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This post is a week overdue, and in our weird funhouse media environment, that might as well be eternity (I suppose I should really be writing about Burt Reynold’s death now…and maybe in a way I am). Yet the larger ramifications of this eulogy are bigger than just one moment, and since none of our leaders said quite the right thing, we have to piece meaning together on our own as the wreaths wither and the pomp dissipates.

Like a lot of American, I have been thinking about John McCain’s funeral and the legacy of one of the most eminent national leaders of our era.  My feelings about McCain’ politics are complicated and are undergoing revision (indeed, my feelings about America’s “great era” during the second half of the twentieth century are likewise complex and undergoing change).

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But this post isn’t about politics as such. As is traditional for a funeral piece, it is about larger issues of character and value.

During the horrible 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously cast aspersions on John McCain by saying “He’s not a war hero…He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” The implication was that McCain was some sort of loser–one of the ultimate insults in Trump’s big book of putdowns (which the swindler apparently has held onto since primary school).  I stand against Trump and the dangerous poisons he has injected wholesale into our political system, yet his imputations against McCain are worth examining…for McCain’s life was indeed deeply shaped by loss.

McCain was born into the shiny luster of deep brass: his father and his grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy and it was always clear his life too would follow a path of naval service and leadership.  But that path often veered into strange and horrible territory of loss and failure, to wit:

He lost his freedom during a disastrous war which we lost.

He lost years of his life to torture, deprivation, and cruel mind games.

He lost the Republican primary in 2000 (possibly due to dirty tricks) and he lost the presidency itself in 2008.

He lost his political party to Trumpism (although whenever Trump’s runaway train finally blows up, whatever Republicans are left, if any, will cravenly say that they always were always McCain style mavericks who were never fully with the Donald).

He lost a battle with cancer and he lost his life.

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Yet McCain’s life was not defined by these losses.  He kept stepping around them and he kept on swinging to the end.  McCain never gave up.  He kept on trying even despite mistakes, setbacks, or naked misfortune.  If we told young John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton that he would survive and become a wild success–titanically rich, internationally known, and one of the great legislators of his day—he might have doubted us, but, clearly, he kept grasping forward despite pain and despair.  The Navy’s (seldom used) motto is “Semper Fortis” which can be alternately translated as “Always Courageous” or “Always Powerful”.  These different interpretations can have different…or even opposite meanings, but McCain tended to prefer the former even when it was at the expense of the latter.

One of the most pernicious forces in life is loss aversion which Wikipedia defines as the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.”  Loss aversion makes people value things incorrectly. The fear of losing one’s crummy medical care makes one avoid taking steps which would provide better medical coverage.  The fear of losing one’s dead-end job makes it hard to conceive us the endless possibilities for meaning and success. The fear of losing national prestige leads us down a paranoid and brutish path which self-evidently forfeits moral leadership.

Undue fear of loss is undue FEAR, or, to be blunt: people who are excessively afraid of losing things become cowards, and cowards do stupid, crazy things.

We have all lost things in life…things which haunt us. Lately we have lost things as a nation too.  Most disastrously we have lost our ability to stand up for honor and fairness even if it hurts us in the short term.  If we let this haunting fear creep into our hearts we will lose more things: our hard-won social gains, the great scientific discoveries of tomorrow, international prestige and the inestimable (albeit imperfect) boon of Pax Americana.  We could even lose our democracy, and end up with a thing that is called a republic but which is not truly a government representative of the people’s wishes.

John McCain is gone. We have lost him (and I suspect even his detractors and opponents are already starting to feel that loss), but we can honor him in the way that he would appreciate best.  We can learn from our losses and then put them behind us without letting them change who we really are or make us afraid to do what is right. That would be a true legacy, towering above a name on some building or highway.  America claims to be the Home of the Brave.  In his best moments, John McCain was indisputably brave. Let us all partake of this inheritance and try to be braver.

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What is the most powerful force in human affairs?  Most people would probably assert that love is paramount.  Compassion for one’s mate, one’s family, or one’s fellow beings is sublime, and love certainly always takes precedence over baser motives…in art, literature and music.  Compelling arguments can be made that pursuit of status is the most important thing (I suppose this includes ambition, greed, pride, and fame-seeking in all of their guises, good and ill).  An idealist would say the pursuit of wisdom is our greatest drive:  it is only through wisdom that we understand the world and collectively move upwards (or, indeed, know anything at all).  Cynics might say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates people.  Religion, with its false certainties and self-serving rules could also conceivably be named as the prime motivator of our social species (probably by some priest in a silk robe riding a palanquin weighed down with gold).

