Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel — Samuel Johnson, 1775
Poor Nikita Khrushchev, banging his shoe at the UN, threatening to "bury" us — America just got stronger. Ike's Secret Service wouldn't even let the Soviet leader visit Disneyland on his trip here. Instead, he should have hired a public relations outfit to place an engagingly written op-ed in the New York Times. When the new czar, Vladimir Putin, pulled this off last week, American pols and opinion leaders went crazy. The detonation didn't come from Putin appearing statesmanlike (even when off-base), but when he challenged President Obama's assertion about American exceptionalism. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Peggy Noonan was nearly hysterical. "Putin is telling the world he knows how to correct America, tell it off, criticize it for its conceit," she blogged, and of course had to blame President Obama: The Russian president is "attempting to show the world he’s its reliable voice, its real leader, not those other guys. Would he have done this in the past? No. A truly historic level of foreign policy incompetence on the part of the White House got us to this point." The right-wing talking-points email must have gone out because Charles Krauthammer made much the same argument, adding: "I mean, the chutzpah of writing that, by a KGB thug..." Wealthy Republican Sen. John Sidney McCain III, R-Fox News, vowed to give Putin some of his own back by writing an op-ed in Pravda.
Even the Washington Post's Dana Milbank felt compelled to explain to the Russian president the gravity of his transgression:
Americans aren’t better than others, but our American experience is unique — exceptional — and it has created the world’s most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world. When you question American exceptionalism, you will find little support from any of us, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, doves or hawks.
Back to Noonan. Not satisfied with a mere blog post, she unlocked her better writing skills to impale Vlad (and all them liberals who might agree with him) in a column:
America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it attempts to be a force for good because it is exceptional. It is a nation formed not by brute, grunting tribes come together over the fire to consolidate their power and expand their land base, but by people who came from many places. They coalesced around not blood lines but ideals, and they defined, delineated and won their political rights in accordance with ground-breaking Western and Enlightenment thought. That was something new in history, and quite exceptional. We fought a war to win our freedom, won it against the early odds, understood we owed much to God, and moved forward as a people attempting to be worthy of what he'd given us.
We had been obliged, and had obligations. If you don't understand this about America you don't understand anything.
I find this reaction fascinating. Sure, anything to bring down That (Black) Man in the White House — that's the right's M.O. And the "exceptionalism" narrative has been indispensable to the neo-cons militarized jingoism. But Milbank is more a D.C. press insider than a Kook, and even he got caught up in it.
Do they really want to have this conversation? To paraphrase Krauthammer, it took a lot of chutzpah to proclaim the universal rights of man while maintaining slavery for the first nine decades after declaring independence. It took even more chutzpah for the Southern states to include the slaves as three-fifths of a person so as to add to their political power in Congress. And after slavery was outlawed, African-Americans were forced to endure decades of de jure segregation, especially the Jim Crow laws of the South enforced by thousands of lynchings and pogroms such as the Tulsa race riot of 1921.
Nor did "ground-breaking Western and Enlightenment thought" prevent the breaking of treaties and theft of Indian lands. Noonan mentions tribes: The United States conquered some 500 to indeed consolidate our power and expand our land base. The New World was not empty when the Europeans arrived. Andrew Jackson's shameful theft of land from the Five Civilized Tribes in the Southeast was deliberately done to extend slavery, a two-fer of immorality. This is not the unhelpful conceit of applying contemporary values to a the past. Many Americans then, such as John Adams and John Quincy Adams, thought this behavior was shameful. We further expanded "our land base" with an aggressive war against Mexico, similarly denounced by much of the country. We were in the empire business long before 1898, much less the Project for the New American Century.
The United States is unique in the genius of the Constitution, a steady if slow and uneven progress to allow all Americans to enjoy its benefits, and in creating the greatest middle class in history. With the weakening and demise of the British Empire, it was the United States that crafted the institutions it hoped would ensure world stability and peace after World War II. Pax Americana, with all its stumbles, has avoided a war between major powers for the longest period in the history of nation-states. And, yes, sometimes, rarely, the United States must step in militarily when the UN is paralyzed. On the other hand, our tendency to see ourselves as a crusader nation can lead to idealistic foolishness or worse, be hijacked by the Military Industrial Complex and dSi get-rich-quick contract hucksters. Whether all this and more make us "exceptional," I don't know. When I hear "American exceptionalism," I understand it as an aspiration, a heavy responsibility. Novus ordo seclorum is hard work. When the right hears it, they beat the war drums. To the nation of Honey Boo-Boo, Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars, it is, I fear, a further invitation to lazy thinking and entitlement.
We do have an exceptional number of mass-murder shootings and tolerate them.
Every nation has its exceptionalism. To think otherwise means we're not getting out enough. Nations rise, rule and fade. Civilizations come and go. In places such as the Middle East, one city is built upon another (in Phoenix, too). Our good exceptionalism is under siege. Government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich is not exceptionalism I want. Nor are endless military adventures. But to even discuss that would being called, "traitor!" Better to turn on the boob tube and think happy thoughts in this exceptional land. A century ago, Germany was one of the most exceptional nations, before its militarists unleashed two world wars. In the second, the Soviet Union lost more than 20 million souls. The Russians, who also see themselves as exceptional, don't forget.
I will leave you with this comment from a reader to James Fallows:
As we examine whether or not Obama was playing chess, we should also examine whether or not, in this instance, he played against a superior opponent. And we must then assess the damage this game did. Because Putin wasn't writing to United States citizens, even as that was the premise. He was writing globally. He was writing for a world that is quite willing to accept the narrative of Americans quick to rush into war, quick to disrespect the Security Council, quick to disregard international law.
The President and his Secretary of State did indeed blunder, but not in the way the right would have it. After all, the neo-cons have wanted to affect regime change in Syria since 2002 and have been relentlessly portraying Mr. Obama as weak because he hasn't gotten us into a sectarian civil war in yet another Muslim country. The drawing of the "red line" was ill advised. Don't make threats you can't back up. There is no clean "solution" in Syria, however much Turkey and (quietly) Arab countries would like Uncle Sucker to jump in and "fix" things. John Kerry is the most exceptional irony: He has become the old men he denounced as a young man back from a previous war we never should have fought.