Jan 26, 2011

Exceptionalism and stupefication

Barack Obama both believes and doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. It depends on what you're talking about.

He definitely doesn't believe in the American exceptionalism normally talked about in our national political discourse, as it's touted in, say, National Review and neo-conservative or tea party circles. That American exceptionalism is the equivalent of "America! Fuck yeah!" It is taken as the idea that America operates by different rules than the rest of the world, particularly in regards to foreign policy. I.e., exceptionalism is a kind of moral exception America gets. As it's posed, for example, to Republican presidential nomination hopefuls, the question is: Is America awesome, or too awesome?

Too many of Obama's policies actually do depend on this view, but he is aware or seems to be aware that there's no real justification for this idea. It's either self-evident to you as an objective truth about American identity, or it's not.

Academically, American exceptionalism cab be asked an a question, and has been used as a good question, or it can be an answer, thought it's a non-answer answer, and one that's pretty stupefying.

As a question it's often interesting and worthwhile. E.g.: American seems to be more religious than other Western industrialized nations, why?, or America has never really had a successful socialist movement, whereas a lot of other places with similar histories have. Why? Or, even, America's founding and national ideals are markedly different: what were the causes and conditions of that?

There are, of course, assumptions built into those questions about there actually being a difference, about America being an exception to some norm, and those assumptions deserve to be challenged. Still, it's not a bad place to start, and can be a good question.

As an answer, though, it's no good at all. E.g.: Q. Why is America more religious than other Western industrialized nations? A. Because America is exceptional.; Q. Why has America not had a successful socialist movement? A. Because it's exceptional. As an answer it's a non-answer.

This is bad enough when it's done academically, but it's even worse when it's done politically, with the because-we're-awesome answer given as a good answer for all sorts of evil foreign policy adventures.

When pushed to swear fealty to this latter idea -- specifically to the political version of this idea, which is nationalism as a one-size-fits-all justification -- Obama attempted to "define down" American exceptionalism. He had to affirm American exceptionalism (politically that's the only option) but tried to recast it as something like the emotional attachment one has to one's own nation. Kind of like polite nationalism. Or an assent to belief in American ideals and the "American story." He also affirmed he does believe America has a leadership role in the world today, and that he's proud of America and to be an American, which may be what some people were actually worried about.

I don't think his definition of the term makes any sense, or has been used by anybody as what "American exceptionalism" means, which is what has given the right some good ground to attack him for not "really" believing in American exceptionalism, which of course he doesn't, if you define it the way they do. His definition was watered down in a kind of odd way -- so, for example, I find it hard to believe that a) he thinks "American exceptionalism" means what he said it does, or b) that he thinks his questioner was talking about what he, Obama, was talking about in his answer when he talked about "exceptionalism."

That's politics, though.

I wish Obama had been able to, instead of answering the question, asked for a definition, and had a conversation about the term. Can one "believe in America" without supporting that? Can one believe in the American project and American ideals without ignoring racism and real failures at home and supporting, say, the overthrow of democratically elected governments abroad? Can one have faith in "America the beautiful," as has been said, without having seen that country? That's kind of the question for liberals, and if the question about exceptionalism is taken as an honest question, rather than a gotcha, then that's what's being asked. I wish Obama's answer had gone there.

But then, obviously, I want more professors and fewer politicians. Obama's answer disappointed me, but more, actually I'm disappointed that there's really no way the media and the American people could handle a simple, interesting, adult conversation about the idea of "American exceptionalism."

It could have been a good conversation. Too bad that's impossible.