s, liberal conservatism has saw the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the erosion of many of the gains for women and people of color in the 1960s and 70s; developments that I consider largely responsible for many of the present disparities in the world today. Reviving such an ideology is counter-productive in finding the solutions to the problems we face in the present.

Rather than using legacy as a tool of idealogical warfare, I propose equating legacy to lesson. What we, the living, owe the dead is not to view them as either angels or demons, but rather to craft their legacy to be as close to the truth as we can. This way we can learn from them, their successes, their failures, to craft a better present for ourselves and a even greater future for our posterity. Some might say that such efforts are best left to a more convenient season, to let the dead be buried and the wounds of loss to heal. I am sympathetic to this, particularly for those who were close to the man, but given the crucial moment this represents in terms of legacy formation, I chose to stand firm. We owe the dead the truth so the living may avoid the sins of the past and enjoy the hope of the future.

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