I’m glad we selected this issue as our starter because it illustrates how rhetoric and overemphasis on symbolic politics can create divisions that might not really exist between Americans.
You and I agree that, like every other country, America has problems. We also agree that America is free, democratic, and prosperous, to the extent you can call a country wealthy when every man, woman, and child pro rata debt share is $40,000.
I suspect you would agree with me that even harsh critics of American policy would say America does a better job promoting freedom than the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, Iran, and the like. (As a quick aside, I purposely say “critics of American policy” because that is decidedly different than being a critic of the American political system. Some Republicans blur this line so as to make an attack on, for example, George Bush’s ill-fated rush to war the same as an attack on democracy and freedom itself).
What we don’t agree on is whether recognizing we do well in certain areas gives us license to lecture the world. I operate under the warning, “Those in glass houses….” As one commentator noted, there are many gauges by which we can measure the “success” of a society. How do we keep a straight face when a country we are lecturing about the "benefits of freedom" asks us to remove the stone from our own eye given that our incarceration rate is so high, our educational achievement so low, and our homicide and infant mortality rates so high?
(By the way, how do we excel over our European allies like Great Britain in “freedom” or “democracy”? Surely, a figure-head Queen doesn’t disqualify GB from gold-circle status?)
Also, while America is admittedly judging people less by race now than we ever have, we certainly permitted mobs to lynch African-Americans, who we set up as second-class citizens. Even though the last desegregation code was abolished approximately forty years ago, it still took us all of that time for a black man to be a viable presidential contender. (In your own party, there are still misgivings about having a Mormon as your front-bearer).
My point is only that even for people who agree that we’re a leader, some of us might be uneasy talking about our "superiority" because, on some things, if we have it, it has only come recently across a lengthy historical continuum. To me, it's like a drug addict who has been clean for a few years going to an NA meeting and yelling, "In your face!" at all the people who are falling off the wagon.
Also, in my mind, any superiority is demolished by our inconsistent application of our "American ideals." We willingly trade with China because we need its market and bond-buying power. We do the same with Saudi Arabia because we need its oil. As a result, when we lecture some third-world military-state without strategic significance about its lack of democracy, don’t you think we sound suspect? We talk about freedom, but we never back up the talk if it affects our bottom line.
Also, this may surprise you, but I believe more fervently in the “greatness” of America’s system than any American Exceptionalist. I say this because it’s absolutely naïve, in my opinion, to believe we can give another country some “Democracy for Dummies” books and expect our system to blossom, in particular, when the country doesn’t have the massive landmass, rich soils, mineral wealth, and conveniently-located rivers, all of which every significant American historian attributes, in part, to the success of the “America experiment.”
Yes, we ultimately coalesced together as a pluralistic people, but had America been the size of Rhode Island, don't you suspect the original colonies that started out with de facto state-sponsored religions might have snuffed each other before the “American ideal” got off the ground? We were fortunate that everybody had the luxury of “spreading out” (mostly by wiping out native Americans).
I don’t believe saying America got some lucky breaks takes away from how well this system works for us. But bragging about how great we are to countries that will never attain what we have for reasons that are mostly accidents of geography is like telling a lactose intolerant friend how great milk tastes. It's kind of cruel.
My point is that if we want to feel omnipotent, by all means, let’s have the President give us Knute Rockne at every press conference. But keep the trash talk off the international playing field because when we have the bad days, our opponents will make us eat it for dinner.
Also, we shouldn't be all over the globe (troops in 130 countries) giving advice to our reluctant hosts and telling them how to make their houses look better. We're a world power, not the world's in-laws.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009