As always when I woke up this morning, I read the news. It’s a sullen habit. Half awake and shielding one eye from the light, I squint at whatever misery has befallen humanity in the night.
John McCain is dead. A stab of adrenaline hits, the heart rate rises. You want to tell everyone who might be interested and, in turn, you’re met with ‘ach, that’s such a shame. Good guy, good guy.’
I refuse to say the same beyond basic courtesy. Contrary to the mass public outpouring of sorrow when public figures die, I’ve never been able to express the sentiment for politicians who haven’t impacted me directly (a mantra especially true for foreign statesmen).
Why, bluntly, do we give a damn? I’m not talking about the media reporting on the event itself. In Western politics, the death of the former U.S presidential candidate is a legitimate point of interest for the casual observer as much as the politico. Where the line blurs is when tributes, either from the political class, the media or the public, descend into outright fawning or misleading criticism as if somehow everyone knew the man.
In many respects to say someone is ‘famous’ is inappropriate; it infers a passive value judgement rooted in the subject being recognised at all. That’s the cancer at the heart of celebrity culture right there. Few pay attention to the little details, only the broad strokes, and create a life narrative in simple terms.
John McCain, by most accounts, was an honourable man but who one spent a lifetime defending America’s interests. To fawn over his death is to conveniently overlook that in his professional life he could have been at odds with what was in, say the British national interest (he was against Brexit – a fact, I’m sure, if pointed out to the Daily Mail would leave them scratching their heads after their splash coverage of his passing).
Much like with the deaths of other ‘famous’ Americans, such as Ted Kennedy (for who we conveniently forget the Chappaquiddick incident), there should be a greater appreciation for the notion that ‘to know him was to love him’. We didn’t know him, or McCain. The hysteria generated and the tributes from those who didn’t understand his professional work suggest a profound ignorance.
John McCain was a well-known international figure. He was a patriot for his country and for that there is no shame. But to cast him, like so many others, in the light of being globally famous is to imply that he worked for the world when, as he would proudly say, he worked for America.
Unwarranted adulation rooted in celebrity culture is as equally damnable as jumping up and down on McCain’s grave. Anti-establishment voices, the far left, and the alt-right have been quick to bemoan McCain as a pillar in the swamp of power and some proclaimed his demise. Ignorance is no justification for applause or hate.
When Henry Kissinger eventually meets his maker, it will be a curious thing to see the same effect occur. Another American politician who the world can recognise by their mononym, Kissinger’s death will, nevertheless, be a little different but the same exercise.
So long is Kissinger’s shadow, schisms and arguments will erupt in the Western Hemisphere regarding his conduct of American foreign policy. Some will defend him as a master realist and others will condemn him as the exemplar of despotism who disregarded human rights on a whim. While this line of inquiry would be best left to those directly impacted by his policies, particularly those in Chile or Indochina, Kissinger provenly irked nearly every government in the world at some stage. Will the press remember this?
This, with no shame, is a very small ‘c’ conservative argument. Ceaseless public commentary on things on which no one has direct involvement or impact is what fuels governments and politicians and the mentality that life and organisations are the same everywhere and can be fixed the same way. That’s the knowledge and understanding principle – we can’t know everything, and we can’t know, fully, that which we’re not engaged with.
One wonders if the Western press has not become precisely that; focussing on one hemisphere and largely ignoring the rest of the world. Given how little attention has been given over to, for example, the Macedonian name-issue there’s a strong argument for Angliiski bias. Press bias is very much alive – as the analysis of McCain’s death showed – but ignorance of the wider world is the ongoing sin.
John McCain was an American political giant. He was internationally recognised. Launch yourself from that springboard and into your own research into his life and look beyond the headlines.