Unfortunately, these are all wrong.  The greatest force of human affairs is fear.  Any felon or dictator (or middle manager) knows the fastest way to make people behave a certain way is to credibly threaten them. Fear also lies beneath all the other drives listed above. Even when people are motivated by love, it is their fear of losing love (or never finding it) which makes them act.  To motivate a parent, tell them their children are in danger! Economists tell us that the pain of losing a thing is more intense than the pleasure of attaining it (and I believe them). But superseding any of that, fear is a fundamental constituent part of all of us.  Terror and anxiety are hardwired into us by evolution.  An animal which doesn’t watch out for predators, traps, and adversaries is soon dead.

I will tell you another reason I say this.  I am afraid.  I am afraid to even write this terrible truth. When I was a child I lay awake, unable to sleep because I was afraid that God would send me to hell for some infraction.  When I finally realized that there are no deities except for the ones we imagine, I became afraid of death which brings an eternity of utter oblivion.  I was afraid that nuclear war would burn away our civilization and leave the last survivors to die rotting and screaming of radiation-poisoning.  I was too nervous to talk to girls.  I hid in books and even they made me afraid. In sleep I was tormented by nightmares.  The only time I haven’t been afraid was when I was drunk.  So I drank as deeply as I could.  Then one day I became even more afraid (rightly) that drink was dragging me to my grave and robbing me of myself.  Our fears are not necessarily wrong or false—but feeding them by indulging them…or trying to run from them…it only makes them worse.

I have told you that fear is the main motivator of folk (of all our fellow animals, actually). It has saved us time and again…it is how our forbears survived this world of fangs, traps, spears, Assyrians, and mustard gas in order to reproduce. But it is a terrible weakness too. Politicians and the press know this better than anyone.  Listen to the speeches.  The main point is generally that you will be gunned down by madmen or outdone by foreign competitors if you don’t follow a certain leader.  Watch TV and look at how the ads manipulate you to buy snake oil and salad shooters by invoking your fear of cancer, old age, or other people.  The news today is instructive.  One group of politicians says “if you don’t carry a gun, you will be gunned down by a madman and the other side wants to ban guns!” the other side says “only if we ban guns, will we not be gunned down by madmen” and on and on they go, in a circle, about every subject.  It is driving us all crazy and reducing us to sad, angry tribes of wretched cowards.

This is just terrible! No wonder the authoritarians are creeping back and the quacks and con-men do such boom business.

There is only one recourse.  I am sure you know what I am going to say…but my point is a paradox, so I will say it with a tale ripped from popular literature. Did you read ‘A Game of Thrones”?  It is the story of an execution and its aftermath. The first scene foreshadows this, and has the best moment of all of the novels.  A group of conscripts and draftees are attacked and slaughtered by unstoppable monsters.  The terrified survivors of this attack run away and are subsequently caught by the authorities (the main characters!) who put the deserters to death.  The beheading is seen through the eyes of a child who is watching his father act as executioner.   Afterwards the child, Bran, is confused.  His foster brother said that the condemned man was afraid when died, but his other brother said the prisoner was brave and died well:

“What do you think?” his father asked. Bran thought about it.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Only when you are afraid can you be brave.  Only through such bravery can you avoid being ruled by fear. The theme is echoed later on as the protagonists’ fortunes falter and their little sister is lost in the midst of a brutal civil war.  To make her way through this terrifying world of armed goons and psychopaths with knives, she repeats a mantra again and again.  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It allows her to keep her wits when others freeze. It lets her do things she would be afraid to do otherwise.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is a platitude from a dime-store fiction (and a metaphor–don’t test it at home!), but it embodies a critical truth.  Winston Churchill said it as “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

On this side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said the same thing in his first inaugural address to nation terrified of the Great Depression “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” I am saying this to everyone, but most of all to my fellow citizens.  We need to remember FDR’s words again and again. In our world of seething change and garbage content which indulges facile drives, these words are as true as they were back when World War II bore down on all of us.

We MUST change.  We must look long and deep at whatever scary thing the clickbait article says and then think instead of just feeling. We must listen to our cowardly leaders carefully…and then we have to ignore our instinctual emotions and repeat  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”  Look at what I am saying right now (it’s scary stuff) and then repeat this mantra. Embrace your fear and understand it…and then do what is right instead of what makes you less fearful. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Repeat it when grasping old cravens on a screen tell you to give in to fear and submit to them.  Otherwise we will not live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We will instead be in the land of the fear, the home of the slave.

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