Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

“I can see Russia from my house”

Americans do have different perspectives about the world, based on where they live. Let’s start with a bad example: Midwesterners are isolationist, because they don’t live on an ocean, which would widen their view of the world. Nonsense: they tended to be isolationist because of the high concentration of ethnic Germans, who weren’t eager to shoot Uncle Fritz in either World War.

But that stereotype aside in fact Americans who live in the Southwest view illegal immigration differently from those who live elsewhere. Southerners may have a different view of the Civil War than other fellow citizens. Those in the original thirteen states may have a distinct historical consciousness shaping their view of the country. See How the States Got Their Shapes for the political consequences of States’ boundaries.

In Harvey Mansfield’s edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, there is a map (p. xvi) showing the American continent, Amerique Anglaise. Alaska is labeled as Amerique Russe. (Keep in mind the conclusion of vol. I, where America and Russia represent different futures for the world.) Signs of Russian presence—in forts and churches—can be found throughout the State. Japan occupied some of the Aleutian Islands during World War II. And Alaska is home to our only ground-based ballistic missile defense site.

State history shapes the political consciousness of citizens. Does Alaska’s history inform the political awareness of Alaska’s Governor? The campaign will tell. But the statement “I can see Russia from my house” should not be dismissed out of hand, for it may signify great understanding of America’s place in a dangerous world.

Discussions - 12 Comments


I think your piece is accurate, thoughtful and instructive. Having grown up in the Empire State, then going to college in the Buckeye State and now residing in the First State, I see your point very clearly.

Not withstanding all of this perspective, I am no expert on nuclear energy because I can see a nuclear power plant from my house. I am more aware of the evacuation route and also get my potassium iodide anti radiation pills every year, just in case.

To help John McCain win the White House, the Governor from Alaska just needs to be confident, and informed. She does not have to be an expert. The problem is she's clueless.

I read this as an almost desperate attempt by the right wing to put lipstick on the pig of one of the dumbest statements made by a major politician in years, one she is still defending. No amount of Tocqueville quotes, appeals to Aristotle's natural aristocracy, or Lincoln references are going to help.

Okay, I mulled over what you said there, but I'm going to opt to dismiss Palin's comment (which is likely not even true, technically) as anything to be taken seriously. Being that much closer to Russia doesn't mean much. Does living down the street from the Liberty Bell or the National Archives, chock full of founding documents, give anyone some automatic expertise on those things? I think not. It probably should be noted that DC and most of New England lean Dem to liberal. I'm guessing you wouldn't pinpoint that sort of geographic positioning as imbuing those residents with extra wisdom in those documents and their significance. I don't care if Palin has lived close to Russia; I want to know if she's ever read a book about it (I'm trusting she allowed books about Russia at the Wasilla library), spoken to any Russians, taken a class about it, visited it, studied it in any remotely serious way, spent more than 30 minutes reflecting on it. Then I'll be open to seeing her as more than just a blowhard on U.S.-Russian relations, operating on something beyond the talking points handed to her by the McCain campaign.

Now, I might not agree with Condolleezza Rice on many points, but I have to admit that she's very well versed in most Russian-American issues. Rice grew up in Alabama and Colorado, where I'm pretty sure Russia is well out of sight.

Just for the record . . . you can actually see Russia from Alaska. Ken's point is a valid one. But it has to be remembered, too, that this "dumbest statement" was not presented as a stand alone point. She was trying to give an overall picture of what life is like as Alaska's governor and what experience, if any, such a governor might have in dealing with foreign countries. The state of Alaska does deal in trade issues with Russia and it is surrounded by foreign countries rather than other STATES of the Union. I think that point, especially, should give people pause. Her point, had she ever been allowed to develop it, was that you can't grow up a sentient human being in Alaska (let alone become its highly popular governor) and not have a fundamental awareness of the importance of foreign affairs. They're sort of out their on their own in a way that those of us in the lower 48 (and Hawaii in it's lullaby inducing beauty) can tend to forget. Alaska has to think about defense in ways that other states do not, for example. It has the added problem of having stuff . . . some black liquid stuff, in fact . . . that lots of people want and some may soon be willing to try and take . . . Knowing as much as she does about the energy issue, it is inconceivable to me that she does not know something about the necessity of defending the borders surrounding that vast treasure trove of black gold. It is impossible that she has never considered the strategic importance of Alaska to the overall welfare of the United States. And that ain't a bad start in understanding our current world situation if you ask me. It's heads and shoulders above anything Mr. "No Preconditions" Obama can begin to conceive.

Well, yes, Russia can be seen from a remote island at the very edge of Alaska. Has Palin ever visited the island? I kind of doubt it. I'm sure that Russia can't be seen from any of Palin's actual homes.

Did you know that California and Texas border Mexico, and that Vermont (home of Howard Dean!) and Michigan border Canada?

Craig, I can assure you that everyone in California is acutely aware of the fact that we share a border with Mexico. I've never been to Texas, but I'm sure they know a good deal about it too. Do you mean to suggest, contra Ken, that this has no effect on our politics, on our concerns, or on our political consciousness? Clearly, it does. You also mention that Michigan and Vermont share a border with Canada. This probably explains . . . well, a lot.

