Friday, September 27, 2013

Obama, Putin and Exceptionalism

The original star-spangled banner from the War of 1812

[Note: This essay owes a great debt to the book, The Next American Nation, and its author, Michael Lind, whose brilliant and incisive exploration of Americanism has deeply informed and inspired the ideas expressed here.]

Americans know they’re exceptional, unique, special; they feel it in their bones.  But are they?  The question of American exceptionalism is a confused tangle, and President Obama and Russian President Putin each recently tugged on that knot while arguing about intervention in the Syrian civil war.  Both of them added to the tangle, Obama by invoking exceptionalism, Putin by condemning it.  Let’s try to untangle the threads.  What is American exceptionalism?  In what way are we exceptional?  What is the cause or basis of this putative uniqueness?  And what does it imply for American relations with the world?

Putin seems to think that it’s purely a self-serving illusion, an alibi for America’s problematic unilateralism:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
According to Putin, we operate as if military intervention is our prerogative, but that gets us in trouble.  We claim to be acting from noble motives but we end up looking like a bully.  We claim to be the world’s policeman, but we’re really the world’s vigilante, its rogue, unauthorized, dangerous vigilante: we’re George Zimmerman.  Even worse, we defend our right to intervene in the name of high ideals: we’re a sanctimonious George Zimmerman.  And Putin – despite being a puffed up autocrat who invades his small neighbors and protects murderous dictators – is courageously standing up to our bullying.  And he’s not just questioning American intentions and self-serving self-perception, but American efficacy as well.  He’s saying that our inflated sense of our own moral purity blinds us to both our moral and our practical limitations.  And really we are no better than anyone else:
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
He even invokes the Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” – expanding its doctrine of democratic equality from individuals to countries, as if to make the astounding claim that it’s impermissible to make moral comparisons between countries.  This is liberal reasoning run amuck, tolerance slipping into relativism.  Was Nazi Germany just as moral as Denmark, which surrendered peacefully to the Wehrmacht to avoid pointless bloodshed and refused to hand over its Jewish population?  Yes, there are big and small and rich and poor countries; but there are also countries that have done great evil and some that have done great good.  Just as there are evil men and good men.  The Declaration doesn’t endorse relativism, applied to countries or to individuals.  It merely holds that no individual has an inherent claim of authority over another.  Even a good person has no such claim over a bad person.  Is there anything in German culture which particularly lent itself to the madness of fascism and war?  Students of German culture may argue over that question, but they can’t dismiss it as fundamentally unreasonable. When Putin complains that America acts as if it’s better than everyone else, the appropriate response is to ask: Is it?

Most Americans seem to think it is.  Christian conservative Gary Bauer relates that in a 2010 poll fully 80% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Because of the United States’ history and its Constitution it has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”  And a solid majority believes that “God has granted America a special role in history.”  Now that’s exceptionalism!  But Bauer, shrewd rhetorician that he is, never explicitly claims that America is “the greatest country in the world”; in fact, he denies that “America is inherently superior to other countries, or that God loves Americans more.”  Every exceptionalist writer seems compelled to include this particular disclaimer – that we’re not better, just different.  It usually comes just before the passage where they explain how much better we are.  I suppose that propriety demands we not display our superiority too flagrantly, it must be finessed and moderated.  And Bauer does not disappoint, declaring that “America has a special role to play on the world stage that’s distinct from the roles of other countries,” and that special role consists of “protecting and supporting [the] God-given rights” all humans possess.  If Putin quotes the Declaration of Independence in opposition to American exceptionalism, Bauer (like most exceptionalists) cites it as the source of our distinction:
Putin . . . is right that God creates all people equal, but what makes America exceptional is that it was the first country whose founding was rooted in the recognition of this important truth.
So one country has been charged to profess and nurture God’s political truths for the whole world, but it’s no better than any other country.  Is Bauer saying that our mission is superior – indeed, paramount – but we are not?  But that dodge raises another question just as problematic: How did we become the missionaries?

