Monday, November 8, 2010

Jonah Goldberg and American Exceptionalism

There's something about Jonah Goldberg's column about lefties who bash American exceptionalism that seems to be missing the point, almost deliberately so. Goldberg seems to think that liberals who are reluctant to join the chest-pounding parade wish for America to become a little more European, a little more socialist:

The notion that America has its own way of doing things separate and distinct from Europe has been one of the greatest impediments to Europeanizing America's political and economic institutions.

Ultimately, it's not that liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism so much as they believe it is holding America back, which might explain why they're lashing out at the people who want to keep it exceptional. But that too is nothing new. 'The Coolidge myth has been created by amazingly skillful propaganda,' editorialized the Nation in 1924 about the unfathomable popularity of Calvin Coolidge. 'The American people dearly love to be fooled.'

I don't buy this, at least not totally. Certainly, the two columns that Goldberg cites -- Michael Kinsley in Politico and Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast -- don't try to make that case. (Hell, the point of Beinart's column is that Keynesianism is now dead in the United States.) I think Kinsley gets closer to the root of my own problem with the idea of American exceptionalism with this paragraph:

The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don’t apply to us. There are man-made rules like, “You can’t start a war without the permission of the United Nations Security Council.” We’ve gotten away with quite a bit of bending or breaking of that kind of rule. This may have given us the impression that we could ignore the other kind of rules —the ones that are imposed by reality and therefore are self-enforcing. These are rules such as, “You can’t have good ice cream without fat” or “You can’t borrow increasing amounts of money indefinitely and never pay it back, because people will eventually stop lending it to you.” No country is special enough to escape these rules.

Right. In keeping with Kinsley, my problem with the notion of American exceptionalism, as frequently practiced, isn't (despite Goldberg's allegation) that it holds America back -- but that it doesn't hold America back enough. Beinart's recent book, "The Icarus Syndrome," and Fred Kaplan's "Daydream Believers" both document how American leaders, particularly hawks, have tended to believe that America is so exceptional that the rules of warfighting don't apply to us. The results of that way of thinking, embodied in folks like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, have been disastrous for the United States.

There are other ways that the embrace of American exceptionalism hurts our society, I think, but we can get into that later. The problem with Goldberg's column, of course, is that it responds to arguments that weren't made, all so that he can conclude by sniffing at "the sophisticates who chortle at the idea that there's anything especially good about America." It is -- like the attitude of American exceptionalism often is -- lazy, easy, and fails to address the real arguments and real problems that we face.

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