McCain–Sage of Stability

During the ending days of the Presidential campaign it seemed to those on both sides of the Red-Blue divide that we might be facing the end of days; some because a man of African heritage with documented exposure to Muslims might be elected, and others because he might not be elected because he is a man of African heritage with documented exposure to Muslims.

John McCain took an uncomfortably agnostic position in this battle of the social apocalypses. He suggested in the offing that Barack Obama was a man of mystery who had known associations with terrorists that had yet to be fully explained. Yet, Senator McCain was always cautious to stop short of overtly plucking the strings of lingering racism and well-nurtured xenophobia. His running mate was famously, and perhaps shamelessly, much more reckless, as were a substantial portion of his official and unofficial champions. His supporters in the electorate quickly connected the dots marked by the candidates, their deputies, and members of the media who regard the seeding of dark and seething suspicion as simply part of “showbiz,” to conclude that then-candidate Obama was, himself, a terrorist, a “sleeper cell,” a “racist . . . loon” and, quite famously, an “Arab,” and therefore unworthy of trust.

Senator McCain’s response to the “Arab” allegation was not to overtly deny the claim. Rather, he emphasized that Obama is “a decent family man, citizen, [with whom] I just happen to have disagreements . . . .” Senator McCain was criticized for that reaction by some who thought he should have more firmly denied the claim itself, or corrected the underlying assumption of the speaker that Arabs are not to be trusted, but I think McCain’s instincts were right, revealing a pretty sophisticated political theory of social stability with which I agree. More on why after the jump.


President Obama arrived to the national stage on a sleigh of unity, proclaiming that the bi-polar identities that define us are illusory in the light of our shared identity is Americans. A similar sentiment animates his debut to the ball, The Audacity of Hope. It is simple enough to dismiss such views as confusing audacity with naivte. To claim that we are one America is to beg the question of what it is to be an American. It is precisely the contests over that identity, whether overt or hidden behind proxies, which divide us most deeply. Senator McCain’s wild-haired interlocutor is a case study. Her question presupposed that one cannot be both Arab and one of us, just as others during the campaign questioned whether one could be both one of us and Muslim, critical of American foreign policy, or even a resident of a city.

The blunt fact of the matter is that these debates over the “real” America, along with many of the other lines that divide us are intractable, or at least very well entrenched. I do a lot of thinking about mass atrocities, and have been wondering as of late how it is that even in the face of some rather vicious divisions, we remain a pretty stable country while others fall into murderous chaos. A central thesis of my current work is that, ironically, it is our divisions that unite us. After reading a bunch of mid-Twentieth Century literature in political anthropology, particularly E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Max Glucksman, my working hypothesis that stability in society is not achieved by uniform allegiance to a core identity or norm, but by maintaining a diversity of oppositions. The picture is of a highly segmented society fractured along lines of, inter alia, gender, religion, class, ethnicity, race, education, region, family, sports allegiance, beer preference, etc. Critically, each division by necessity implies an association. Individual identity is formed in the space defined by the idiosyncratic overlapping of many circles of inclusion and exclusion described by claims of existential sufficiency. I am a Cubs fan, a Bud man, a heterosexual, an agnostic, a Southerner by birth, a Baltimorean by fate and choice, a Hoo, a Gray, white, etc. Each of these claims implies the exclusion of its opposite, but the length and diversity of the list means that with respect to almost anyone who might live on the other side of one or another definitional line, she and I share space on the same side of others. I will sneer at someone picking up a six-pack of Miller in the store and immediately cut him slack for his Cavs hat.

Healthy, stable societies maintain a sort of dynamic stability by never allowing one line of division to achieve definitional hegemony. That caution makes for the practical impossibility of mobilizing large groups to a program of committed mass violence because diversified segmentation produces social inertia. What goes wrong in abusive regimes is that one or another line of division rises to a level of dominance and becomes fundamental. Thus, the brilliance of McCain’s response. When it was suggested that Obama is an Arab, McCain reinforced social stability through complexity by highlighting several prominent features of Obama’s identity, connecting himself, his audience, and Obama through collateral lines of association. While he could have simply corrected the record by pointing out that Obama is not, in fact, Arab, to do so would have effectively reified the implied division between Arabs and the rest of us. The brilliance of Obama, of course, is that he is a living counter-thesis against a host of many constantly circulating proposals for American fundamentalism (beware the would-be prophet who says you cannot be both, say, a true Christian and a Democrat), which made McCain’s task pretty easy. We can all see something of ourselves in Obama: a left-handed, black man, born of a white mother, Christian, horrifically bad bowler, cool-guy, Crackberry addict, sometimes-smoker, Steelers fan, and, yes, father, and family man, who disagrees with John McCain on a few things.

In anticipation of what may be written in comments, some have criticized McCain for implying in his response that Arabs cannot be good family men. I simply did not take that to be his intended or implied meaning, and see no evidence in his life or record to warrant such a conclusion. I disagree with John McCain on a lot of things, but he’s a Bud man.

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2 Responses

  1. smhten says:

    Very interesting. So how did we get here, and how do other countries get to a similar place? If Rwanda had had a plethora of beer, sports, ethnic, and regional identities, would things have turned out differently? But of course Rwanda’s a small country, does that matter? Is their ability to diversify the connections their citizens have across divisive boundaries constrained by their small size, both in terms of population and land area? These are just some thoughts that occurred to me while reading your very interesting post. I hope you develop these thoughts further, and that I get to read them.

  2. David Gray says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful response. This is work in progress, so reserve the right to revise and extend, particularly in light of further comments here, but with that caveat, my present view is that size does not matter and that all societies, by definition, have the diversity of oppositions and associations necessary to achieve and maintain dynamic stability.

    On the issue of size, I am wholly in debt to the ethnographers I have been reading, who tend to work in what we might regard as small, insular, and fairly homogenous societies. Even in these societies, a closer look reveals tremendous complexity.

    The idea that the components of dynamic stability are inherent in society comes from a Rousseauvian instinct that a society capable of reaching a point of massive and rapid melt-down by definition was capable of maintaining stability for a good long time. Mass atrocities are precipitated by a rupture and consequent imbalance in that existing dynamic matrix. That task in transition, then, is to reconstitute what was lost rather than to create a new society from whole cloth. Again, the instinct is Rousseauvian: that there is a form of not just government, but social stability constituted by a dynamic civil society that is unique and appropriate to a particular society. Pursuit of stability in transition bent on importing without adaptation a model of society that may have worked elsewhere is quite likely to fail.