Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Some Observations on American Exceptionalism

Quite a few months ago, I wrote two posts dealing with the topic of being American, or actually, what it was that certain contemporaries in the news considered “un-American.” [
Un-American Accusations, Part 1: Big Oil,” May 15, 2011; “Un-American Accusations, Part 2: Pols and Pundits,” June 10, 2011]

Today, I take up a corollary of this concept, the idea of American exceptionalism.   Many of us, I am sure, have seen the Chris Matthews MSNBC ad which builds on Barack Obama’s autobiography and the idea that only in America would we likely see an African American elevated to the office of President.  In Matthews words, paraphrasing Obama, “only in this country is my story possible.” The video is no longer accessible, but this reference from a Chris Matthews broadcast will suffice as a substitute.

When I first saw the actual Matthews ad, which ends with him sitting, White House behind him, and saying (almost as an aside), “American exceptionalism,” I realized that he was challenging the Republican right-wing’s decades-long embrace of American exceptionalism as exclusively theirs.

Now, Alexis de Tocqueville first applied the adjective, “exceptional” to America in 1840, noting that “the position of the Americans is...quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Tocqueville was referring to America as a new nation emerging from a revolution and developing an ideology based on the principles of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

Unfortunately, by the beginning of this century, the ideals of American exceptionalism had been perverted into justifications to disregard international law,  to act unilaterally to invade and occupy foreign countries which might harbor terrorists hostile to America,  and to even fabricate reasons to invade a country as the Bush-Cheney White House did in March, 2003.  

Such actions could even be construed as a slap in the face to the hero of these neo-Con Republicans--Ronald Reagan: he who revived the Puritan image of the city upon a hill as a metaphor for America and American exceptionalism; he who spoke to the UN, saying that Americans “have never been aggressors....[and that] we have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no countries.”

And so, a loose, distorted, and uncritical acceptance of what American exceptionalism means has carried into the present, particularly among conservative Republicans.  For example, in a Fox News interview of 2009, Dick Cheney said this to Sean Hannity in reference to President Obama: "this guy (who) doesn't fully understand or share that view of American exceptionalism that I think most of us believe in," and because the Obama Administration was then pushing to try accused terrorists in our federal courts, Cheney followed this ridiculous statement with an even more absurd one, that Obama would give “aid and comfort to the enemy.” In this instance, it’s not international law that he is disregarding, it’s our Constitution, due process, and habeas corpus.

Were this a singular example, we could write it off as Cheney being Cheney.  However, we find almost every Republican embracing some aspect of American exceptionalism as if it were a name tag that identified them as a true Americans and separated them from Democrats.   Ann Coulter, in her new book, Demonic...) warns us that America, once an “exceptional nation...endowed by their [sic] Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” has been transformed and demeaned by “secular socialist” liberals.

Coulter takes her religious phrasing from Gingrich who, of course, takes it from our Declaration of Independence, both of them totally ignoring its context and skewing its meaning;  but then, nothing new in this.

Mike Huckabee also promotes a God-chosen American exceptionalism, not only in his public appearances, but also in his new company that makes educational cartoons, such as this video on the Reagan Revolution which also features the metaphorical “City on the Hill.”

Newt Gingrich, of course, has even written a book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionaliism Matters.  And, not so long ago, he appeared at Jim DeMint’s Palmetto Freedom Forum where he told the audience that American exceptionalism is somehow “endowed by our creator” and that “power comes directly from God to each one of you” and “now the founding fathers wrote this because they said we hold these truths to be self evident....and that these rights are inalienable.” I listened to this several times. It strings together familiar phrases and clauses, but it makes no sense. It’s all gobbledygook, implying that our founding fathers said that God gave American citizens “certain truths” that were not given to the citizens of any other country in this world: American exceptionalism, indeed!

A slightly different Republican take on the concept can be found in Paul Ryan’s April 5, 2011 presentation on the House floor as he unveiled his plan for the largest cutback of government spending in our history. He invoked American exceptionalism no less than three times, saying “It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional” by accepting his deficit plan which “affirms our cherished ideals of individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These are the ideals that have cultivated the exceptional American character.”

At least God and religion were absent, having been trumped in Ryan’s speech by the Republican cathechism: less government, no regulations, and no interference in markets.

But exactly how, we may ask, has this trinity of Paul Ryan’s made America exceptional?  By enabling American corporate CEOs to enjoy salary scales over 450 times those of workers.  By enabling our richest 0.1% to receive nearly 8% of the country’s total income. By creating the highest health costs as a percentage of GDP of any industrialized country.  By having the highest infant mortality deaths per 1000 live births of any industrialized country.  By having the highest number of children living in poverty of any industrialized country.  And by having, by far, the lowest percentage of social spending for families of any industrialized country (see charts at end of article).

