Belinda Carlisle once sang that “heaven is a place on Earth.” Black Mirror twisted this premise to ask whether uploading your consciousness to a simulated 1980s beach town with your true queer love could also be heaven. I find these and almost all other visions of heaven more convincing than the one that gets airtime whenever a well-known person, such as Sen. John McCain or Aretha Franklin, shuffles off of this garbage planet.
It goes a little something like this:
There is such an abundance of diseased imagination here that I almost don’t want to pick it apart. First you have Sen. Dick Durbin, who thinks McCain’s soul had to fly to the afterlife in a Navy fighter jet, a journey that held the risk of… engine failure? Being shot down by cherubim? A nosedive into hell? I don’t know.
Even worse is the fanfiction about some respectability-centrist Lord Almighty assuring the late statesman that while Trump is of course ineligible to enter heaven, the gates are wide open for brave #Resistance Republicans who voted in line with the evil president 83 percent of the time.
Somehow, though, it is cable-news hack Ana Navarro’s fantasy of McCain and the Queen of Soul rubbing elbows in the sweet hereafter that epitomizes this critical deficit of brainpower. What the fuck is the “freshman section” of paradise? I won’t lie, I genuinely worry for anyone who pictures heaven as a high school cafeteria. And if we’re going to indulge any of this feel-good religion, I’d suspect the man would like to check in with his dead family and friends before getting grilled by Aretha on his opposition to MLK Jr. Day.
But no, he’s got to strike up friendships with recently departed celebrities… and Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995. That’s the deal.
Don’t think that McCain being subjected to an eternity of hippie guitar noodling is as stupid as this gets. Allow me to point you toward the Twitter account @CharlieACN, a feed ostensibly run by one Charlie Skinner, a fictional character portrayed by actor Sam Waterston in HBO’s short-lived and widely mocked media melodrama The Newsroom. The series concluded in 2014, and for several years afterward, everyone continued to dunk on a guy tweeting as the show’s protagonist, until he rage-quit last September. The far less notorious Charlie, however, is still going strong — even though he died in the penultimate episode. So when McCain passed away, we got this rather incredible post:
Try to wrap your head around that. It’s an actual person — cosplaying as a fictional man, mind you — claiming that he (the guy who never existed, but is canonically dead) is drinking in heaven with the spirit of a deceased politician who did, in fact, live and breathe in material reality. The human brain was not made for this. Please stop.
Or, at the very least, try to interrogate the weird assumptions in these scenarios mocking the earnest celebs-in-heaven tweets.
There’s something disturbingly American about the earnest belief that McCain would be schmoozing with the cultural icons who preceded him in death.
It betrays an obsession with hierarchical power — a sense that mortal dissolution does not affect your VIP status. McCain was a big cheese in U.S. politics; ergo, he’s equally major in the kingdom of god, interested only in spending time with fellow marquee names. This is an extension of age-old ideas about who gets into heaven in the first place. How one makes the cut for the Good Place is a prime concern, for example, in Calvinist theology, which holds that an inscrutable deity alone anoints people for salvation or condemns them to hell. Clearly, we as a nation consider fame, wealth and pedigree among the criteria for holy reward.
That intractable elitism works hand-in-glove with a desire to oversimplify any complex legacy.
McCain was a man of contradictions, and his persona was often more symbolic than practical. It’s hard to find a consensus even on whether certain memorable moments showcased him at his best or his worst. To place him in heaven skirts the issue by claiming that all the shitty stuff he did is obviously outweighed by a vague aura of decency. Conservatives can look to his conservatism as proof of the requisite moral fiber, while civility-minded liberals are satisfied by his mere bipartisan etiquette — it doesn’t matter that he helped pave the road to a Trump administration as long as he represented a bygone style of governance that they can pretend was any less cruel.
But the thing about heaven, as any hardcore evangelist would tell you, is that it defies comprehension. Depicting it as an exclusive club or cocktail party is kind of pathetic, and I say that as someone who doesn’t subscribe to the concept at all. Is playing Scrabble with Philip Roth or dropping molly with Avicii really the best post-death outcome on the table? Because man, that’s bleak. I’d kinda hope, at the very least, to transcend my meager identity and maybe turn into a giant space fetus.
Besides, who cares what residue of the corporeal McCain survives in another dimension when the rest of us still feel the consequences of his actions on Earth? We needn’t speculate about how a cosmic creator may have judged him — just admit you’ve judged for yourself.