The Candidates from Nowhere

The last three major-party presidential candidates standing have this in common: the state abbreviations after their names–John McCain (AZ), Hillary Clinton (NY), and Barack Obama (IL)–are no more meaningful than the random pairings of letters in a spoonful of alphabet soup. These are the candidates from nowhere. Or in Obama’s case, from everywhere. And this rootlessness has policy consequences.

Senator John McCain is a poster boy for the pathologies of the military brat. Born in the Panama Canal Zone, he attended twenty schools in his nomadic childhood.

“The place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi,” is how he shuts up critics of his carpetbagging, but he is making their point: Senator McCain’s loyalty is not to any particular American place but rather to a bureaucratic institution (the military) and an abstraction (the American Empire).

After marrying his second wife in 1980, McCain alit in her home state of Arizona in 1981 and was elected to Congress in 1982. He was a classic political carpetbagger searching for a winnable congressional seat, but when a voter questioned his lack of roots he shot back:

“Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things.”

An effective response, to be sure, but note the subsurface contempt for those who stay in one place. Not to worry: a President McCain, with his oft-quoted willingness to keep U.S. soldiers in Iraq for “a hundred years,” won’t let deep roots grow under our young people. His Army, always moving, is going to need bodies.

The Democrats are no more connected to particular places than is McCain. Hillary Clinton’s rootlessness became a national joke in her 2000 U.S. Senate campaign to represent New York, a state in which she had never lived. Wearing a Yankees cap was about as far as she went to assert her ersatz New Yorkness.

Barack Obama, lauded as the “world candidate,” was born in Hawaii, a state that is only in the union because of its military significance. Raised also in Indonesia and at various times resident in Los Angeles, New York City, and finally Chicago, Obama is a “cosmopolitan,” which by some lights means a sophisticate but which a character in Henry James’s Portrait of Lady defined as “a little of everything and not much of any. I must say I think patriotism is like charity-it begins at home.”

“Isolationist!” shriek the Thought Police if confronted by a James-like opinion. And in fact Senator Obama has said that “We cannot afford to be a country of isolationists right now.” Then again, cosmopolitans think we can never afford to leave other countries alone and mind our own business. Because their business is our business. Or as Obama says, American security is “inextricably linked to the security of all people.”

Obama’s limitless internationalism is encapsulated in his statement that “When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern.” This is, quite possibly, the most expansive definition ever essayed of the American national interest. It is a license for endless interventions in the affairs of other nations. It is a recipe for blundering into numberless wars-which will be fought, disproportionately, by those God & Guns small-town Americans evidently despised or pitied by Mr. Obama. It is redolent of the biblical assurance that not even a sparrow can fall to the earth unnoticed by God. The congruence of the roles of the deity and U.S. foreign policy in Obama’s mind is not reassuring to those of us who desire peace and a modest role for the U.S. military.

Why does this matter? What’s wrong with electing competent but rootless people to public office? Because just as one cannot love the “human race” before one loves particular human beings, neither can one love “the world” unless he first achieves a deep understanding of his own little piece of that world. America is not, as the neoconservatives like to say, an idea: it is a place, or rather the sum of a thousand and one little, individuated places, each with its own history and accent and stories. A politician who understands this will act in ways that protect and preserve these real places. A rootless politico will babble on about “the homeland”–a creepily totalitarian phrase that, pre-Bush, was not applied to our country.

People lacking strong identifications with specific places-a block, a village, a city, a state, a region-will transfer their loyalties to abstractions. Woodrow Wilson, a displaced Southern minister’s kid, renounced the traditional American practice of neutrality and tossed the First Amendment in the scrap heap in his crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” George W. Bush, the Texan-cum-Yankee prep-school cheerleader, has wasted astronomical sums and thousands of lives in a campaign whose ostensible purpose is to democratize the Middle East and “rid the world of evil.” The costs of such grandiose schemes may be measured in billions of dollars and acres of corpses. In addition, political power is centralized, citizens are uprooted, and the economy undergoes wartime distortions. These are reckoned acceptable prices to pay for the achievement of mighty (if ultimately unachievable) abstractions. But democracy was no safer despite the First World War, and I daresay evil will exist long after U.S. troops come home from Iraq.

People with local attachments, by contrast, will ask the question that never quite gets injected into national debates over war and peace: What are the domestic costs of this crusade? Loving their block, they will not wish to bomb Iraq. Loyal to a neighborhood, they will not send its young men and women across the sea to kill and die for causes wholly unrelated to local life.

Losing sight of small and precious things, a president without roots will have no domestic or sentimental reminder of why foreign crusades, whose first casualties are the nearest and dearest things, should never be waged. But don’t mind me: I’m just an isolationist.

BILL KAUFFMAN’s Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism is being published this week by Henry Holt/Metropolitan.










More articles by:
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
R. G. Davis
Paul Krassner: Investigative Satirist
Negin Owliaei
Red State Rip Off: Cutting Worker Pay by $1.5 Billion
Christopher Brauchli
The Side of Trump We Rarely See
Curtis Johnson
The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting
Jesse Jackson
End Endless War and Bring Peace to Korea
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: What About a New City Center?
Tracey L. Rogers
Candidates Need a Moral Vision
Nicky Reid
I Was a Red Flag Kid
John Kendall Hawkins
The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin’s Unstoppable, Historic Career in Music
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Elizabeth Keyes
Haiku Fighting