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John McCain and the Question of “Honor”

John McCain doesn’t deserve our praise. But his sense of "honor" resonated with many, even those who abhorred his politics. We can't ignore it.

Jennifer A. Villalovos / US Navy

Senator John McCain’s death led to a worshipful celebratory frenzy inspired by Democratic and Republican establishment figures, as well as a mainstream media yearning for a return to the “normal” way of doing political business in Washington. Much of this celebration, coming even from important figures on the broad Left like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sprung up as a reaction to the boorishness of Donald Trump, despised by John McCain for having broken the “normal” Washington consensus on the NATO alliance and “free” international trade.

But McCain was far from a “moderate” Republican. As Ashley Smith pointed out, McCain was a hardline imperialist who never encountered an opportunity for US military intervention that he did not support. He actively participated in military actions in Vietnam that involved indiscriminate use of napalm and Agent Orange and strategic hamlets to crush the Vietnamese resistance to US imperialism — actions that clearly fall under the category of state terrorism. He also opposed divestment and sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

On the domestic front, he voted against making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday and supported a ban on abortion. While he voted against the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act in July 2017, just a few months earlier he supported a tax-cut provision that subverted Obamacare by eliminating the individual mandate, while also supporting the broader — and highly inequitable — tax cut itself. McCain voted with the Trump administration 83 percent of the time; the US Chamber of Commerce gave him a grade of 80 percent over the course of his Senate career while the AFL-CIO gave him 16 percent.

All of this is true and well-known. Yet there is a recurring theme in McCain’s career that merits deeper reflection on the Left.

Clearly, his political record was right-wing. But on some issues, McCain evinced attitudes atypical of American right-wing politicians, as when he came to the defense of Barack Obama, his presidential campaign opponent, against the attacks of a right-wing Republican supporter who had said Obama could not be trusted because he was an “Arab.” (While some have argued that McCain’s rhetoric played into racist tropes about Arabs and Muslims, it seems clear he was attempting, though clumsily, to push back against his questioner’s racism.) Though he was a staunch backer of imperialism, McCain was strongly opposed to torture. And he penned an unexpected and moving tribute to a lifelong Communist, Delmer Berg, the last survivor of the American Lincoln Brigade who fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascist-old right alliance in the 1930s.

McCain’s politics were deeply reactionary, and he was always eager to commit horrific acts of violence overseas. But to a limited but real extent, his actions were also influenced by the tradition of “honor” that was valued by the military officialdom he came from, as the son and grandson of Navy admirals and himself a former Navy pilot. It was that sense of honor that many liberals found admirable, making them willing to overlook McCain’s hard-right politics and praise him upon his death.

Leftists who reminded us of McCain’s career track record rightfully argued that those hard-right politics matter far more than any abstract commitment to “honor.” But the Left should also reckon with the fact that many find that sense of honor strongly compelling.

The notion of honor has its origins in the pre-capitalist, aristocratic tradition, whose reactionary nature was reflected in the exclusive domination of ruling-class men and the subordination of women, the lower classes, and “inferior” races. The duel was a good example of these aristocratic practices. In the antebellum South, where there was a self-styled aristocracy, duels took place only among white Southern “gentlemen,” who would never duel with a white sharecropper, let alone with a black man, whether free or slave. To these “gentlemen,” it was inconceivable that a black man could be offended by a white man. This would have been considered an “uppity” notion to be harshly punished, including with the penalty of death.

But actions motivated by honor are not necessarily aristocratic or reactionary. A case in point are the US military lawyers who, motivated by both their professionalism as lawyers and their sense of honor as military officers, have put up a strong, vigorous and principled defense of the many men, mostly from the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, held prisoner at the Guantánamo Naval Base, including through protests against the illegality of the military tribunal system itself.

In this positive sense, honor means living up to an internal code of self-imposed rules that are intrinsically worthy and not dependent on the approval or fear of others, or on expectations of reciprocal benefits.

This kind of honor was, as sociologist Craig Calhoun stressed in his analysis of the 1989 Chinese student movement, an important motivator of the students’ willingness to take the serious, deadly risks of confronting the Chinese repressive state. And, as he also wrote, honor may come into play in the case of political prisoners who, based on a logic of guilt and innocence, may justify their having ratted on their comrades under torture, but who nevertheless lose their sense of self as a person as a result.

Honor is what may often kick in to reinforce one’s sense of working-class loyalty and solidarity when the risks of action are high and benefits uncertain, as in the case of a striker refusing to be a strike-breaker in spite of intense pressures to feed and shelter his or her family. Honor expresses the great stubbornness of purpose and commitment that may be necessary to survive great hardship in one’s own terms.

Whatever commitment he held to this sense of “honor,” John McCain doesn’t deserve our praise. But wrongly or not, his fealty to that honor clearly resonated with many — even those who found his politics abhorrent. Honor is a powerful force, but an apolitical one, capable of being wielded by politicians like McCain, but also the Left. McCain’s death has reminded us of how powerful of an appeal honor is. We can’t afford to ignore it.