Aspirational history and political rhetoric

Steve Schmidt – who is as unapologetically conservative as I am unapologetically liberal – had more or less the same reaction I did to the Trump policy that literally tears children away from their mothers’ breasts: that it was horrible to see people in American uniforms behaving like Nazis.

Glenn Greenwald, who has brought anti-anti-Trumpism up to the very border of Trumpism, was horrified: not by the fact that children were being maltreated by people wearing American flag insignia, but by the notion that this was in any way unusual.

Every tweet like this that creates bullshit jingoistic fairy tales about the Goodness of America instantly goes viral. Liberals now love nothing more than über-nationalistic revisionism like this from Bush-era Republican operatives. It’s the most bizarre pathology to observe.

(If Greenwald has criticized the new policy itself, as opposed to criticizing its critics, that critique does not show up on his Twitter timeline. Greenwald is consistent in constantly bashing Trump critics but avoiding criticism of Trump and Trump’s policies.)

Greenwald isn’t alone. This is fairly standard alt-left rhetoric, just as “We’re better than this!” is fairly standard liberal anti-Trump rhetoric.

If you’re both anti-Trump and pro-American, it’s natural to say when Trump does something awful, “This is contrary to American principles and a disgrace to the flag.”

If you’re pro-Trump or anti-American or both, the natural rebuttal is, “Nonsense! America has always sucked! Are you just noticing now?” (When Trump himself was asked about his buddy Putin’s habit of murdering critical journalists, he responded. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”). The far left and the alt-right are united in thinking that Trump is perfectly normal and that any objection to him (or to Putin or Kim Jung un) by liberals is hypocritical.

Of course Trump and Glenn Greenwald have actual facts to point to. Disgraceful things have been done in the name of the United States, from the Trail of Tears and the Fugitive Slave Act onwards. Abroad the record is at least equally equivocal: the U.S. has not been – to put it gently – a consistent friend of democracy and human rights in this hemisphere. More than once, we’ve backed the tyrants FDR referred to as “our sonsofbitches.” Whether a hypothetical historian from Mars would regard those as characteristic, or instead as unfortunate deviations from national principles, it’s hard for someone with less perspective to say.

But, as Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago, “critical” history isn’t the only kind. National myths are, themselves, potent realities. A country where the belief that horrible actions Aren’t Like Us is widespread has an internal political resource that helps political actors within that country oppose such horrible actions.  A country where that belief isn’t widespread – where criminality is an accepted part of the political culture – lacks that resource, which of course is a benefit to criminal political actors within that country. The accuracy of the underlying belief is an independent question.

Or, as Matt Yglesias put in in a Tweet

Talk about how “this is not who we are” is not a literal claim about American history, and it’s permissible (praiseworthy, even) to engage in some rhetorical gambits while trying to Do Politics.

So, as a liberal and a patriot, I’m going to keep saying “This. Is. Not. Like. Us.” Saying so is one way to make it so.

Update  Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the torture question first arose, Glenn Reynolds (“Instapundit”), who had been vociferously pro-war, was briefly anti-torture. (He changed his mind when torture was defined as a partisan issue, with Democrats plus McCain against it and Republicans for it.) Reynolds approvingly quoted another warblogger as answering the question, “Why shouldn’t we torture terrorists?” with “Because we’re the f*cking United States of America, that’s why!” Seemed to me an excellent answer, in part because it claimed the high ground of patriotism for the anti-torture position.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “Aspirational history and political rhetoric”

  1. It pays to look at the Twitter feeds of some diehard Trump supporters now and then. Mollie Hemingway, for example, is full of comments on the FBI IG report on James Comey, but has been silent, I mean silent, on this particular situation. Ditto Byron York. Thank heavens for them that they have Robert DeNiro to turn to in troubling times.

    They are not even trying to stick up for Trump and Sessions. No doubt some fanatical Trumpsters are defending him, but perhaps these two Federalist Society types can serve as a barometer of when Trump has reached the limits of what he can get away with.