To address that question we must delve further into the American unconscious, down into its darker depths.  Yes, we must listen to Rush Limbaugh, the man whose daily oozings of conservative prejudices, rages and resentments comes across like free association in search of a national psychiatrist.  Let’s play Freud to his fever dream.  He makes the obligatory unconvincing disclaimer:
It does not mean that we're better people.  And it does not mean that we're special, more qualified, smarter, any of that, than anybody else in the world.  It doesn't mean that at all.
So we’re not special, got it.  But a minute later he berates Obama for thinking, “there’s nothing special about us” (inexplicably misrepresenting Obama).  So we’re not special but only European-style socialists like Obama think we’re not special.  OK, we may be special but we’re not smarter; I know we’re not because Rush said so.  But he laments that liberalism clouds people’s minds about our exceptionalism, it “takes over, and they think we're no better than anybody else. We're no smarter.”  So we’re no smarter than anybody else but liberalism hoodwinks gullible people into believing that we’re no smarter than anybody else.  It must be hard, especially for someone utterly without intellectual integrity, to maintain consistency over the course of a three hour discharge of semi-conscious malice.  But this is why we listen to Rush: to discern conservative instincts and the trickery used to obscure them.  Does anyone – anyone? – doubt that Rush thinks Americans are special, smarter – just plain better – than everyone else in the world?

Rush’s rhetoric, like Bauer’s and most exceptionalists, grounds American distinctiveness (not superiority, no, never!) in our political founding, in the philosophy which inspires the Declaration and the Constitution:
The US is the first time in the history of the world where a government was organized with a Constitution laying out the rules, that the individual was supreme and dominant, and that is what led to the US becoming the greatest country ever because it unleashed people to be the best they could be. Nothing like it had ever happened.  That's American exceptionalism.

The history of world is dictatorship, tyranny, subjugation . . . and then along came the United States of America.

The sole reason for our exceptionalism: Limiting government and maintaining the primacy of the individual human being regardless of race, sex, creed . . . It's the primacy of the individual.
America was created to make space for individual freedom, to enable meritocracy and the wealth and power it brings.  This was God’s wish:
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are an attempt to provide a political framework to facilitate God's will that each of us are born and remain free.  Read the Founders and you can conclude nothing other than that.
What a fascinating mix of truth and fantasy!  For one thing, it’s a sick joke to think that from the beginning America has respected “the primacy of the individual human being regardless of race, sex, creed.”  For another thing, the Constitution is not primarily about individual freedom.  It’s about mediating the popular will through limited and competing institutions.  It’s about making the state representative enough to achieve democratic accountability without making it strong enough to enable tyranny.  The American Revolution was not fought primarily to assert individual rights but to assert the right of collective national self-determination.  And the Constitution actually constricts individual rights in some ways.  It endorses slavery, for instance, by prohibiting any law against the slave trade before the year 1808.  If the Founders were so intent on implementing the Almighty’s political program for protecting “the primacy of the individual” then why didn’t the original Constitution even mention individual rights?  Why was it necessary to add the Bill of Rights through the amendment process, almost as an afterthought?  Anti-Federalist demand for a Bill of Rights to protect individual rights does indeed demonstrate that the political folk culture of the period held those rights to be quite important, though it also shows those rights to be a matter of some contention.  But doesn’t it also hint that there was more to the American founding than the ahistorical channeling of God’s politics?  The Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights didn’t create American politics, they expressed them.  And those politics are obviously borrowed from the politics of the mother country, England.  Pre-revolutionary Americans spoke the English language, followed English religion and adhered to English culture; why wouldn’t they practice English politics as well?  The English Parliament had effectively achieved primacy over the monarchy by 1689; the English had their own Bill of Rights that same year, a full 100 years before the American version!  In summary: the American nation existed long before the Constitution; that Constitution wasn’t primarily based upon individual rights; and the bedrock of our politics isn’t even particularly American, but English.  The unique American founding based upon individual rights is a complete myth.

