I’ve been thinking a lot about how we remember people lately, particularly since John McCain died. To read the American media’s coverage of McCain’s death, he was some sort of saint. Yet, in reality, he was human, just like the rest of us. Worse, he was a Republican, and a successful Republican at that; a member of the party of willful ignorance; the party of “small government hypocrisy – who claim they will shrink government but grow it – the party that only cares about rich white American males.
McCain is mostly being eulogized as a bipartisan, principled politician who put country and principles ahead of self and party. In many ways, he is being remembered based on a cherry picking of speeches and public comments he’s made since he became a politician. (Also, we cannot for one moment forget about his time as a POW and how that influences the coverage of him.) He is not being remembered for his voting record. He is not being remembered for being a warmonger. He is not being remembered for helping to introduce the lunatic fringe into the mainstream of the presidential race by making Sarah Palin his running mate.
The members of the media who choose to point out that McCain was not as bipartisan as you think, not as principled as you remember, and who courted the lunatic fringe when he thought it would benefit him politically – i.e. those members of the media who want to remember him based upon his actions, rather than his best speeches and comments – are mostly on the fringes, in radical left wing publications most Americans ignore. But the truth of McCain’s political career remains; he was not bipartisan, he was just another Republican politician most of the time despite his lofty rhetoric, and he voted for policies and actions which not only actively harmed people in the US but, in the case of certain foreign policy votes, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. He was no saint and he certainly wasn’t a hero.
We justify glossing over all of this by saying things like “never speak ill of the dead.” I am not, for a second, advocating that when someone famous dies, we dig up rumour and gossip and pile it on. Nor am I suggesting that we do anything at all that would deliberately hurt the family of the dead person. But I think we should give the act of remembrance a try, rather than mythologizing the dead.
I have long believed we should try to remember the dead how they were, not how they’d like to be remembered and not how we wish to remember them. I know that’s a tall order, especially when it’s your loved one who has just died, but for those of us who are remembering a famous person, rather than someone we knew personally, I think it’s a very achievable goal. I think there are a number of reasons why we should try to remember the dead as they were in life, instead of a fantasy which is more pleasing to our emotions.
We Owe No Moral Obligation to the Dead
Once people are dead they are just that, dead. Throughout history, we humans have spent inordinate amounts of time eulogizing, memorializing and mythologizing the dead. I suspect this treatment of the dead has never come from a reasoned, thoughtful consideration of what death truly is, in a physical sense, or what it means for us philosophically, but rather merely from our feelings of loss and grief.
If we understand what death is – the end of life – and we think about it in such a way, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we do not owe anything to the lifeless. I know of no convincing moral argument that we owe anything to dead bodies. How we choose to honour the dead is up to us, but the dead do not impose any kind of moral obligation on us to honour them in a specific way or, really, to honour them at all. Honouring our dead is an important tradition, an important part of grieving and dealing with loss, but it’s not a moral obligation – it’s a practical tool to allow those still living to move on.
When someone dies who we do not personally know, we are not morally obligated to tell a particular story. I am inclined to argue that, if anything, we should be morally obligated to tell their story as best we know it, not as we wish it was.
I have personal reasons for wanting us to remember the dead the way they were, not the way we’d like to remember them – that is the way I want to be remembered.
I try to be as genuine as possible in the course of my day. I want to live a life with as few regrets as possible – regret is emotional poison – and part of that involves feeling as though people know me as I am, that when they meet me they really meet me, as I am, and not some kind of fabricated personality I’d like to be. Yes, like everyone, I change my behaviour to fit a given situation, but that is involuntary. To the extent that I can control my own behaviour, I try to be my authentic self as much as possible.
I wan to live in such a way that most people I meet distasteful but rather think of me as a good person.
When I am dead I will not be able to care whether or not I am remembered or how I am remembered. But if I could care, I would want everyone who does remember me to remember me, not some idea of me that they made up to cover up the parts of me that people found distasteful.
We Want to Live in a Better World
But who cares how I want to be remembered? What really matters is that how we remember people is actually a way of socially regulating behaviour.
With the exception of sociopaths and the odd person who is really, really convinced they are right about something that most people are wrong about, we all want to be liked and thought well of or, at the very least, not hated. There is the phenomenon of “death bed confessions” when people who have behaved in ways they regret try to atone for that behaviour by confessing their regrets before they die. We see the same thing with the retired rich, some of whom spend much of their lives devoting money and time to charity, seemingly as a means of atoning for previous behaviour. We want to be liked and we hate the idea that, in death, we will be remembered poorly.
But when we gloss over a particular famous person’s faults in public eulogizing, we give the impression that, as long as you say the right things, and go out the right way, people will remember you fondly, even if you contributed to starting a war in which hundreds of thousands of people died for no reason. (Just as bad, you never learned the lesson that military intervention is not a political solution to anything.)
When we remember someone as a hero whose political record actively made people’s lives worse – and even ended lives – we are providing an escape route for people who act in immoral and unethical ways but who want to feel good about themselves when they die. As long as they do enough to make people forget about their actions, and behave “the right way” as they near death, they will be mythologized and remembered in a way that they will feel comfortable with as they near death. Given that the sense of mortality is, to my knowledge, one of the best ways we have of making people behave in socially responsible ways, celebrating people as heroes regardless of what they’ve done removes the behaviour curbing from the sense of mortality. When we celebrate people regardless of their behaviour, we remove one strong impetus compelling socially acceptable moral action and remove one of the main social stigmas we have to deter negligence and cruelty.
Remembering the dead as they were is both more honest and socially better than remembering the dead as mythic figures or saints. If the family wants to remember their loved one as a saint, that’s their prerogative but, for the rest of us, particularly those who were affected by the actions of the dead, lionizing is of no consolation and is a form of lying. Worse, it sets a terrible example to other people who believe they will get away with the same shit.