A man died this week who served as a complex symbol in US politics, and whose legacy is fraught by the harm bolstered by his political actions. How do we move forward from deaths that remind us of so much social damage?

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This week, amid surging Ukrainian drone strikes against Russia, Europe’s largest wildfire (yet), and the racist massacre of three Black citizens in Florida, a US veteran died of pancreatic cancer. He was 49 years old.

Because he had put himself in the political spotlight, and because he had stayed there despite significant holes in his original story, leveraging political attention for further media appearances, a book deal, a potential record deal, and even a campaign run, his death was never going to be a private affair. Like so many of the families that he criticized when their children were murdered by gun violence, his family will endure the legacy of his messy political life throughout their grief process. Like so many of the immigrants he proposed shooting at from a Mexican border wall, he will be known more for his lowest moments than, say, the outreach work he did for fellow veterans.

It’s the fate to be expected by many families of the most prominent (along with any other family that has difficult members in the mix). And some families are, of course, more culpable in the actions of their destructive loved ones, especially those who achieved high ranks in public office and the world of business.

But one abiding sentiment, when someone who has played such a role in the sound and fury of mainstream politics dies, is simply… exhaustion. Sadness. Resignation. All that bluster, all that performance to stoke up cultural division, and to what end?

The family of the man who died this week is religious. The man himself was religious. They doubtless believe that he is in a better place, with his creator, and that they will see him again. Whatever harm he might have done with his politics, and his misrepresentation of the “average joe” when he first became famous, is irrelevant to many people who believe themselves saved by Christ. The world is a mess, and we do messy things in it. So it goes. The struggle is over now. Eventually, the end will come, and God will wipe away every tear.

Except that the struggle is not over: not for the rest of us.

The impact of people who spend their one and precious lives sowing division, or exploiting others for personal gain, lives on in those who remain.

Is there any way to move with dignity through the mess they leave behind?

Coping with the death of people who’ve done harm

For all the online jokes about Death at the claw machine, asking “Is Kissinger even in this thing?”, all men do die. Henry Kissinger will die. Donald Trump will die. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mitch McConnell… you get the picture.

READ: Kissinger’s century, and US complicity

And in their passing, there will invariably be whole groups of human beings who breathe a sigh of relief, however bittersweet, knowing all the damage done by their lives. Or maybe even cheer at the departure, and break out the bubbly. Or excitedly share online a hope that someone remembers to deface their graves.

Humans, right?

During the pandemic’s more intense phases, the Herman Cain Award emerged as a site of therapeutic satire, to cope with the number of COVID-deniers and antivaxxers whose actions endangered others. The original reddit forum was a place for frustrated, helpless, and scared people to vent outrage at those who made the pandemic even more difficult to navigate safely. It was one thing for prominent Evangelical Christians and Republicans to succumb to COVID-19 themselves; it was entirely another for them to lead their “flocks” into similar peril: the elderly, the young, and the people with high-risk co-morbidities trusting in their leadership.

That site of outrage, though, sometimes led to harassment and even doxxing of family members of the deceased. Because we humans never seem to do moral outrage in half-measures, do we? When harmed, we have a propensity to harm others in turn. Even when we’ve known persecution ourselves, we can easily perpetuate the cycle. Our experiences of injustice, rather than opening us to deeper compassion, can just as easily close us off, and narrow us to small-c conservative notions of retributive justice for every strike made against us in the past.

When our world has been reduced by so many bad-faith actors, death often feels like the easiest way to “fix” the toxicity. If only X number of people were to drop dead tomorrow, taking all their racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, and science denial with them, the world would be a better place!

It’s a dreadfully non-humanist sentiment (and also a deeply misguided bit of wishful thinking), but it comes from a very human place.

There are so many whose life stories amount to the harm they’ve caused others.

And so many who ache to live in a kinder world instead.

After all, we already have everything we need to share the fruits of our species’ development so that no one need go without. Even Herculean challenges like climate change might be met responsibly, if a few people harboring the vast majority of our resources were no longer monopolizing so very much.

Instead, though, most of our news cycles find us wading through the harm caused by provocateurs: people who regard sowing division, fear, and hate as a good use of their time alive.

What are we to do with the legacy of so much life wasted in ways that only increase the burden for those around them? Especially those of us who see this life as the only shot we get, and want to leave the world a better place than we found it?

What about the real Average Joes, who are simply trying to do the best they can for their loved ones? To live in peace, and meet each obstacle as it arises with decency, strength, and compassion? Who don’t need or seek the thrill of public provocation to feel secure in themselves and the work they do in their communities?

The impact of people who spend their one and precious lives sowing division, or exploiting others for personal gain, lives on in those who remain.
Is there any way to live with dignity through the mess they leave behind?

The death (and rebirth) of an Average Joe

This latest death stands out because the individual was quickly made to stand for something more than himself, and helped give rise to modern right-wing extremism. He was supposed to be an embodiment of the “Average Joe” (i.e., a white, middle-class-aspirational, rural and trades-driven family man). Folks “like him” were supposed to have legitimate economic reasons to feel threatened by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, even though his work and tax situation actually fell into categories that would be helped by Obama’s proposed changes.

If anything merits a swift death, though, it’s that myth of the Average Joe—to be replaced by a conceptualization of human beings that unifies more than it divides.

The “real” Average Joe rarely has time to become a media sensation.

And yes, that Joe is probably still struggling—but not just financially: also, from a wealth of uncertainty exacerbated by the state of politics in our fragile world.

How and why “exacerbated”? Well, by design, unfortunately.

There’s a strain of religious belief that holds that the poor are necessary: that without the existence of people living in hard times, one cannot also create a situation in which others learn compassion, and practice charity. In this school of religious thought, government and general systemic uplift are antithetical to creating “godly” citizens: some whose lot it is to be humbled by their poverty, and some whose lot it is to be sanctified by their giving natures.

This same rhetoric enshrouds the myth of the Average Joe, as it is used by many political actors in the US. The Average Joe must be struggling, the truly disenfranchised participant in modern politics, so that various parties may draw upon the symbol for their own righteous road to office.

No one is truly well served by this status quo.

Least of all the actual Average Joe used as such a pawn in every election cycle.

But some can indeed make a life of fame and fortune out of it: in politics directly, or at least in the muck of adjacent infotainment media.

The question is, can we ever build a culture in which more of us would be appalled to leave such a legacy behind us, when we go?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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