Richard Cohen takes a crack, arguing that the right erroneously suffuses the phrase with religiosity, creating a dangerous situation where we view all our acts as justified, because God’s on our side. To him, the American right, led by the likes of Palin and Gingrich, wields exceptionalism like a shield against error, in the process taking on the kind of comical delusions of grandeur normally reserved for the heroes of unexpectedly hilarious songs by otherwise contemplative rock icons.
…and Hot Air answers by conflating the arguments of two separate paragraphs to purposefully miss the author’s point. Let’s not dwell on this, but oh, good times.
Cohen’s not wrong, but nor does he really have the whole picture. Exceptionalism, to the right, isn’t about the rest of the world, which rarely (if ever) even factors into conservative calculations. It’s about reviving the old canard from the Bush days — that liberals who question American military action abroad must hate America — slapping a new coat of paint on it, and trotting it out for a new era. The trick works abnormally well alongside a President with some notion of diplomatic grace, and some interest in cultivating, rather than using and abandoning, international friendships. And if the punch lands, conservatives can continue to cast liberals, for another generation, as the begrudging and prodigal heirs of their nation’s greatness, rather than those who, in almost every era, have shepherded the nation to its next historic achievement.
It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that Cohen’s critique does nothing to remedy. If we question the idea of exceptionalism, rather than its application, we’re already playing on their ground, and we’ve already lost. More, we’re doing a disservice to a genuine and important idea, one that mattered to us long before the right appropriated it as the preferred way to impugn the sitting President’s patriotism. America is or should be an exceptional nation — we have been before, but as Fagles put it, in his preface to the Aeneid, exceptionalism must be earned:
The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.
Behaving ourselves is how we became exceptional, and how we’re to maintain it. Instead, today’s right uses the concept as a quick way to silence their critics, and brush away serious moral failings that themselves jeopardize our exceptional nature. Conservatives would have us
become remain the only civilized nation that tortures its captives… and, for that matter, the only civilized nation to retain the death penalty, and deny equal rights to gay couples. That makes us exceptional — as in, the exception to all basic norms of human decency — but it’s probably not how the honorable members opposite mean the term.
By word and deed, the Republican Party, and especially the 2012 presidential slate would have us behave like the last heir of a noble house, trading on his father’s fame while mortgaging the ancestral castle to cover gambling debts. And they presume to instruct us on the meaning of exceptionalism?
Update: John McCain gets it, reminding us what a good man he is when he’s not reduced to a puppet of his party’s fringe. The Senator:
What is at stake here it the very idea of America. The America whose values have inspired the world and instilled in the hearts of its citizens the certainty that no matter how hard we fight, no matter how dangerous our adversary, in the course of vanquishing our enemies we do not compromise our deepest values.
Both as soldier and as victim, Senator McCain knows what he’s talking about in a way that the rest of his party simply doesn’t.