Alexis Tocqueville, the French observer of America in the 1830’s, whom conservatives love to quote, gives a much more penetrating account of American democracy than those same conservatives.  Tocqueville perceived that the animating force in American politics was the desire for equality and the hatred of unwarranted power.  To Tocqueville, American democracy was English society stripped of its aristocracy, leaving the people roughly equal in wealth and power.  English tradition and common law gave them local self-government and due process rights.  Calvinism made their sexual and civic morals purer.  A large, rich and lightly populated continent gave them the raw material for economic growth.  But Tocqueville did not succumb to the myth of individual primacy:
I think that democratic peoples have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they seek it, they love it, and they will see themselves parted from it only with sorrow.  But for equality they have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery.  They will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.
So Tocqueville believed that American democracy was primarily about equality, its bedrock was non-libertarian populism in the form of local majoritarianism.  But, more to the point, he believed it arose from the lucky accidents incurred while transposing English society to the New World.  For our purposes the upshot is: America existed as an independent offshoot of English culture decades before the Revolutionary era created the independent American polity.  We were a nation with our own culture long before we had our own government.  If there is any truth to American exceptionalism it can only be found within our actual cultural substance, not in declarations or constitutions, even those manifesting the noblest elements of that culture.

Even more confusion arises from the peculiar use conservatives make of liberal arguments about American exceptionalism.  Yes, liberal arguments.  The notions of individual rights, government based upon rational principle, popularly accountable government, equality before the law, etc. are classical liberal notions, expressed best by the English liberal philosopher John Locke.  And the mutually exclusive notion that states and governments arise over time from tradition and local authority are conservative notions, expressed best by the pre-eminent British conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.  The overpowering semantic confusion of American politics – American “conservatives” mouthing liberal slogans in support of Puritan moralism reworked as crusading plutocracy; and American “liberals” employing liberal platitudes to justify reworking the state, that conservative institution, for egalitarian populist ends – obscures every other topic of our collective discourse; why should it not obscure this one as well? We can see why it’s so hard for Americans, particularly conservative Americans, to have a clear understanding of the American place in the world when their perception is so clouded by falsity, myth and self-satisfaction.

Please, let’s accept the genuinely conservative notion of American nationhood, that we arose over time from transplanted and slightly modified English culture (and that culture has been modified greatly over time by infusions from the rest of the world).  We did not spring fully grown like Athena from the head of James Madison.  It’s taken all that earnest deconstruction just to get to the proper question: What is exceptional about actual American culture?  It’s not so easy to find writers who even address this question; as we’ve seen, most conservatives confuse the nature of the American nation with its political Constitution, thoughtlessly parroting liberal cant about universal rights and the primacy of the individual. 

More thoughtful writers, such as Josh Good of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank not normally credited for thoughtful analysis), look for the characteristic aspects of American culture itself.  In his review of Charles Murray’s book on exceptionalism, Good lists four “distinct American qualities: industriousness, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life.”  Good and Murray credit Calvinism and its salvation-inspired work ethic for our tremendous economic vitality and success: “Our Protestant work ethic, reinforced by three Great Awakenings, fused American religious life with an entrepreneurial, hard-working impulse, creating a civic culture unlike any the world had previously seen.”  It seems clear that this is the central cultural factor in American economic success.  Indeed, the Puritans laid the groundwork for all of American culture, with their moral purity, local political control, communal benevolence, sexual constriction, blunt racism, and raging sanctimony.  But there’s one more element of the Puritan sensibility we should note: belief in its own mission to save the world.  Tim Rutten reminds us of the influence of St. Augustine’s notion of “a shining city on the hill” and “Puritans’ belief in the New World as a ‘new Jerusalem’” with a mission to be “a Godly light to the nations.”  From the very beginning, long before the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, before George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and even John Locke, before recognition of freedom of speech and religion, long before the rise of our impoverished modern individualism, America had its special mission.  And that mission was to properly save the world for Christ.