Julie, I'm sure that everyone in California is acutely aware of the fact that they share a border with Mexico. Surely more than the number who know that the land they reside on used to be part of Mexico. Certainly more than the number who know that Republican President U.S. Grant said, regarding the manner in which California was acquired by the U.S.:

"I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war. We had no claim on Mexico... I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion."

Ashamed! Invasion! Yikes. I'd bet most Californians don't know that, or could speak more than 20 seconds about the history or current state of U.S.-Mexican relations. But I've no doubt that most Californians have an opinion about Mexican people. Yet having such an opinion, whatever position it might occupy on a standard right-left spectrum, hardly indicates a "great understanding of America's place".

Which gets back to Mr. Thomas's post. No, I would not say "contra Ken" that where you live "has no effect on our politics, on our concerns, or on our political consciousness," but I would say that it hardly creates or indicates expertise, well-informed opinions on relevant matters, nor hardly "great understanding of America's place in a dangerous world." Palin could have lived her entire life thus far on Little Diomede and still have as little to offer on U.S.-Russian relations as she appears to now, if not less.

Also, please see this great commentary - Sarah Palin and the Assault on Merit - for further pertinent thoughts on this issue (simply having an opinion vs. actually knowing what one is talking about)

Actually Craig . . . Lincoln was opposed to that war too. And if you know anything at all from your long presence here on this blog, you know that most of us believe that Lincoln should be pretty well-respected. There is no simple-minded view here that whatever America does vis a vis another country is always in the right. Lincoln's opposition to that war was one of the reasons he was not returned to Congress. He paid a political price for standing up for what he believed. And it may well be that Lincoln and Grant were correct in opposing that war. But the rightness or wrongness of their opposition to a war begun in 1846 has very little to do with the settled resolution of that war, the long existing borders between the United States and Mexico as a result of it, and our positions regarding that country today. On the other hand, I think the opinions of citizens of California and Texas regarding questions of trade, illegal and legal immigration, and all related issues offer unique and relevant insights into the best ways of solving these problems. It requires judgment and statesmanship to wade through those opinions, yes. But you have not demonstrated that Sarah Palin lacks this just because you scorn the perspective that citizens of Alaska bring to questions of international relations. I do not believe that Sarah Palin ever tried to argue that this consciousness was the sum total of her understanding or experience . . . much as you wish you to draw such a cartoon, you know you have only an opinion and don't actually "know" what you are talking about.

It would be one thing if you simply disagreed with the substance of her assessments. Instead you must attack her capacity to have assessments because you do not like the background that informs her assessments. I believe that makes you guilty of exactly the thing you were pleased to insinuate about Californians (all of us?) and their views vis a vis Mexico or, more precisely, Mexican people.

Julie, your response reveals a touch of paranoia, I think. I clearly wrote "But I've no doubt that most Californians have an opinion about Mexican people. Yet having such an opinion, whatever position it might occupy on a standard right-left spectrum, hardly indicates a 'great understanding of America's place'." Doesn't that clearly indicate that I realize that Californians don't have one monolithic view about Mexico, the Mexican people, etc.? So, I'm not sure what you think I was insinuating about "all of [you]." Further:

- I don't "scorn the perspective that citizens of Alaska bring to questions of international relations." Do they/can they only have ONE? And honestly, I wasn't aware of a particularly "Alaskan" perspective on intl. rels. Where can I find more about that?

- It's difficult to really disagree with "the substance of her assessments", particularly on U.S.-Russian relations, because I've yet to see what that substance is, beyond a 3 or 4-sentence talking point. Do you know where a more fully-fleshed out version of her views on, say, U.S.-Russian relations can be found?

- Wrong, I have not "attack(ed) her capacity to have assessments" She may be capable of complex and profound assessments, I don't know. She may well be a genius. I was merely pointing out that she doesn't have a capacity for making any better assessments on the issues mentioned merely by virtue of having lived in Alaska. As I touched upon before, I've got a feeling though, based on what I've seen of Palin's words thus far, that Condolleezza Rice has a much more serious understanding of U.S.-Russian relations, and that understanding came to her not by virtue of living close to the border of those two countries.

- Wrong, I never wrote or implied that I "do not like the background that informs her assessments." What background would that be? I actually don't feel I know a whole lot about Palin, other than she was a small-town mayor who became a popular governor, she has 5 kids with unusual names, and she attended some churches that appear a bit dodgy to me. She has gone moose-hunting and maybe skinned one. I don't really know a whole lot about her background, per se. I've read that her parents weren't very political at all. Quite possibly she fell well to the right of her family's tree. I don't know.

What you said about the Mexican-American War was interesting. I guess that's from the "Tough sh**" theory that a no-choice treaty rightly legitimates the result of an unjust war. Reminds me of those who try to maintain the ridiculous position that we shouldn't have invaded Iraq in the first place, and doing so was wrong, but now that we're there, we've got to win.

Palin is not a genius. She does not have judgment, statesmanship, or natural aristocracy. Her primary virtue is her looks, according to the male regular bloggers on this site, who immortalized her as the 'hot librarian." So I am not putting her down when I agree with Lawler and Hayward. She is a political spice - girl. She is "Bible-spice."

I presume this thread is all but dead now, but for those who haven't seen this story, you should check it out. It shows just how much "great understanding of America’s place in a dangerous world" is possessed by the American citizens of Little Diomede, Alaska, just a few miles away from where Putin "rears his head" every morning. Pretty funny.

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