For years and contrary to all the evidence, many opponents of Obama have denied that he accepted American exceptionalism, and they have tried to interpret everything he has done according to this completely false assumption. – Daniel Larison, March 29, 2011
For some reason — “diversity”? — The Wall Street Journal asked Shelby Steele to pile a thousand more words onto the Obama-denies-American-exceptionalism genre. The Journal probably didn’t expect Steele to use the words “exceptional” and “exceptionalism” 18 times in such a short span, but, hey, when you’re fuzzy about what you mean by a term, it’s best just to keep using it. Definitions can only get you in trouble, as shown by Steele’s lone stab at one:
American exceptionalism is, among other things, the result of a difficult rigor: the use of individual initiative as the engine of development within a society that strives to ensure individual freedom through the rule of law. Over time a society like this will become great. This is how—despite all our flagrant shortcomings and self-betrayals—America evolved into an exceptional nation.
The redundancy “difficult rigor” is the least of that circular paragraph’s problems. What does “the use of individual initiative…” have to do with an interventionist foreign policy? I have no idea. Neither does Shelby Steele, but that doesn’t stop him from bringing it up repeatedly. While foreign policy isn’t the focus of the piece — the focus, to the extent that there is one, is on making a corporatist sound like a Yippie — Steele can’t leave it alone:
Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-’60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America’s exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America’s greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom. …
Anti-exceptionalism has clearly shaped his “leading from behind” profile abroad—an offer of self-effacement to offset the presumed American evil of swaggering cowboyism. Once in office his “hope and change” campaign slogan came to look like the “hope” of overcoming American exceptionalism and “change” away from it.
But then again, the American people did elect him. Clearly Americans were looking for a new kind of exceptionalism in him (a black president would show America to have achieved near perfect social mobility). But were they also looking for—in Mr. Obama—an assault on America’s bedrock exceptionalism of military, economic and cultural pre-eminence? …
Yet today America is fighting in a number of Muslim countries, and that number is as likely to rise as to fall. Our exceptionalism saddles us with overwhelming burdens. The entire world comes to our door when there is real trouble, and every day we spill blood and treasure in foreign lands—even as anti-Americanism plays around the world like a hit record. …
Our national exceptionalism both burdens and defames us, yet it remains our fate. We make others anxious, envious, resentful, admiring and sometimes hate-driven. There’s a reason al Qaeda operatives targeted the U.S. on 9/11 and not, say, Buenos Aires. They wanted to enrich their act of evil with the gravitas of American exceptionalism. They wanted to steal our thunder.
So we Americans cannot help but feel some ambivalence toward our singularity in the world—with its draining entanglements abroad, the selfless demands [“selfless demands”? Is the WSJ no longer edited?] it makes on both our military and our taxpayers, and all the false charges of imperial hubris it incurs. Therefore it is not surprising that America developed a liberalism—a political left—that took issue with our exceptionalism. It is a left that has no more fervent mission than to recast our greatness as the product of racism, imperialism and unbridled capitalism.
But this leaves the left mired in an absurdity: It seeks to trade the burdens of greatness for the relief of mediocrity. When greatness fades, when a nation contracts to a middling place in the world, then the world in fact no longer knocks on its door. (Think of England or France after empire.) To civilize America, to redeem the nation from its supposed avarice and hubris, the American left effectively makes a virtue of decline—as if we can redeem America only by making her indistinguishable from lesser nations.
I’m quoting the guy fairly, and I still feel a little mean-spirited. But I’m not cherry-picking; the whole thing really is that bad. “America is fighting in a number of Muslim countries, and that number is as likely to rise as to fall,” yet Obama is “assault[ing] … America’s bedrock exceptionalism of military … pre-eminence”? Al-Qaeda spared Buenos Aires out of sheer theatrical whimsy? We have to maintain an empire (though, of course, any charges of imperialism are false) so that “the world” will keep knocking on our door, begging us to bomb it? And, most preposterously, American liberals oppose this militaristic exceptionalism?
I wish that last item were so, but as Daniel Larison has documented for years, liberals, and especially Obama, have cultivated a strain of American exceptionalism far more virulent than that of the Palinites. As Larison wrote in the piece quoted above:
Where many mainstream conservative enthusiasts of American exceptionalism define that exceptionalism in terms of being the freest, most prosperous country or the one with the greatest social mobility, some liberals want to define it in terms of superior idealism or morality. It doesn’t make it any better if Obama conceives of this as a struggle to make America more idealistic and moral. In fact, it makes it worse in some ways. It’s one thing to recognize past American mistakes and crimes and vow never to do such things again, but it’s something else entirely to see the use of military force as an appropriate means to expiate past national sins.
Obama is lucky that Steele has a bigger platform than Larison.