We do have an unusual culture, somehow both modern and unenlightened, capitalist and communal, prudent and utopian, democratic and religious, parochial and generous.  The Puritans came here as England was transitioning from feudalism to liberal democracy; the Puritans themselves represented that transition in their half-conservative, half-democratic values.  They carried that moment in English history to the New World and it has persisted to this day, including our sense of mission.  Let’s be honest.  Almost every American deeply believes that America has some special insight into politics and economics; and we as individuals might not be better (though we probably are), but our way of life certainly is; and the rest of the world would be much happier if they would only be like us!  America represents the teleology of social evolution, the end of history.  This is the psychological and political residue of Puritan Messianism, buttressed by the remarkable political, economic and military success our Calvinist, half-liberal, half-medieval nation has enjoyed.

It’s hard to argue with success.  But success does not substitute for virtue.  And it doesn’t shield us from honest criticism.  Our national culture is far from perfect and our success is not entirely earned.  If Communism had succeeded in conquering the world – which it almost did – would that have meant Communism was superior?  And our success is partially due to our rich natural resources and our long-time isolation from the world.  And much of the rest of the world is quite happy being different from us.  Do the French or the Japanese or the Saudis want to be more like America?  While some societies might benefit from becoming more like us, we might benefit by becoming more like some of them.  And we might start with becoming a little less smug.  It may seem silly to so earnestly address this childish American snobbery, but it is an overpowering and largely unacknowledged force in our national life, and frequently a destructive one.  Some honest national soul-searching might do us some good.

Consider how easily exceptionalism can take an ugly turn.  When Pat Buchanan, a forthright version of Rush Limbaugh, spoke to the Christian Coalition in September 1993 he proclaimed, “Our culture is superior. Our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity and that is the truth that makes men free.”  Now that’s exceptionalism!  Pat voices the patriotism whose name Rush dare not speak; he both acknowledges the existence of pre-Constitutional American national culture and zealously trumpets its shining superiority.  We are free and successful because we live out God’s politics and economics and that’s only because we worship God correctly.  Everyone else has been cast into the outer darkness.  The extent to which other Americans agree with Buchanan is the extent to which exceptionalism hurts both us and the world.  Where Buchanan goes wrong is to confuse those successful American values with their historical origins.  One can whole-heartedly believe in the values of hard work and democracy without being a doctrinal Calvinist; most Americans do just that.  This is the classic reactionary error: the incapacity to judge what’s good and bad in one’s tradition.  Just because the Puritans bequeathed us much of our culture doesn’t mean we must accept their entire world-view.  We can step off the Mayflower.

Many liberals, of course, make the opposite error, the relativist error: Judgments can hurt people, so let’s not make any.  We must not compare nations, cultures, etc., lest some nations feel justified in exploiting others.  After all, it was the European sense of racial and cultural superiority that led to the horrors of imperialism and colonialism.  Putin, himself a purveyor of Russian exceptionalism, invokes that relativism hypocritically, but many American liberals do so quite earnestly.  They are so horrified by the great evil that’s been done in the name of American moral purity – slavery, white supremacy, homophobia, sexism, religious intolerance, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, militarism, expansionist war – that they overlook the good – the ending of slavery, the (still incomplete) emancipation of women and minorities, the expansion of democratic rights, protection of the poor and the sick (still incomplete), the defeat of fascism and communism.  Puritan values – for instance, progress and community – have informed the good in America, not just the domineering and the destructive.

