Friday, July 9, 2010

How is America "exceptional"?

The video below (thanks to Neo-neocon) is the stuff of nightmares for liberals and everybody to their left -- not just a prominent right-wing talk radio figure in full cry, but Sarah Palin, of all people, by his side, nodding in agreement. That last touch may be needlessly cruel, I'll admit, but I wanted to put the video here for three reasons: first, because it's such a good example of the sort of powerful political rhetoric that conservatives in the US are able to mount that even those who disagree with it should hear it; second, because it's exactly right about the contrast between two putative sources of  good in the world, the US and the UN, with the latter coming across, finally, as a very naked emperor; and third, because it makes an important mistake about so-called American exceptionalism, which I'll get to after the video (you won't have to view it to understand the mistake):

Prager brings up a somewhat questionable Obama quote about that notion of exceptionalism (quoted recently by Krauthammer too): "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." But, Prager says, the Greeks don't believe in Greek exceptionalism, and by implication neither do any other citizens regarding their own nations. Which I think is wrong, in a significant way. I'm sure many Greeks, at least, as well as Brits, etc., do indeed think that there's something exceptional, at least in the sense of distinctive, not just about their country but about their ethnicity. The point, however, about the idea of American exceptionalism is that it's not some simple, crass expression of patriotism, but rather a serious historical observation -- that America is a nation not founded upon ethnicity but rather upon a political vision, a vision that has famously been labelled "the last, best hope of earth".


  1. Part 1

    On Linker On Lowry and Ponnoru On American Exceptionalism

    1. Lowry and Ponnoru:

    2. Linker:

    3. L and P resond to Linker:

    4. me:

    A few unsystematic thoughts:

    I read the Ponnoru Lowry ("PL") essay and didn’t like it for many of the reasons Linker makes out. That said, I did have some problems with Linker’s review not so much for his critique of the PL essay as such as for *some* of his own arguments in their own right.

    The first jarring thing was this: “It’s hard to imagine this key conservative claim receiving a more cogent and rhetorically effective defense. Which is precisely what makes the essay’s shortcomings so striking.”

    If I were a conservative, *which I’m not*, I could imagine making a case for Obama’s tramelling of the American ideal from my political perspective by stressing the principles forming that ideal—fiscal conservatism, possibly a different account of exceptionalism, reduced government, less obtrusive government, decentralization—as in the local principle, policy incrementalism, less and smart regulation, free market solutions, attacking crony capitalism—along the lines that have been argued for by say David Frum or Douthat and Salam, or even, in a way, by Lawrence Lessig and Sam Tanenhaus in their accounts of a conservatism—and even the tea parties by Lessig—that they find intellectually respectable.

    These arguments need not be rooted in the PL rhapsodic account of American history, can call certain spades spades, and go on to formulate a better argument against Obama devoid of cheerleading. So I find in Linker’s review an unnecessary and gratuitous attempt to sweep all present conservative thought into the four corners of the PL essay.

    The second thing is this: I like Linker’s dismantling of the PL notion of exceptionalism; but I don’t see, or I missed, what Linker thinks about the idea of American exceptionalism itself. Given that the idea is a foundation of the PL essay, Linker ought to have clarified whether he rejects the idea, favors its assimilation to the truism of every nation’s uniqueness with America being one nation among many, or something else.

    After all, for all their rhapsody, PL touch on what is and has been great about America from its troubled founding to date. During the Cold War, a war between Communism and Capitalism, liberal democracy, a war between two great powers, American exceptionalism was a necessary consequence. After the end of the Cold War when for decades America was the world’s sole great power, exceptionalism was a necessary consequence. Now given a poorly functioning system of international law, when nations often act in their interest unrestrained by international law, exceptionalism is a necessary consequence of America’s continued predominant position in the world.

  2. Part 2

    The third thing that strikes me and is of a piece with my first points, maybe just a variation of them, is Linker’s failure to distinguish the claim that what PL say is the core of their conservatism—what they want to conserve—is their definition of exceptionalism from traditional notions of what conservatives want to conserve, from the Burkean conservative ideal. There is a circularity in the PL argument for their conservatism that Linker simply bypasses in his implicit effort to discredit entirely the conservative argument.

    Also, a fourth thing: is the following a fair reading of the PL essay?

    “What Lowry and Ponnuru want to accomplish is something far more pernicious—namely, to relegate contrary voices in our national narrative to the periphery of our history, and perhaps even to read them out of our history altogether”?

    For me two things emerge from this line of reasoning including what follows from I quoted:

    1. even for PL, this gives short shrift to their argument; and

    2. even if not, it gives short shrift to the conservative argument.

