Monday, November 29, 2010

On The Subject of American Exceptionalism

Karen Tumulty's got an interesting story in this morning's WaPost on American Exceptionalism and the GOP's embrace of the concept as a tool against Democrats in general and Mr. Obama in particular.  A couple of things to think about here.

First, America is exceptional, for many reasons.  I have a tough time thinking about divine intervention in political science, so I'm not a big fan of the "God has granted America a special role in human history" line.  I just don't think God works like that.  I'm much closer to the reasoning behind Newt Ginchrich's comments in the story; "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."  Put another way, what makes our system exceptional is the very fact that it is created a government designed to protect and extend the basic yearnings of the human soul, yearnings that many have come to see as "God-given."  Life.  Liberty.  Property.  Freedom.  American style freedom and democracy is-simply put--the system of government most compatible with human nature (and where did that come from?) yet devised. 

Does this mean that every action our government takes is sanctified by the Deity?  Heavens no.  Our government is now and has always been a human creation fraught with human fallibility.  That it was ab ovo an attempt to institute a government among people that served to enable their elemental strivings--that was exceptional.

As for the use of the term politically, it is fair game.  Tumulty's article points out President Obama's unfortunate rambling (calling it a "single" comment--rendered in France, no less): "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."  The implication here, and in Tumulty's further quoting that which follows this line (additional nuance and hedging from the Hedger in Chief), is that Mr. Obama isn't really doubting American Exceptionalism, and really, this is mostly just a GOP attempt to artfully raise Mr. Obama's much discussed background. 

But this view gives little importance to other aspects of the President's life that contribute to a growing sense among many on the right that the President is half-hearted in his view.  The insanity of his preacher, a man in whose pews the Obama family sat for a decade or more, a man who performed the Obama marriage--is instructive.  "God damn America" was one of his most famous lines.  Clearly, Reverand Wright isn't much of an American Exceptionalist.  Mrs. Obama's statements that her husband's political success gave her a reason to be proud of her country "for the first time" creates another suggestion of a man comfortable with surrounding himself with important people who don't necessarily have an exceptional view of the US. 

So as to Mr. Obama and American Exceptionalism, the record seems clear.  He's stated that we're not exceptional.  He married a woman who seems not to believe it.  He sat in a church every Sunday (except of course, the Sunday's when Reverend Wright's hateful invective was spewed) and listened to attacks on it.  Now that a goodly portion of the country is rising to embrace the notion, Ms. Tumulty and the Brookings Institution would have us willfully suspend disbelief and entertain the notion that this is all bunk--that the President is indeed a believer in the special place of America.

This is simply not believable, not when so many on his side of the political spectrum spend their time blaming America first, questioning the nation's motives, and implying that the US is just a big, powerful, rich country.  On the subject of American Exceptionalism, we can judge the President both on his words and on the company he keeps.  I don't doubt that he loves his country, but I suspect that his view of American Exceptionalism is one of believing that the only thing exceptional about the country is that elected him. 


Tom de Plume said...

"I don't doubt that he loves his country"

I don't know whether to throw in a gratutitous reference to Kenya or point out that during his formative years in Indonesia those early morning US history lessons given by his mother surely did not speak highly of American exceptionalism.

I'd argue though that he doesn't love what America is, he is in love with the idea if what he believes he can turn us into.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Good thing you didn't throw in those gratuitous references...

but your point is a good one.

Mudge said...

CW - Agree with everything you wrote, as edited by TdP.

"The Hammer" said...

At least half of America is exceptional; exceptionally ignorant, stupid and lazy.

Anonymous said...

Disappointing he cannot recognize the exceptionalism of his parents. For all of it's faults, America provided his family an opportunity to excel rarely matched anywhere else. Exceptional.

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