Magazine article The Spectator

In Praise of Isolationism

Magazine article The Spectator

In Praise of Isolationism

Article excerpt

Batavia, New York

The presidential campaign just ended was mercifully lacking in the ghostwritten platitudes with which Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan lull readers of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations to sleep. Hillary Clinton's only memorable utterance was her defamation of one quarter of the electorate as a 'basket of deplorables' -- a curiously clumsy locution that effectively conveyed her contempt for American prole-dom and sunk her candidacy. Donald Trump's best line was his dismissal of the foamingly bellicose Republican senator John McCain, who has built a career on his stint as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. 'He's not a war hero,' said Trump. 'I like people who weren't captured.' That outrageous exercise in lèse-majesté, and not his lurid remarks about illegal immigrants from Mexico, was the first real sign that we were dealing with a man who could walk through walls.

The most endearing statement by a candidate this election cycle, though, came from the Libertarian party's standard-bearer, the former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. When asked on one of those dismal cable network shows about the conflict in Syria's largest city, Governor Johnson replied, 'What is Aleppo?'

Poor Gary. His question-as-answer contained the germ of peace and wisdom, yet all he got was mockery by the blonde TV anchor babes and the callow opinionators of the Manhattan-Washington axis. For when it comes to remote hotspots, ignorance is not only bliss, it is also the trait that once made America not great, as Trump would have it, but good. You can be sure that millions of Vietnamese wish that Lyndon B. Johnson had remained blissfully ignorant of Hue, and oh, if only George W. Bush had stuck to his baseball box scores and never learned the location of Baghdad.

Gary Johnson stumbled into one of the great suppressed truths in American politics: most of us don't give a damn about Albania, Algeria or Aleppo. (I confess to breaking ranks on Aleppo, but only because that's where my late father-in-law grew up -- quite happily, too, though in recent years it has been largely depopulated of its Armenians, who wish devoutly that the world-remoulding marplots of western neoliberalism had never heard of that tragic city.)

This is, I will be told, isolationism. Damn right it is. It has coursed through the veins of most red-blooded Americans since George Washington, who in his farewell address warned his countrymen against 'foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues'. This tradition isn't belligerent or xenophobic: '-isolationists' are the people who are opposed to killing foreigners. But to the disgust of editorial writers, they'd rather tend their own gardens than meddle in antipodal affairs.

As a North Carolinian remarked of US intervention in the first world war in Thomas Wolfe's novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929), 'It's not our fight. I don't want to send my boys three thousand miles across the sea to get shot for those foreigners. If they come over here, I'll shoulder a gun with the best of them, but until they do they can fight it out among themselves.'

'Why are we over there?' is the question asked around the dinner tables of working-class and rural families -- the Deplorables whose sons (and now daughters) are vastly overrepresented in the US armed forces. No one at elite levels bothers answering them: the exigencies of empire are not fit subjects for the hoi polloi. …

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