31 January 2011

The Exceptionalism that proves the rule

Kathleen Parker has some interesting observations on her fellow Republicans' obsession with American "exceptionalism" in her latest column. While exceptionalism has long been a subject of inquiry by historians and sociologists -- the notion arose, if I remember my history right, to explain why the U.S., uniquely among industrialized nations, lacked a strong socialist movement, -- it has more recently become an article of Republican faith. For them, Parker notes, it doesn't mean merely that the U.S. is unique. Instead, exceptionalism is, or should be, another way of saying that the U.S. is "the greatest nation in the world." Republicans cite the President's alleged refusal to affirm this sense of exceptionalism as proof that he is somehow anti-American.

Parker has already found Republican exceptionalist rhetoric tiresome, but expects to hear more of it over the next two years. In her column, she notes that exceptionalism is misused as a rhetorical club to hit Barack Obama with. To her credit, she places the President's notorious (to Republicans) quote about exceptionalism back in its original context to show, among other things, that he had after all affirmed the country's exceptional nature. More significantly, she reminds us of the actual question Obama was answering, which explains the meaning of exceptionalism from a foreign perspective, if not from an implicit Republican perspective as well.

Exceptionalism became radioactive a couple of years ago when Obama was asked at an overseas news conference whether he subscribes to "the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world."
His answer has haunted him since:
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
I remember thinking at the time: Bzzzzt. Wrong, Harvard. That is not the correct answer. There was more to his response, in fact, but the impression was already set. What Obama added was 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."
Not so hard to say after all?

In other words, Obama had affirmed what all real patriots consider exceptional about America -- hadn't he? Parker may think so, but I suspect that many other Republicans may remain dissatisfied because they'll feel that the President didn't answer the reporter's question fully or decisively enough. What they really wanted from him, as I suspect and Parker probably suspects, was an affirmation of America's exceptional qualification to "lead the world." Merely to say that America's is one exceptionalism among exceptionalisms, or even that it's exceptional among exceptionalisms, won't do for the jingoes. Militarist Republicans (as opposed to anti-interventionist paleocons) believe that the U.S. is exceptionally qualified, if not exceptionally obliged, to dominate the planet. For them, to deny American exceptionalism is somehow to prefer Chinese hegemony or condone the rise of a Caliphate. To deny it is to be an appeaser or a capitulationist. What's exceptional about America, as far as the jingoes are concerned, is Americans' unique entitlement to have their way in the world -- because we deserve it.

Parker doesn't necessarily deny the premise, but she does seem to consider modesty more becoming. "Great nations don't have to remind others of their greatness, " she writes, "They merely have to be great." What that greatness means for her is a question for another time. As for what it means to the President, she suggests that he make a speech in which he "takes possession of the word." Such advice is good sportsmanship coming from a Republican, but as a non-partisan observer I'd say that the thing to do with the word "exceptionalism" is bury it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say that the reason America never developed a strong socialist movement is because it was tried during the late 19th/early 20th century and failed, not because of our "exceptionalism", but because of our violence.

I know I've read a decent amount regarding the labor movement at that time and how the leaders were harassed, arrested, attacked, exiled from the US and, in some cases, murdered.

If we are to claim any real sense of "exceptionalism" it seems more along the lines of whom we "except" from Constitutional rights due to one form of bigotry or another.