[Guest post by Aaron Worthing; if you have tips, please send them here. Or by Twitter @AaronWorthing.]
So Richard Cohen decided to tackle “[t]he myth of American exceptionalism” and well… it goes about as well as you would think it would. It’s a tour de force of either mind-numbing stupidity or just plain dishonesty. Let’s read it together, shall we?
He starts right off by declaring that
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 — and I will not quibble. But the problem of the 21st century is the problem of culture… what I would call the culture of smugness. The emblem of this culture is the term “American exceptionalism.” It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God. Maybe so, but on some days it’s hard to tell.
So right off the bat, he is getting it wrong. That is not what the doctrine of American Exceptionalism is about and a quick Google Search would find a plethora of informed statements on the subject. For my money the best summary is Stephen Calabresi’s that “the idea of America as a special place with a special people called to a special mission[.]” And it has been present for well over four centuries. A classic example of that exceptionalism was found in the X, Y, Z affair, where the French expected American diplomats to engage in the same casual corruption that every other nation engaged in. Our diplomats refused for little other reason that we were Americans and we were different.
Alas, he goes on:
The term “American exceptionalism” has been invoked by Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and, of course, Sarah Palin. I would throw in Michele Bachmann, since if she has not said it yet, she soon will because she says almost anything. She is no exception to the cult of American exceptionalism.
So he accuses Bachmann of being about to say it because “she says almost anything.” Did an editor actually read that line? She says almost anything? Really? Does she say “Karl Marx was right?” or “the Jews should be wiped out” because somehow I doubt it. It’s really fascinating to watch a person actually demonstrate irrational hatred toward the woman.
Then he goes on to explode the “myth” of American Exceptionalism (that is, to kill his straw man) by basically arguing that America is cursed, cursed I tell you:
For an industrialized nation, the United States has a very high murder rate and, no surprise, a very high execution rate. We have a health-care system cleverly designed to bankrupt the average person and a political system so dysfunctional that we may go into national bankruptcy, blaming one another for spending too much or taxing too little, but not both. God indeed works in mysterious ways.
And he goes on. And on. And on. Seriously, after the shellacking he gives this country, would it for once be appropriate to question his patriotism?
He goes on to write:
Let no person think there is not a certain kind of American exceptionalism that I believe in and cherish. It is our astounding capacity for tolerance
And for one second he might have started to understand how and why America was different. He might have noticed how Europe has hate speech laws that oddly are never applied to the increasingly anti-Semitic Imams, but are vigorously applied to anyone who sounds the alarm about such Imams. He might have noticed just how empty and fleeting the tolerance and freedom is over there. But then he plunges back into hating his fellow Americans:
It turns out, however, that some of those most inclined to exalt American exceptionalism are simply using the imaginary past to defend their cultural tics — conventional marriage or school prayer or, for some odd reason, a furious antipathy to the notion that mankind has contributed (just a bit) to global warming.
But if you thought that was weak so far, he turns up the idiocy to 11 in the last few paragraphs:
The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern nonetheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. The 1856 Republican convention concluded with a song that ended like this: “We’ve truth on our side/ We’ve God for our guide.” Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield.
Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline.
Which is idiotic on so many levels I hardly know where to begin. First, he is upset at the Republicans in 1860 for not being willing to compromise? Should they have been more flexible on the subject of slavery? At Cooper’s Union, Lincoln told us what compromise on the subject required:
The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.
These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly – done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated – we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
And by the end of the speech, Lincoln makes it clear that this price is too high:
Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care – such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance – such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
But in Cohen’s eyes this was the wrong position. I dare say there was a square chance that if Cohen’s desire for compromise was followed, that slavery might still exist in America today (assuming there was no bloody slave uprising).
And this after praising America’s tolerance? The amendment writing racial tolerance into our fundamental law was written in the aftermath of that same war. It was unlikely to have entered our constitution without it.
And this after quoting from W.E.B. Du Bois? The mind boggles.
And the Southern devotion to slavery was not born of religious devotion. They turned to faith to give themselves permission to have slaves, but the desire to actually have and keep them were born from a variety of factors. For the slave holder, it was maintained because of the intoxicating power it created, as well simple wealth. For the non-slave holder, it was the fear of what the slaves would do if freed that drove them to support the institution. Even that is a greatly simplified version of it, but the key thing to understand is that their devotion to slavery had nothing to do with faith.
And the most idiotic element of that passage is simply this. The abolitionists and those merely anti-slavery were American Exceptionalists and yes, infused that belief with faith. But this did not lead them to declare that “what God has made exceptional, man must not alter” as Cohen hallucinated. No, they believed that America’s exceptional mission meant we had to change, specifically cleanse ourselves of the sin of slavery, or risk the wrath of God.
Indeed, throughout our history those who mixed faith and human rights were profound agents of change, and not protectors of the status quo. It was Thomas Jefferson and the founders who said that we were granted unalienable rights by our Creator, a doctrine that led them to change, to overthrow the British and set on our own course as a nation. And it was Martin Luther King who said:
One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law…. Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Jefferson, Lincoln and King believed in our exceptionalism, and believed that our rights were a gift from God and not subject to compromise. And all of them were agents of change. We should be so lucky to have giants like them among us today.
Instead, Cohen would have us follow the path of Stephen Douglas, the man who sung the siren song of compromise.
Not that compromise is always bad, but what compromise are we talking about? A compromise that doesn’t reduce our debt by a single penny, that only reduces the rate of increase of our debt. In his time Abraham Lincoln confronted whether this nation can endure half slave and half free. In our time we are contemplating whether this nation can endure, period. And there can be no compromise on that point.
[Posted and authored by Aaron Worthing.]