    Does this make sense to others? Or am I overlooking something?

    1. They're just waiting us out, expecting that we will again be distracted by some new Trump transgression against civilization.

  2. Calling a statement a "rhetorical gambit" does not change the fact that it is a lie. Perhaps "the belief that horrible actions Aren’t Like Us is widespread has an internal political resource that helps political actors within that country oppose such horrible actions." But perhaps it perpetuates a belief in American exceptionalism (other countries are "like that") that makes us more likely to commit horrible actions. After all, we think, that's not really us. I'm reminded of the churchgoer who can live with the evil he does six days a week because he goes to church on Sunday and thinks that therefore he must be a good person.

    1. TL;DR It maybe a "lie", but do you really want to live in a world where we don't even have such lies to at least give us pause before we proceed with our brutality?

      Your argument is persuasive in parts (curate's egg! ha!) Certainly "they hate us for our freedoms" is evidence that you're right. But maybe you're going too far? Yes, people on the right (but not just on the right) deploy our "exceptionalism"[*] in hypocritical ways. But others use this as an argument for us to do better. I don't think progressives are willing to forget the Trail of Tears, smallpox blankets, slavery, Jim Crow, Nisei internment, or what we did to Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. And others I've failed to list. We don't forget "he maybe a bastard, but he's our bastard". We use that "lie" (as you put it, and not inaccurately) as an argument for us to do better as a nation. And I'm willing to bet that other nations' leaders aren't hoodwinked, either. When the Vietnamese ally with us, do you think they do it because America is Exceptional, or because we're the best of an unsavory list of choices? Do you think they've forgotten what we did to them?

      And without that lie, how awful would we be? Do you really want us to base our actions solely on "red in tooth and claw"? I recognize that the American efforts to erect a liberal international order after WWII were mostly self-interested. But they were self-interested in the very long term, whereas right now we're seeing a kind of short-sighted "bust out" that will leave is all poorer and less safe. That "lie" is part of why we persisted in contributing to that order, isn't it?

      [*] I feel it must be noted that *every* nation has a story of their exceptionalism. America is not exceptional in this regard.

      1. Regarding whether every nation has a story of its exceptionalism, I don't know, but I doubt that every nation's politicians routinely claim that theirs is "the greatest country on earth." I suspect that only U.S. politicians claim that, precisely because, among industrialized nations, we are probably the worst country on earth, by many important measures, including health care, treatment of workers, caring for the poor, mass incarceration, racial injustice, treatment of factory-farmed animals, and worldwide terrorism, by which I mean primarily dropping bombs on civilians in Middle East and African countries.

        1. Other nations and exceptionalism: Off the top of my head, I can think of "white man's burden" (Britain) and "Mission Civilisatrice" (France). Pehaps if I were more learned I could find the phrase for Spain, Portugal, and Germany? Perhaps Belgium had one to go with King Leopold.

          1. I'm no expert, but I'll toss a few more thoughts into the hat. Tribalism is pretty common. Lots of peoples have as their name for themselves something that translates as "the people." In one dialect of Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwa spoken in what is now Illinois, the pronunciation of "[we] are the people" is close to ee-lini-wa, which, of course, a French speaker would spell "Illinois." Self-reference as "the people" would seem to suggest a sense of being unique among whoever else is in the vicinity. The ancient Greeks tended to feel superior to non-Greeks (with a very few exceptions). The Romans had a whole national epic all about how the gods themselves had arranged the founding of their city with the express purpose of putting Romans in charge of absolutely everything. The ancient Hebrews thought they were the chosen people, and their own prophet, Amos, actually calls them on it.

            It does seem that humans tend to run towards an attitude of "you're different from me, and I like me better, partially because our folks do things the right way, and you folks insist on being weird about stuff." And if military action gets involved, or if your tribe/nation is big enough to brandish weaponry, it is probably pretty easy to think you're special because your god or gods say so.

