Sunday, September 6, 2009

IPOPA Answers Elrod: "America: Take It Or Leave It?"

What stops some people from embracing “American Exceptionalism” (AE) as you define it, Jon, is that it permits no qualification, but rather, stands as a brazen and arguably arrogant statement of across-the-board American superiority for all times.

Is Michael Jordan the best of all time? Sure. But only in basketball. Not in ensuring third-world children don’t work in sweat shops so multi-national companies can reap massive profits on more massively overpriced tennis shoes. Also, when he was with the Wizards, Jordan wasn’t even in the top ten in the league. Am I sacrilegious in stating this? Why can't we recognize the durability and resiliency of the American system without deeming it infallible?

When AE proponents dub their critics the “blame America first” crowd, they almost always contend “moral relativists” and “multiculturalists” always blame America. Ironically, though, the AE cohort never blames America. Sorry, but I bristle at anybody who force feeds me an all-or-nothing proposition and questions my patriotism when I don’t swallow it whole.

More problematic is the tricky task of separating the dancer from the dance, and a staggering number of AE fans excel in xenophobia, prejudice, tribalism, jingoism, and bigotry. This is why they hate to mention, let alone teach, the historical stains from these evils, such as slavery. We should call the AE crowd the “rug sweepers” because their modus operandi is to sweep every dark American episode under a rug. Sorry, but this isn’t Olympic scoring. You don’t get to throw out the worst decades.

Frankly, Jon, I’d jump on the AE bandwagon if only AE in practice remotely resembled your glorious depiction. Yes, we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. But aren’t four out of five of those groups routinely marginalized by a majority of the Exceptionalists? Yes, we are shaped by every language and culture, but aren’t a disproportionate share of AE proponents hell-bent on making sure we have only one language and culture?

While it may be a matter of pride to you that Barack Obama can rise to be President, his heritage led to recrimination and fear (that still continues on conservative blogs). He did not rise because of these things; he rose despite them. Respectfully, if you cannot admit there is still a segment of America (even if small) that still fears a black man in the White House and Muslims in the U.S. (even the native-born variety), then, my friend, you wear the same AE goggles as your comrades who believe we are a flawless country populated by flawless people, except for all these damn moral relativists and multiculturalists!

The irony is that AE employs its own “moral relativity” when it runs from America’s dark secrets. Ask an Exceptionalist this question in the abstract:

Should we condemn the systematic genocide of a people?

They will say yes. But ask them to actually condemn Europe’s systematic genocide of native Americans, and they will tell you how great America is now and how we couldn’t have had it had we turned back to Europe, so the “greater good” was served by marching the Iroquois along the Trail of Tears. Isn’t that the true moral relativism? Who is the moral relativist – the man who says “America is bad because we should never torture, even if we jeopardize our safety by not doing it” or the man who says, “Yeah, America is so good we can torture, but only if that’s how we save our own necks?”

As you concluded your post by noting President Obama is being an apologist for America’s sins, let me offer that I see no fault in admitting mistakes as a diplomatic tool, provided it doesn’t impale leadership. In other words, when I see Obama abdicate America’s leadership role with a, “Golly gee, folks, I don’t know any better than all these people, so I’ll just sit this one out,” then I will worry. Until then, I will assume he has the good sense to realize that, while the top dog is always envied, what makes him tolerable is that he isn’t a hypocritical, arrogant, (and in Bush’s case, a poorly-educated) know-it-all.

To use a sports metaphor, Exceptionalists are the Terrell Owens archetype. Teammates, opponents, and even other teams’ fans all say he’s unbelievable. But few can stand him because he’s arrogant, he hogs the spotlight, and he never admits he made a mistake. In contrast, the anti-exceptionalists are the Marvin Harrison (in his prime) archetype. Teammates, opponents, and even other teams’ fans all say he’s unbelievable. But he garners more respect because he shuts up and lets the game speak for him. He never has to whip up a mob mentality with a “How ‘bout ‘dem Cowboys” speech like George Bush did talking about how amazing America is. You see, the true patriots know already. Unlike Owens (and Bush), the Harrison archetype is that of the quiet, graceful victor.

Did Harrison ever think his opponents would not tackle him hard because he wasn’t spiking balls in their face? No. But they weren’t as likely to cheap shot him.

A lot of AE rhetoric comes from the notion people who "blame America" hate America. If we employ the logic that people “vote with their feet,” though, it is silly to make such a claim. If non-AE folk really hated America, they’d be gone. I’d argue instead that they follow Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had it right when he said somebody who knowingly violates an unjust law and suffers imprisonment to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. How better to show appreciation of American ideals than to say publicly that they are so noble and demanding that we haven't gotten them right yet, so we better keep trying?

I forgot to add, I appreciate that you disapprove of hyperbolic arguments, especially in an age when some people equate giving more Americans access to health care to the systemic extermination of six million Jews. By the way, you know what they call the people who don’t believe the holocaust happened in Germany? German Exceptionalists.


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