Who Tells Your Story?

John McCain passed away of brain cancer on August 25, 2018. He was a controversial politician, a naval officer, a prisoner of war, a father, and a son. Over the past couple of days since his passing, the public has been divided on when and how to speak about him—people directly affected by his actions in Congress have praised his death while others feel that the grieving period after his death isn’t the time to talk about his contentious views. After the news of McCain’s passing was on every news outlet, the condolences poured in from politicians that he agreed with and openly sparred with. People praised his veteran status, called him a ‘hero’, and lifted his family in prayer. Other people called him ‘war-obsessed’ and reminded the public that he used a derogatory racial term aimed at East Asians, and pointed out the fact that he supported a bill in 2005 that would cut funding to programs like Medicare.

Seeing this conversation take place online and hearing it take place in my own circles, I realized that there was a deeper issue than the death of one man. The issue is that America has a history of gas-lighting the disenfranchised to preserve the mythology of the white American hero. The maxim “don’t speak ill of the dead” has led to a dishonest silencing meant to preserve one’s mythology rather than be honest about the person’s legacy. The difference: a mythology is what you want people to remember, the legacy is what is actually left behind. History lies with those who have the power to tell it and depending on the rhetorical spin, a mythology will take the place of the legacy.

“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” — Peter S. Beagle

In his death, McCain has been granted revision and editing of his story. The major news outlets, focused on the social decorum of waiting to dissect a person’s character, emphasize the most tragic parts of McCain’s life. The imagery reveals a man who fought and was tortured for the freedom of millions of Americans, a man who lost his biggest battle to cancer, a man constantly fighting and remaining strong until the end. This is the hero’s mythology. It strips him of humanity, thereby stripping him of the ability to do wrong unless the wrong led to an ultimate lesson that redeems him.

Multiple truths exist about McCain and it would be unfair to substitute a bad truth for a good truth because of optics. Denying his role in furthering the disenfranchisement of poor people and people of color erases their voices and experiences. It is especially hurtful when people of color are not offered the same post-mortem revision of nuance and complexity. When people of color die, they are put on trial (see: Black victims of police violence, Trayvon Martin, etc.), their past is brought up in ways unrelated to their works (see: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, etc.), and some of their relationship decisions overshadow what they left behind (see: Whitney Houston). Alteration is not offered to these stories unless it is done so in a way that purposely damages the reputation. Denying the not-so-pleasant parts of those stories would be dishonest, but they become the only part of that person’s story, unlike McCain’s where all of his negative stories are put on pause, slowly being erased from the narrative, out of respect for the mourning process.

Critiquing the way John McCain lived and analyzing his congressional decisions is not disrespectful. Humans are not flat characters and to accurately describe a legacy, the conversation that surrounds it must be painfully honest. Waiting to have a conversation about the totality of a person after the good has been pushed, makes it easier for myth to take the place of truth, leaving no “right-time” for the hard conversations to be had. McCain was not perfect, he was complex, he made some mistakes—some mistakes he learned from, others he did not—and acknowledging his impact does not disrupt mourning.

“Dead people can be our heroes because they can’t disappoint us later; they only improve over time, as we forget more and more about them.” — Veronica Roth