07/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain and The White Man's Burden

In politics, a gaffe is when you accidentally reveal what you really think. In a press release last Friday, the McCain campaign unveiled a new TV ad that is intended to reach Latino voters by honoring their contributions to the United States but that instead commits a telling gaffe by reminding "us" that God loves "them" too:

So let's from time to time remember that these are God's children.

Jesse Jackson may be mad at Barack Obama for "talking down to black folks" -- but at least he never referred to blacks as "them" or demeaningly reminded a primarily white audience that blacks are "God's children too."

To be fair, the McCain footage in the ad is from a Republican debate last year, so the words originally were off-the-cuff remarks by McCain, not scripted (much). Viewers would be tempted to cut a candidate some slack in that setting, looking to the intention behind the remarks instead of parsing the words in detail. But by clipping this footage and putting it on television a year after the fact precisely to shape a message, the campaign is saying that it endorses both McCain's sentiments and McCain's specific words.

The ad's intention is good. It says true things about the contributions Latinos have made to America. Given its context in a Republican debate, it also shows courage, standing up to the Nativists in the Republican Party who tend to be paleolithic when it comes to seeing any good in non-Anglo cultures.

But McCain's attitude also is paternalistic, and underlying his comments is the archaic, imperialist sense of noblesse oblige -- the assumption that even though God chose, sadly, to make "them" (either the lower classes or some variety of colonized people) inferior to "us," we still have a moral duty to be kind to them and to recognize whatever good qualities they may have. Even the sentence structure of the ad -- that the subject (whites) should think nice things about the object (Latinos) -- is colonial. One prominent Latina journalist responded wryly when I asked for her take on McCain's ad: "I am glad we are God's children. I often had my doubts." Another, Marisa Treviño of Latina Lista, said:

You should be flabbergasted over the commercial. We all should be appalled.

(Marisa's subsequent blog post blasting the new McCain ad can be found here.)

I don't think McCain's a racist per se; I see him as a cultural chauvinist, not an ethnic one. But by running this ad, McCain and his handlers are revealing that they're not even aware of how demeaning, and dangerous, that subtle division of America into "us" and "them" really is. McCain's new ad tells us that he believes there are two Americas -- and that while he feels kindly toward the Latino America, it's not his true constituency.

But even more significant is that McCain seems to see Latinos (all of whom, apparently, he believes to be immigrants) in terms of what the poet of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, called "The White Man's Burden."

Kipling's poem of the same name was written a little over a century ago, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, a war McCain and his Iraq adviser Joe Lieberman would do well to read about today. The U.S. had conquered the Spanish colony of the Phillippines with relatively few casualties -- but was completely unprepared for the native insurgency that followed. Filipino guerrillas seeking independence killed more than 4,000 American troops, to the dismay of the American public, which had been told by an overconfident Administration and a criminally cooperative press that the war would be over quickly and that U.S. troops would be greeted by the Filipinos as liberators. Kipling, a fan of Empire, urged President Teddy Roosevelt not to end the occupation, saying that respecting Filipinos' requests for "freedom" would be a cave-in to "terror" and unfair to the heathen, wild, sullen, "half-devil and half-child" brown people America had "captured." It reads in part:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain....

Our new war of occupation -- what Kipling called a "savage war of peace" -- is the same Burden, the same Terror, and the same War as the ones Kipling wrote to Teddy about. Iraq's President has clearly and repeatedly called for the U.S. to get the hell out of his country, please -- but McCain is taking Kipling's advice and

What does Iraq have to do with McCain's views about Latinos? A couple of things. One is that, as most Latinos know and most Anglos do not, the history of American Latinos is the history of America's sporadic, disastrous attempts to become an empire. The Spanish-American War, for example, began with exactly the kind of government propaganda, secret political and economic agendas, and yellow journalism that misled us into Iraq -- and resulted in America's acquisition, in addition to Guam and the Phillippines, of the Hispanic territories of Puerto Rico and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. In other words, as America's Puerto Rican and Cuban Latinos are well aware, America's efforts to expand its political and economic empire in 1898 led precisely to the kind of century-long occupations McCain considers acceptable in the Middle East today. Some Latinos consider America's domination of Puerto Rico and Guantanamo a blessing; some consider it a curse; but nearly all are conscious of the impacts America's past dreams of Empire have had on their community.

Even more significant, though, is the glimpse the ad gives into McCain's larger inclination to divide not just America, but the whole world as well, into a superior "us" and an inferior "them," with "them" needing our intervention whether they like it or not. McCain's worldview is a modern incarnation of Kipling's, one that sees nobility in the willingness to sacrifice, to bleed and die and "bind our sons to exile" (ie, to serve endlessly in wars overseas), to save "them," wherever they may live, from themselves. It's a "suffering servant" worldview, not the crassly commercial one of the British East India Company or Halliburton, but it's imperialistic nonetheless, and it explains McCain's stated willingness to remain in Iraq for a century if needed, even if the Iraqis don't want us there. It explains the courage he showed in Vietnam -- his willingness to voluntarily remain in captivity while continuing to affirm that "the wrong side won." It helps explain why McCain's book "Faith of My Fathers" discusses his family's legacy of overseas military service using religious terms, as if Empire and Faith aren't separable in his mind.

It's a courageous, self-sacrificing and benevolent view. And it leads down a bloody, endless road that America, like England before us, has been down before, and should not willingly start down again.

UPDATE: OffTheBus "Listening Post" audio of McCain campaign conference call announcing and explaining the "God's Children" ad here.