            I don't think the U.S. is necessarily unique in claiming such status, but it's certainly louder than everyone else about it at the moment, and it was certainly an available element in the narrative from almost the earliest colonizations (Winthrop's "shining city on a hill," which wasn't really about nationality but about religion).

        2. Here's the seventh stanza of the Slovene national anthem:
          God's blessing on all nations
          Who long and work for that bright day
          When o'er earth's habitations
          No war, no strife shall hold its sway
          Who long to see
          That all men free
          No more shall foes, but neighbours be!
          It takes a certain minimum size to support full-blown exceptionalism. Israel is the exception of course. Possibly Serbia too.

          1. Agreed. It seems like perhaps a common thread is imperialism? After all, Manifest Destiny was imperialism, only within a single continent. And all the other examples I cited were imperial powers. The example you cite is a colonizing power. It's why I wonder if the Belgians have an "exceptionalism" mythos going — it'd fit in with their outsize colonies. Ditto the Dutch.

    2. If you look at polling, most Americans are not xenophobes and are pro-immigration. I don't think we need a poll to know that most would not be willing to personally do the dirty job our immigration agents are doing in our name. I cannot accept group responsibility for the monsters that have managed to gain control of our political machinery. Once you have a state, abuse like this is what you generally get, first against the most vulnerable and later against the bulk of the population, until it collapses under the weight of its corruption.

      1. You keep saying you're not a Trump apologist. I keep wondering if you can actually speak English.

  3. I struggle with this. As a leftist, I'm in broad agreement with Greenwald that the United States has no particular claim to virtue. Also as a leftist, I'm also able to tell the different between bad and worse. What we have right now is worse cubed. And finally as a leftist, I see no way to a consistent left position that doesn't loathe plutocracy generally, and especially Russian plutocracy, which was built by looting the good parts of a failed socialist nation. That's stolen property, stolen from the Russian people. How can a leftist not despise the thieving rich?

    Hating your own country is the internationalism of fools. That much I do know.

    Becoming revolted by your own culture's flaws is a useful phase in development of a broader worldview, assuming you get past it. Getting stuck in that revulsion leaves you just as foolish, just in the opposite direction.

    And yet, if you don't see Donald Trump as an epitome of America (there are others), you are blinding yourself to the truth. He is a pure product of America, no matter who owns and operates him. He is as American as violence, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

    I struggle with this.

    1. To me, an AMERICAN president is George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter, or Barrack Obama. Donald Trump? Don't make me laugh.

  4. Saying "This is not who we are" is a declaration. Declarations are not necessarily statements of facts, nor is describing a fact necessarily the purpose of a declaration. Our Declaration of Independence was not a fact, since we were not independent, but it signified our commitment to acting independently and making our independence a reality. And the signers were as good as their word on that score. Let us be the same.

  5. In a discussion of history, Greenwald's point is instructive and useful. In a discussion of the present and future — which is what the immigration debate is about — it's deliberately unhelpful liberal-bashing.

    Martin Luther King told us that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Based on history, this seems both wrong and largely irrelevant. Wrong because there's a significant likelihood that the arc of the moral universe bends toward the incineration of humanity; irrelevant because billions of people suffered and died without ever seeing the arc bend.

    Dr. King was speaking aspirationally, using a "rhetorical device" to bend the arc in the direction he prefers. If Greenwald wants to say that US history is fraught with genocidal crime, well, that's true. If he wants to use this fact to beat down people like Dr. King — people who want to speak to Americans' better nature — then fuck Greenwald.

  6. After the current president was elected, I thought of Lincoln's second inaugural address. Not where he said, "with malice toward none, with charity for all", but when he said, "…woe to that man by whom the offense cometh . . . He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came . . . if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' " I wondered and still wonder if the current president is heaven's punishment for the terrible things that the USA has sometimes done.

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