John McCain is dead and before you check Twitter, before you allow yourself to imagine the roiling demonstrations of grief and indifference and cruelty, you try to take an inventory your own feelings. You try to feel without anticipating a reaction, to avoid beta-testing your human experience.
You are surprised by your own sadness. You know that a battle will play out now over his legacy. You know that battle begins before the body is cold. You know that he will be beatified by those who truly loved him and knew him, who mourn a friend and father and hero. You know that journalists are prone to the maudlin and reverential, and mixed in with all this sincerity will be countless performances, pundits starring in a Sorkinesque drama of the loss of the last good man—a branding exercise for the dead and for the living. And then there will be the cool kids, proud to feel nothing, to point out that sentiment is somehow weak and naive. And you know too that there will be those policing the reaction. Too sad or too smug. Too snarky or too cold.
We are all a little broken now, a little twitchy, a little corrupted by punditry and public relations and social media. This is the Age of Authenticity, of an impossible standard: that you must be yourself and be perfect; you must be savvy but not hurt your side; you must break through but not cross the line; be real and acceptable; live on display and manage your brand; obsess over symbols and tokens and representations, while being cynical enough to know that ceremony is for rubes. Do flags at half-staff matter? Do you care? Why? What does it matter? When you celebrate someone you like despite the harms he would have implemented, are you righteous or are you a silly person, charmed by temperament and a narrative that divorces politics from its impact on actual lives?
John McCain was funny and acerbic and had soul and pathos and blind spots and cruelty and conviction. He was bellicose. He was bled and broken and brave for his country. He was dangerous and his decency as a man is belied by the death toll of the foreign policy he espoused. He sold out to corporations but he believed in campaign finance reform. He saved Obamacare but would have repealed it. He was enamored of independence and then surprised you by living up to it, rarely. He was complicated. He believed in America. He was big in a place filled with tiny tiny little fuckers. He was a patriot and he was wrong. He was a patriot and if there is a core challenge we face right now, if you could say in one sentence what may doom this country, it is that cowardice, greed, hate, and power have drained the patriotism of one of our two political parties.
It’s true, the world would be far worse if John McCain had his way. But it would be far better if more politicians had a shred of his character. And that ought to be mourned. That ought to be grieved. And if he is not an adversary to celebrate in death, if he is not an opponent to pause and appreciate, then none can be. Maybe that’s how you feel. Maybe now, at this moment, you see the Manichean stakes, you see the wretchedness of this administration and those who compromise with it, you feel the assault, you know the pain and loss that the Washington class does not care to see, and it all rings tinny and false. But if you can’t in your own inventory find some love alongside the genuine anger at the celebration of a man whose politics you despise, that doesn’t make you a better partisan; it makes you a harder person. It’s sourness, not purity. No one is above grief. But there is plenty of space beneath it.