Wednesday, January 30, 2008


As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been really taken with E. Michael Jones' The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing. Jones, it must be said, is a conspiracy theorist nutjob in bad need of an editor -- but I think he's onto something, and his historical argument seems hard to refute.

The thesis of the book is that the death of our great American cities in the twentieth century was not, as commonly believed, a tragic mistake from well-intentioned efforts at improvement, but an intentional move to wipe out immigrant communities, who threatened the Establishment through their labor unions, political power, and different religion (primarily Catholicism, with its strong critique of Establishment sexual mores).

I was interested in the urban-planning angle, but Jones is interested in the ethnic struggle. Key to his argument is a shift, around 1930, from a racial to a class understanding of ethnicity. This shift allowed the Establishment to "convert" the Irish, Poles, and Italians (and others) by moving them from their ethnic communities to the suburbs.

It also opens up for us an angle from which to understand the WASP Establishment. My stock is solidly WASP. But I'd always taken it in purely racial terms: yes my ancestors are Anglo-Saxon, and thus necessarily white and almost necessarily Protestant -- but what does that have to do with anything? What Michael Jones helps us see is that WASP is not so much a racial inheritance as a state of mind.

WASPs understand themselves as the chosen race. They long ago gave up on ideology. (Indeed, I would argue, though Jones probably would not, that this is part of their strength: pragmatism allowed the English and Americans to be more principled by being more wary of half-baked theories.) They are successful and powerful, and consequently look down on other ethnicities, with their silly religions and hang-ups.

WASPs are good men, with a strong sense of honor and duty, and a natural reverence for tradition and country. But they do not believe in ideas, in part because ideas challenge their hegemony. WASPs are authorities, not to be trifled with -- to do so would insult their honor and integrity.

I bring this up, of course, because John McCain seems to have wrapped up the Republican nomination for president. John McCain, of course, is an honorable man. He fought for his country in Vietnam, and when offered a chance to get out of a Viet Cong prison camp where he was being tortured, he opted to stay with his comrades. Can't beat that for honor.

He's also a "straight-talker" -- which means he shoots from the hip and doesn't care what anyone thinks about him. That's certainly "honorable," and mostly commendable. It also has something to do with his total lack of ideas. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that McCain is inconsistent, or wishy washy. Those things he is not. I'm just saying that his consistency is based in his gut, not his brain.

Consider his position on Iraq, which seems to be his strongest issue. He supported the "surge" when no one else did; now that the surge seems to be successful, John McCain is the man of the hour. Fine. I support the surge now, and I supported Bush's decisions back when he was "keeping a small footprint" -- so McCain was right and I was wrong. But really, McCain's position comes down to little more than bellicosity: he wanted to fight bigger and harder. Fine. He was right. It seems to have worked. But that's not a theory, it's just an impulse. (And honestly, what I've read about Petraeus' successes seem to indicate a lot of theory, a lot of good ideas, and not just "Surge!" David Petraeus, by the way, is Dutch.)

Consider McCain's position on torture. I hope I don't misrepresent him here. McCain made a lot of noise "opposing" the Bush administration on this issue. But it was all a lot of bluster, because, so far as I know, he never entered a serious discussion of what constitutes torture. I think torture is absolutely wrong, always -- but the "moral syllogism" also requires a minor premise, which states what particular practice we're opposing. Big moral statements don't get us very far. (This, I suppose, also plays into McCain's environmentalism: fine, protect the planet -- but against what, and how?)

Even worse, though, I believe McCain said that of course he would use torture if it were absolutely necessary to protect the country--I hope I'm not misrepresenting him. This is the same mentality as the WASPs who ran World War II: we oppose the inhumanity of the Nazis and Japanese, so we'll only directly target civilians with nuclear weapons and -- worse -- firebombing if we really think we need to. Oh. This is thinking with the gut, and sometimes it leads to gross immorality.

Of course John McCain is "pro-life." That means he mostly votes against abortion -- which is good, and follows from John McCain's basically good moral sense. But when it comes to the government funding research on embryos, suddenly he shifts to pure utilitarianism. So, is it wrong to kill the unborn, or not? Forgive me if I seem simplistic, but this sounds like thinking with the gut. A good gut, but guts don't get you all the way.

(For the record, Steve Long's new book on Thomist moral principles gives all the tools to think through this question with great precision. On embryo research, pro-lifers are not the ones thinking with their guts.)

And then there's judges. He wants "clones" of Sam Alito and John Roberts (Catholics), who believe the Constitution means what it says, and is absolutely binding on judges. But he is also tremendously proud of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, which asserts that when the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," it implicitly means, "except if the speech or press might be critical of someone running for office." So which is it, Senator? An honorable man, John McCain thinks we should uphold tradition, and thus the Constitution -- except when we don't like it, because we perceive it to allow too much money into politics. (Incidentally, has anyone noticed a great decrease in political money since 2002?)

Will I vote for John McCain against the Democrats? Absolutely. His instincts are pretty good. At least he more or less cares about somewhat limiting the dominance of the federal government in our lives, and somewhat protecting "traditional" marriage (which I guess John McCain would see as a matter of tradition, instead of, as it is, a matter of nature and biology), and somewhat protecting the unborn, and somewhat protecting the Constitution. He's certainly willing to make moral distinctions in the international law, instead of this goofy business of equating Islamo-fascist terrorism with any form of legitimate military force. He's not all bad.

And WASPs aren't all bad. But as the example of The Slaughter of Cities helps us see, they aren't to be trusted, either. Their guts sometimes lead them to make imprudent decisions, often make them forget moral distinctions when the going gets rough, and brook no dissent from us lesser forms of life who are benighted by the belief that ideas matter.

So I'll vote for John McCain against Hillary or Barrack. But in the primary, I think I'll take Ron Paul, just to send a sign that I'm not happy with unprincipled government.