This is hardly the way that any American, Republican or Democrat, should want us to be seen as exceptional. And, in fact, there are even Republicans who reject this attitude.   For example, former Republican speechwriter, Ted Frier, complained about today’s conservatives who believe every cent they earn is theirs, who give nothing back to the more needy of our country, who forget that community and cooperation were what made America; in their embrace of the “myth of the rugged individualist,” they forget about “the community barn-raising....[and] this omission is a measure of the ingratitude you’d expect from people who think ‘American Exceptionalism’ means them.” 

But let’s return to where we began, to President Obama and a version of American exceptionalism that accommodates democrats as well as republicans.

At a news conference in Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009, President Obama was asked this question by a reporter: “Could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy?

This was Obama’s answer: “ I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.  I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world....And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world.  We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional....And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent [upon], depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.”

Now, this is a response that Tocqueville would understand. Obama’s answer was clear, reasonable, diplomatic--precisely what a country’s leader ought to say.   But our hopeful Republican candidates were quick to take umbrage. Mitt Romney disparaged him in this way: “We have a president right now who thinks America’s just another nation. America is an exceptional nation. We have a president who thinks that the way to conduct foreign policy is through his personal effects on other people. I believe the way to conduct foreign policy is with American strength.”   Rick Perry made similar criticisms, saying “those in the White House today” do not believe in American exceptionalism and would rather emulate Europe. “The answer to our troubles lies in a positive, optimistic vision, with policies rooted in American exceptionalism. See, American exceptionalism is the product of unlimited freedom. And there is nothing troubling our nation today that cannot be solved by the rebirth of freedom — nothing.”

Clearly, in their eyes, Obama is not sufficiently jingoistic about America’s greatness.  But I suspect that our “founding fathers” would be more comfortable with Obama’s sense of American exceptionalism than that of Romney, Perry, Gingrich and the others.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, would agree wholeheartedy with President Obama’s reference to “Greek exceptionalism.” After all, not only did the Greeks give the world the idea of democracy, but Jefferson even acknowledged this gift in 1785 when he designed and built the Virginia State Capitol in the form of a Greek temple.

Virginia State Capitol, 1785, designed by Thomas Jefferson

One could argue that the Virginia State Capitol was meant as a symbol of American exceptionalism. We take its form from others, in this case the ancient Greeks, and we remold it into a new and powerful emblem of democracy--a mode of “creating partnerships” in Obama’s words.

We might consider another symbolic monument, the Statue of Liberty, again a product of international partnership--the political cooperation between France and the United States.  The statue is designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, its base by American architect Richard Morris Hunt.  The tablet she holds represents our Declaration of Independence and she has taken on many meanings, all of which coalesce into a symbol of the political and social values that make America great.

Liberty Enlightening the World (orig.), 1886, Bartholdi & Eiffel

It may be that a more modest and nuanced understanding of the meaning of American exceptionalism, like that expressed by President Obama in Strasbourg, has begun to replace the jingoistic attitude of today’s conservative Republican, particularly its presidential candidates. A recent Pew research poll asked Americans if they agreed with the statement: “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others.” Only 49% agreed this year, compared to 60% who were in agreement in 2002.  Even more telling is the fact that, among young Americans (ages 18-29), the percentage who believed that its culture was superior was lower than it was for young Germans, Britons, and Spaniards.

Charles Blow, reporting this data in the New York Times (“The Decline of American Exceptionalism”), worries about this “national pessimism.” But instead of denigrating it or shooting the messenger, he offers Americans some very good advice. “Stop snuggling up to nostalgia....and set a course to restitution,” he writes. “And,” he continues, “that means that we must invest in our future. We must invest in our crumbling infrastructure. We must invest in the industries of the future. We must invest in a generation of foundering and forgotten children. We must invest in education. Cut-and-grow is ruinous mythology.”

His final sentence on “cut-and-grow” is a reference to the ideology espoused by today’s Congressional Republicans. So, tragically, the investment in infrastructure, industry, children and education are all programs that these Republicans have refused to support.  In their blind rage to insure that Obama becomes a one-term president, they have been methodically ruining our country and destroying that which makes America exceptional.   How ironic!  To the extent that many of them have wrapped themselves in the cloak of American exceptionalism, their garment has become nearly invisible.  Like Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, many American Republicans are walking the streets naked.  Let us hope that the American public keeps its eyes open and sees their folly.

The Emperor's New Clothes, illus. by Thordrinn Leifsson,

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