Ohhh, America, you're so strong
The Washington Post, November 18, 2010
Oooh, you're so strong, baby, so handsome. You're the greatest.
I'm talking about you, America. You're . . . why, you're exceptional!
Does anyone else think there's something a little insecure about a country that requires its politicians to constantly declare how exceptional it is? A populace in need of this much reassurance may be the surest sign of looming national decline.
American exceptionalism is now the central theme of Sarah Palin's speeches. The supposedly insufficient Democratic commitment to this idea will be a core Republican complaint in 2012. Conservatives assail Barack Obama for his alleged indifference to it. It's part of their broader indictment of Obama's fishy cosmopolitanism, his overseas "apology tours," his didn't-wear-the-flag-lapel-pin-until-he-had-to peevishness. Not to mention the whole anti-colonial Kenyan resentment thing the president's got going.
Real menreal Americansknow America is the greatest country ever invented. And they shout it from the rooftops. Don't they?
Let me be clear, because I know the mail's coming. I love my country, and cherish that America was founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and self-government. We're imperfectwho isn't?but always in the process of evolving toward that "more perfect union." So I write this as a patriot.
Because, speaking as a patriot, I worry we're looking a little too needy these days.
You can tell a lot about a country by what it requires its politicians to do to win. In Switzerland, do candidates have to proclaim that "Switzerland is the greatest nation ever created in human history"? In Brazil, do ambitious pols insist that "Brazil is the most special country ever to grace the world"?
Isn't "great" or "really, really great" enough?
Not in America, dammit.
"Americans believe with all their heart," said Marco Rubio upon winning his Senate race, "that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all of mankind."
Rubio described his Senate race as "a referendum on our identity," adding that "this race forces us to answer a very simple question," he said. "Do we want our country to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared for it to become just like everyone else?"
And to think I thought the election was about who had better ideas for getting the economy moving again.
As a Jew I'm familiar with this issue in another context. According to the Torah, Jews are said to be "the chosen people." Though this was a relatively affirming thing to be when you're a kid in Sunday schoolwho wouldn't want to be part of the club chosen by the Man Upstairs, after all?as an adult, I've never taken it seriously. With all due respect to Jews who take this notion literally, it's always struck me as presumptuous, if not offensive.
As it happens, the congregation we belong to in Los Angeles is "reconstructionist," meaning it adapts Jewish thinking to modern life. One of Reconstructionism's chief tweaks has been to reject the idea of "chosenness" altogether. I'm sure some Jews frown on this edit, preferring to retain the idea of Jewish exceptionalism. But to many of us it's only common sense to affirm that other religions and groups can be terrific, too.
The conservative use of American exceptionalism as a political sword today is perversely revealing. There's something off when the first generation of Americans that is less educated than its parents feels a deep need to be told how unique it is. Or that a generation that's handing off epic debts and a chronically dysfunctional political process (among other woes) demands that its leaders keep toasting its fabulousness. Especially when other nations now offer more upward mobility, and a better blend of growth with equity, than we doarguably the best measures of America's once-exceptional national performance.
Wouldn't it bolster Americans more to be told that we can meet the challenges of this moment? Wouldn't we be better off striving to be exceptional at solving our common problems?
Sarah Palin's focus on this theme proves she is shrewder than her critics acknowledge. I don't doubt that Palin's beliefs are sincere. But she's also tuned in to her audience: Millions of Americans who are anxious about America's trajectory and worried about their family's economic future. If you don't have real answers, soothing words are a start.
Oooh, you're so strong, baby, so handsome. Palin knows the country she is courting.