McCAIN'S ABSOLUTIST RELATIVISM
A couple of days ago, blogging for The New Republic, Peter Scoblic made a good point about one journalist's misreading of John McCain -- but Scoblic, I think, got it only half right:
This morning on NPR, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham provided a bizarre analysis of John McCain's worldview.... Meacham argued that, as fans of Reinhold Niebuhr, both McCain and Obama are "moral realists"--men who understand that good cannot always triumph over evil, that the world is stubbornly tragic, and, because we must live in that world, we must learn to compromise.... it completely misses the essence of John McCain....
McCain is the opposite of a moral realist.... the constant in his worldview has been Manichaeism--the insistence that the world is divided into good and evil....
I think that's an accurate assessment of how McCain conceives the world -- but I also think McCain can't always square his own actions with that worldview unless he deludes himself.
What you'll see McCain do on a regular basis is cordon off one corner of a moral question, draw a line in the sand of that corner, position himself on one side of that line, and persuade himself that he's acted on principle.
Thus we have him pushing for the Detainee Treatment Act in order to roll back President Bush's torture policies -- but not objecting to Bush's signing statement gutting that act, and not voting to ban CIA torture, and supporting a Bush veto of a CIA torture ban. In one corner of this issue, McCain supports Good and opposes Evil. Overall? Not so much.
In the campaign, we saw McCain months ago promising not to sink into the gutter. That promise has been abandoned, with gusto. But in one tiny corner -- the utterance of Jeremiah's Wright's name by McCain and by people working directly for him -- he's standing on principle. (Laughably this week, as we saw when McCain flack Michael Goldfarb accused Jeremiah Wright, and by association Barack Obama, of anti-Semitism while piously refusing to utter Wright's name.)
Sometimes McCain puts the tiny corner and the larger field in the same sentence -- how many times have we heard him say he doesn't care to talk about an old washed-up terrorist whose organization forty years ago bombed blah blah blah blah blah? Honor, in McCain's mind, requires him to walk away from this gutter act of declaring Obama guilty by association -- after he mechanically repeats a talking point about what a contemptible person Obama has been associated with. McCain's line in the sand is a sort of "fair use" doctrine of slander -- if he keeps an Ayers smear under one sentence, it's not dishonorable.
McCain, thus, isn't really a moral absolutist -- but he sure engages in moral contortions to persuade himself that he is.