Historians know that when we write history it reflects both the era we are analyzing and the present time in which we write. The same is true of obituaries and eulogies: we see the past of a notable life through the lens of our current preoccupations.
That has been apparent with the recent tribute to the life of Senator John McCain. There is much to memorialize in his long life of service including extraordinary endurance as a prisoner of war, a lengthy career as U.S. Senator including major accomplishments in campaign finance reform, the normalization of relations with Vietnam, and the opposition to the use of torture by U.S. intelligence. And, of course, two campaigns for president, including one as the Republican nominee. Indeed, all of those accomplishments (and more) were cited.
But, again and again, commentators kept coming back to the two moments he corrected campaign supporters who said they were scared of an Obama presidency because he was an Arab and a Muslim. These moments were notable for both their decency and for correcting profound misinformation. A lot is revealed by our fascination with McCain’s very traditional understanding that his political adversaries were decent, committed opponents worthy of both opposition and respect.
What is revealed is obvious, I guess: that this consensus of civility and respect in the public sphere is a thing of the past.
John McCain was oddly caught up in the middle of this breakdown. The fires of irresponsible rhetoric that he sought to calm in 2008 were, in many cases, fanned by his own running mate, Sarah Palin. The internet rumors that McCain’s opponent was not American, was a Muslim, and was ineligible for the presidency because he was not a “natural born citizen” were not furthered by McCain but emerged during the campaign and were amplified throughout Obama’s presidency, supported by Donald Trump and the National Enquirer. (Ironically, it was McCain himself who was born outside the United States—in the Panama Canal Zone where his father was stationed.)
McCain again found himself in the middle of a civility debate during the 2016 campaign when candidate Donald Trump renewed a claim he had originally made in 1999 on 60 Minutes that McCain should not be considered a war hero for being captured. The new comment came early in the primary campaign, and many pundits thought it might cause Trump to lose support. The fact that it didn’t was evidence that the public attitude toward the rhetoric of insult had already changed.
McCain continued to be in the center of civility disputes when he withdrew support for Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged that his celebrity status allowed him to kiss and grab women with impunity. Trump responded by calling the “foul-mouthed McCain” a hypocrite for his stance.
These ugly disputes loomed larger than they should have in McCain’s memorials because the issues around them are so much with us. I have written before about how I see a variety of cultural forces shifting the public dialogue towards insult, attacks and name-calling: shock-jock techniques crossed with political radio; the rise of stand-up comedy with its heavy dependence on exaggeration; reality-TV built on the premise that boorish behavior is entertaining; the political punditry of cable news framed as contentious debate as if everything has two sides that are best expressed by shouting at one another; and the celebration of insulting and obscene political opinion as the coin of the realm on social media.
At the same time, those who call for greater respect for conflicting views have been condemned as accommodationist, comfortably espousing civility from positions of social privilege.
In this environment, the passing of John McCain became an occasion for a nostalgic mourning for a world in which political differences—often highly consequential and bitter—could still unfold in the framework of grudging respect, compromise and co-existence. Ultimately, we reach political decisions in a society that contains people with sharply differing views. That is the reality of a democracy. The question is how do we manage it. And that we don’t know how to answer that question hung over McCain’s funeral like a cloud.
As an educator, I believe that we must always be looking to improve the quality of political engagement and discourse. We must speak and act in support of what we believe, but we must also think about how best to speak and act in a healthy democracy. This is important in our classrooms, too. And that extends not just to the form of our dialogue but also to the substance: respect for facts, data, and logic and resistance to sloganeering and propaganda.
The McCain moment reveals we are in conflict and flux; it isn’t the dramatic end to an era. It is a shame that McCain’s own fundamental decency may have partially occluded his other virtues and accomplishments, but it is a good thing that it may have helped us focus on bettering our larger public discussion. So as we begin a new academic year, let’s commit at Sage to civil discourse, mutual respect and a search for truth in our classes and our community as a whole.