Indeed, the genuinely liberal version of American exceptionalism – that America can help to spread universal human rights and values – is simply the modern-day version of the Puritan mission – as Rush’s dishonest appropriation of it so well shows!  We are still saving the world, with the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other.  We can never really step off the Mayflower.  Even a modern liberal like Barack Obama, influenced by subjectivism and post-nationalism, accepts this version of exceptionalism:
I think 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.
Why, he sounds just like Rush!  Although, like a good and thoughtful liberal, he inserts all the requisite caveats:
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
So why does Rush – like so many conservatives – claim that Obama doesn’t understand or accept American exceptionalism?  Because Obama really believes the liberal formulation that they only parrot.  If American culture is not superior then we are just a country like any other, and our actions should be subject to the same judgments and constraints rightly laid upon other countries.  And Rush would never relinquish America’s special standing above the rules:
What makes us exceptional is what we used to have in situations like this, that was a moral authority.  We had the moral authority because of what we stood for, and we stood for . . . the absolute primacy of the individual.
Rush pretends it’s our goals that make us noble, but really he believes that we can’t help but stand for noble goals, that our cultural superiority endows all we do with shiny goodness.  Rush believes we have authority because we fight for individual rights; that is our nature. Obama believes we have authority when we fight for individual rights; that is our calling.  Obama may have succumbed to Puritan missionary zeal, too, but his exceptionalism is the adult version of Rush’s childish self-indulgence. 

But it’s also an airy, post-nationalist version.  Obama’s primary allegiance is to the universal liberal values that America sometimes supports.  He can’t fully embrace allegiance to an American culture that, because he’s a liberal, he’s not sure even exists!  This is what makes Obama’s patriotism seem like such weak tea to Rush (a weak tea Rush himself pretends to swallow).  There is one truth about America that Rush gets right: it is an actual nation with a remarkably successful and admirable culture.  But Rush takes it a few steps too far.  He holds it self-evident that we are endowed by our culture with certain inalienable privileges, and that among these are arrogance, intervention and the flouting of international norms.  Rush’s primary allegiance is to his rigid Calvinist vision of God’s metaphysical, moral and political truths, not so much to the nation that embodies them less and less.  To Rush, the real America is those truths, and liberals foolishly or deceitfully are making America into some watered-down European-style imitation of her real self, an imitation whose moral emptiness  keeps her from commanding and saving the world as God meant her to do.

But there is a coherent alternative to Obama’s uprooted universalism and Rush’s ignorant nativism. It consists of five doctrines: America is a nation prior to and distinct from its government; the unusual culture of the nation has been integral to its impressive economic and political success; one need not adhere to the rigid Calvinist doctrines that founded that culture to be a full member of that nation; that nation has brought both great harm and great benefit to the world; even culturally powerful nations are not justified in flouting international norms and laws.  Though, of course, some times they are justified.  Maybe targeted bombing of the military installations of a horrible, mass-murdering, thug dictator like Bashar al-Assad is such an occasion.  As Obama has said, it would honor our noblest political impulses to use our terrible power for genuinely humanitarian ends.  There are, of course, compelling arguments for not getting involved.  The point is that our analysis of American exceptionalism (hopefully) allows us to address the issue of something like Syrian intervention less distracted by distorting and self-serving mythology.

We can live better without that mythology, both the conservative and liberal versions. But it doesn’t seem possible that conservatives might give up their myths.  They identify America with their narrow Puritan ideology, which they’re certain can do no wrong and which they defend with liberal, universalist rhetoric; they seem too entangled in falsity to extricate themselves.  As demography, individualism and progress slowly move America away from them, they alienate themselves more and more from the actual living American culture, captives of the mythic idolized America they worship.  Liberals can see more clearly America’s moral strengths and weaknesses; they are more capable of extricating themselves from its mythology.  But most importantly, liberals must come home.  They must understand they are children of that culture too, and they owe it a deeper commitment.  It is, after all, who they are.  Rush doesn’t own America and Obama can’t disown it.  We must cultivate a more mature patriotism.  We must love America for what it is, neither denying its faults nor rejecting it for those faults.  We must hope that its better angels defeat its bitter demons.  We must commit ourselves to the real American faith: that the struggles of American history lead toward something greater, more profound, more free, more just.  We fought, we died, we marched, we sang, we were beaten, we raged, we organized, we worked, we came together, we dreamed of a better life and a better world.  Being American is a heavy responsibility.  It demands that we enlist in that struggle and strive for those dreams.  It demands both commitment and candor, both rootedness and growth, both loyalty and humility.  And it insists that before we can redeem the world we must redeem ourselves.