Monday, August 25, 2008

On Houses and Homelessness

The debate over the Presidency increasingly seems to be narrowing in on who can prove the other candidate to be more wealthy, effete, and out of touch. The Democrats are gleeful over McCain's confusion over how many houses he and his wife own.

The Republicans respond with this execrable piece of garbage, an ad attacking Obama's elitism and implying he can't find the time to care about his relatives. (It also seems that the implicit claim of this ad is that, if you have been a prisoner of war, you should have as many houses as you can get).

What's missed in this mud-sling fest is the fact that they are both out of touch - and necessarily so. Both men - and Hilary, too - come from nowhere. They have no roots. They are loyal to abstractions - McCain to the American Empire, Obama to the citizens of the world. Bill Kauffman said it best, here:

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.


The criterion of devotion to preserving and protecting local spaces and communities never was an official or unofficial desideratum of the Presidency. It was understood early on by the Antifederalists to be an office whose occupants would seek to advance expansion and centralization of national power. Each of the candidates is devoted to that ambition, in spite of differing avenues. Each will concentrate more power in the center. Each will contribute further to the evisceration of our localities. In their homelessness - in spite of any number of homes they may own - each is an appropriate candidate for Presidency. Let's not lose sight of that in the fake fight over whose bank account is bigger.

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