American exceptionalism isn’t our national religion. Criticism of the US isn’t a sin
By Megan Carpentier, Tuesday 24 February 2015 12.45 EST
There is danger in buying your own hype, of listening exclusively to the people who think you can do no wrong because you’re you: your right-ness becomes tautological, based on the sole fact of your existence.
The theory of American exceptionalism is no different: it posits that America is exceptional – in the most positive sense – because it is unique in the world, and that its uniqueness derives from its exceptional-ness. We’re awesome because no one else is like us, and no one else is like us because we’re awesome.
To then disagree with our existential superiority by suggesting that some of our acknowledged problems – ongoing racial disparities, for instance, or increasing income inequality, our propensity to torture those we imprison both here and abroad, or our love of bombing the shit out of other countries to affect political change – might make us somewhat less than super-wonderful as a nation-state is to commit a cardinal sin against the one true religion of America and risk excommunication from our political class.
It certainly says something about former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s understanding of love that he – after one annulment and a post-affair divorce – believes the purest expression of love is one that doesn’t recognize the flaws in its object. Last week, he said of the president: “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up, and I was brought up, through love of this country.” Though he initially refused to retract his statements, he wrote in a weekend op-ed that he was really talking about “the effect [Obama’s] words and his actions have on the morale of the country”.
It says something about the Republican movement today that the only currently recognized patriotism is the uncritical kind.
Slapping on a flag pin and declaring the US as the best country in the world – solely to garner the applause of true believers – doesn’t qualify one to lead it. At least, it doesn’t make one qualified for the presidency any more than postulating that the one true flaw in US foreign policy is the president’s supposed unwillingness to condemn the religious beliefs of a huge proportion of the world (because of the actions of a few political extremists) qualifies one to be secretary of state.
There is perhaps no one better positioned to recognize the flaws in the theory of American exceptionalism than the president of the United States: he – and it’s always been a he, another flaw – sits atop the apparatus of the system of government fundamental to the thesis. One might hope it impossible for a man to have the power to end the lives of thousands (or millions) of people in the world with a couple of phone calls to not then consider, humbly, whether we deserve that power, or whether he deserves to embody it – let alone use it.
One might hope that the president would, after spending at least a little time in the most rarified company in the world, come to understand both that many countries see themselves as exceptional, and that being unique doesn’t automatically lead to being right. One might hope that there would be no clearer vision of both America’s flaws and its potential for greatness than that of the man elected to rectify the former and lead us to the latter, no matter how ineffectively he does either.
But, it seems, if you are a conservative politician in America today, you might instead hope that the man elected to lead us all be more a cheerleader for America, flaws be damned, than its quarterback.
Six years into the Obama presidency, eight after he began in earnest his run for the office and more than 13 years after 9/11, the criticism that Obama loves America and Americans less than other politicians feels more than a little shopworn; coming from someone like Rudy Giuliani, who most certainly holds something less than pure love in his heart for his fellow Americans who are of a different race, it sounds downright laughable. Love that cannot withstand criticism is hardly the truest kind; love that requires constant, public affirmation eventually rings more false than true to those who hear it.
African Americans (and, to some degree, all people of color in America) have more than a few reasons to love America with somewhat less fervor than white Americans. From being declared only three-fifths of the value of a white person in its constitution to slavery to Jim Crow to ongoing institutionalized discrimination and personalized racism, the flaws in the systems and people that comprise and constrain American life are a lived, not theoretical, experience to many African Americans and other people of color.
By proclaiming that only uncritical love of country qualifies one for the highest office, by asserting that the only true patriotism is one that does not recognize America’s flaws, Republicans like Giuliani are effectively declaring that enormous groups of Americans are insufficiently American – positing that some Americans are better than others.
The idea that Obama’s open recognition of America’s flaws makes him insufficiently patriotic assuages the insecurity of conservative listeners – who doesn’t like to be told that they are better than someone else? But it also reassures those same listeners of their own superiority to the president: they, of course, are positioned as the truer patriots, the more country-loving Americans, the ones who recognize the awesomeness of the country that’s unique in its awesomeness. They’re encouraged to believe only the best about themselves and their country, and discard as un-American any evidence that might counter their position that America is (and Americans are) the best.
Painting “One Nation Under God” by Jon McNaughton, 2009. http://religionandpolitics.org/2012/07/25/the-tea-partys-painter-the-art-of-jon-mcnaughton/