Who Do We Praise? A Tale of Two Passings

The eulogies will never end. Everyone is talking about the death of John McCain using the strangest language about "service" and "honor" and the like. It's no surprise - as Aristotle tells us praising Athens before the Athenians is barely a challenge. Tropes of hard work, dedication, loyalty, honor, love of country, self-sacrifice, and others are so easy to generate to call them thought would be overkill. John McCain died from a horrible illness, and death is almost always, almost universally, by all audiences, considered to be a loss. But the amount of praise McCain gets from people who disagreed with him, or thought his ideas and policies were bad, says a lot about what we value, or don't value. 

At around the same time McCain died, playwright Neil Simon also passed away. The attention Simon's death generated was paltry to that of McCain. Neil Simon wrote some of the most popular, appealing, and probably the most produced plays (if you count high school theater and speech competitions as production) in the world. He brought us a very complex, very humorous and sad, very intense portrait of human affairs. And that's why he's not treated the same way in death as John McCain.


McCain's job, like any politician or senator, is to simplify incredibly complex issues in a way to either garner support from them, or to make his support for them intelligible. This principle is applied to everything, to the point of harming understanding and harming appreciation for the issue itself. McCain's "service" that he is so praised for could refer to his time in the military or his time as a senator. Oddly, his awful time in the military did not inspire him to call for demilitarization or even raise the question of why to have such a large fighting force. He took it as a given, as natural, and called those who did not support it unpatriotic. McCain's "service" made him and his family very wealthy, and it also gave him what Kenneth Burke called "occupational psychosis," the natural lean to see the world in the terms of your profession or perspective. As a military man, he saw the world as a military problem, and was happy to reduce and "cook down" issues to this simple formula. As an example, I watched one of the many panegyrics on TV for McCain - an old former senator - talk about how McCain always said that issues were about "men and mission" just like in the military. Not only is this stupid, it excludes everyone who does not identify as a man as well as reducing the work of government to something like a video-game level. Do we want to think of governance as a mission? Do we want to think of the people involved in these issues as "men," with all the military association that comes with? McCain did, but I don't believe he was that interested in thinking. Making reduction your principle of understanding betrays your motives quite well. McCain, a career politician, probably said, "well look it is really just one issue here" more times than any sane person should. McCain is praised for service, but I think the more appropriate term is "servile" - beholden to shoring up absolute concepts of value regardless of what violence they do to the world. We as a society love that. We love it when someone "sticks to their principles" regardless of the wake of damage it causes. Delusion like this, often referred to as ideology, has a long history of being praised, simply because of the ideology we have of strong, single-minded individuals who don't change their minds being good people. This is of course in direct contrast to our lamenting society's inability to understand facts. McCain, and many others, are part of the problem as they spread this shoring-up, simplistic discourse in order to consolidate their power, enrich themselves, and somehow govern the nation.


Neil Simon, on the other hand, celebrated and worked toward complexity. Far from reduction, Simon split his view of the world into multiple, contrasting voices and had them talk to one another. He put them in impossible situations and had them talk about it. He then had these performances placed before audiences to generate even more conversation.  In his plays, each character is as sympathetic as they are annoying. This seems like daily life, yet it's represented in a way that provides inquiry into understanding rather than the reduction needed to garner an understanding. For example, Simon would give us a controversy and involve people who would expose their motives through speech in a way that would make us dislike them for the very reasons we understood where they were coming from. Such emotional contrast would make us rethink our attribution of motives ourselves, and wonder how we understand at all. Such work, very difficult to do, is what Mikhail Bakhtin identified as "dialogism" - placing voices and ways of speaking in contrast that would not naturally interact. Simon was a master of this, and as a result, we got a very sneaky way of inquiring into our own motives, our own biased ways of viewing and knowing the world. Simon's world is one where uncertainty is welcome, and we evaluate argumentation and conflict from several perspectives at once. The result is an inquiry into motives and values. An inquiry into how we know what is right, bad, good, or sad. Such an operation slows us down, makes us think, and makes us less likely to engage in eradication of views that are not our own. A plethora of discourse, speakers, and modalities often gets a laugh, but that laugh is the first step toward taking inventory - "Am I like that?"

John McCain is celebrated because he oversimplified the world and made us feel good about it, even if we thought his votes and policies were not good. We admire him because he "served" his country - whatever that means. Reduction always converts the anxiety of understanding as a practice into the comfort of understanding as fact. If you are right you no longer have to think. No wonder we miss him.  McCain's work was that of stripping away the complexities that make us recognize our humanity rather than shoring up oversimplicities to make it easier to funnel money and power on a global scale.

Neil Simon gave us no such comfort. His work placed human complexity and frailty right in front of us to show us our understanding was always incomplete. We saw our dependence on language and the incapability of language on stage in familiar situations. We wondered if we were like those characters. We wondered why we liked them even if they were flawed. We wondered about what it meant to care for someone else. All the questions were raised and open. A very dangerous feeling, best consigned to entertainment. He confronted us with the impossibility of knowing as anything more than a practice that must be defended. No wonder his funeral is not televised; no wonder his obituary is on the theater page. Truly insightful people who cared not for country, but for humanity, threaten our comfort. When we gain the sort of love we have for militaristic simplicity for the fungibility of value and the power of language, we will treat our Neil Simons better than our servile senators.