Wednesday, March 26, 2008


It has sometimes been noted that John McCain isn't much of a details man. He speaks of al Qaeda and Iran as one, despite the Shi'ite/Sunni divide. (In fact, this is a complex area and there have been attempts at Islamist action across said divide, but that doesn't justify not knowing about it.) He also doesn't seem to care deeply about economics. He seems more or less willing to go along with fusionist orthodoxy ("conservatism") on most things, but he isn't deeply invested in it.

McCain can most sympathetically be understood using Jane Jacobs' distinction between the "guardian syndrome" and the "commercial syndrome" of morality. Outside the US, the right is almost entirely identified with the latter -- the idea of finding value, of innovation and entrepeneurship, of being self-interested but respectful of the rights of others, and not too concerned with how well they do so long as profitable interaction is possible. In the US too, people like Gingrich and Romney seem to perfectly embody the commercial syndrom of morality, as of course do the doctrinaire libertarians.

The anxiety that McCain speaks to arises from the suspicion that too much commercial success undermines the military virtues that the barbarians outside the commercial gates retain. From this perspective, the problem is not the intelligence of our strategy, but the maintenance of those virtues. Understanding our enemies too much or thinking about the ways we might work with semi-adversaries to isolate them is risky, because guardian virtues are undermined when they are understood. If you analyze honour, loyalty or courage, you lose them.

The position McCain represents is just as dialectical as Obama's. After all, it is the achievements of commercial, scientific and liberal civilization that makes America better than those it is fighting, but it is just those achievements that undermine the pre-commercial, pre-scientific and pre-liberal virtues necessary to fight. McCain has had the imagination to see in some strands of environmentalism and goo-goo political reform seeds of a post-modern guardian morality. Although McCainism tends to declaim against "relativism", it's real target is an excessive attachment to objectivity. Ideally, a soldier fights for what is his because it is his, and cheerfully acknowledges the right of his enemy to fight for what is the enemy's.

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