    Both those parts stem from one idea: a vision of society that underlies Linker’s arguably overly neat, false and vulgar “us /them” dichotomy: “On one side of an unbridgeable divide stand true Americans, devoted to God and country, liberty and virtue; on the other is an insidious assortment of liberals, leftists, radicals, secularists, and foreigners.”

    That vision, which privileges church state separation as a necessary condition of liberty at the core of American exceptionalism, unequivocally wants to reject status or identity as determinants of opportunity—the Hayekian idea of liberalism being coterminous with the movement in society from status to contract. To elide this underlying vision, and then to enfold a “tradition” running from Allan Bloom to Sarah Palin within an “us against them” “narrative moves Linker I think from being a thoughtful critic to a pot shot taking polemicist.

    Fifthly, is the following an example of the immediately foregoing?

    “Like many conservatives, Lowry and Ponnuru appear to be untroubled by the chasm that separates these two worlds. Sure, it’s a source of “political tension.” But it’s nothing to be overly concerned about, because, they tell us, a 2003 Gallup poll showed that “31 percent of Americans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 year.

    That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru think it’s a very good thing indeed that millions of Americans are deluded “about their future life prospects—in fact, these senior editors of National Review give every indication of hoping to perpetuate the delusion.”

    It strikes me that that this (and what immediately follows it) mischaracterize both PL’s and the conservative argument. It is unreasonable, unfair and unbalanced, to infer from their essay, conservative sanguinity with the appalling poverty that exists in America, with the blight of American of inner cities like West Philadelphia, and so on.

  3. Part 3

    What PL and conservatives object to is the liberal idea of throwing money at these problems –as Johnson did in his Great Society spending, which Tanenhaus argues was a harbinger of a conservative resurgence in America. They argue for the incremental, market based approach to them such as by free enterprize zones, school vouchers to break up failing schools, and values transformation where individuals and families take responsibility for their own actions, imbibe values of self reliance and personal responsibility—in line with the Clinton Gingrich limiting of welfare, so hailed by conservatives. For PL that low income Americans believe they can be rich is a sign of their belief in their own possibility—surely part of the American ideal—not a reason to be sanguine or passive about poverty in America.

    Is it either condescending or inaccurate of Linker to call poor Americans’ belief in their own possibilities “pipe dreams”?

    Further, is the policy difference between governing liberals and conservatives really the either / or of liberals crafting ameliorating policies and conservatives doing nothing but issuing bromides about equal opportunity? Isn’t it more a question of the crafting of policies that are consistent with differing philosophical ideas of society and governance, with a real debate to be had between those differences?

    Anyway, I’m a Canadian Liberal. If I was an American I’d be a Democrat and I’d be appalled and afraid by a lot of the populism that the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks embody, give voice to and generate. These I think deserve to be criticized harshly and to be shown for what they are, as did Jonathon Raban in the NYR. But I think, in a nutshell, what mars Linker’s review is his assimilation of all conservative thought to PL and then, ultimately, and sub (and not so sub) textually to a Sarah Palin kind of mindlessness, and Linker's tendency to devolve from thoughtful criticism, much of which, as I say, I agree with, to inexpensive polemics.

  4. Itzik, thanks for the links and the very thoughtful comments.

    Haven't had time yet to do much more than skim the articles, but have formed an impression that both sides seem to display an unfortunate partisan bias that risks losing sight of an important historical reality. My post above was too brief to do more than touch on that reality, but I wanted to distinguish as clearly as possible the notion of "exceptional" from the simple, crude notions of "great", or "better than all the rest", etc. What made, and continues to make, America exceptional in the sense of historically distinctive, were the manner and conditions of its founding. Unlike Canada, say, which continued to be an appendage of empire until that empire had largely expired, and unlike the other nations formed in the western hemisphere, which continued to be trapped in authoritarian, class-ridden social-political structures, the United States was the conscious creation of people inspired by the ideals of limited reason and individual freedom that stemmed more from the British/Scottish Enlightenment than from the Continental version. In my view, this is certainly a source of its greatness -- and what was meant by Lincoln's phrase "the last, best hope of earth" -- but the distinctiveness of its founding and the exceptionalism that persists from that is independent of that view.

  5. My own sense is that America's exceptionalism, a notion I subscribe too, and which has an explicit moral dimension, is rooted in the tabula rasa creedal idealism of its founding, with that idealism made flesh in its history, combined, necessarily, with its unsurpassed greatness as a world power for a fair amount of time now.

    Quite an unObamaian view.


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