An exceptional country?

Yes, in some ways, good and bad. But that isn’t why I love it, or why Barack Obama loves it. “I love my country because it is mine.”

Since Glenn Greenwald has misread my post on Obama and American exceptionalism in precisely the same way as commenter Malcolm Kirkpatrick – though from the opposite pole of factional animus – perhaps I should clarify (though other commenters had no difficulty decoding my meaning).

No, of course believing that America is “exceptional” is neither a necessary nor a sufficient proof of love of country. The wisest thing ever said about patriotism was said by Stepanos Orbelian in the 13th Century: “I love my country because it is mine.” That viewpoint makes it possible understand that other people might love their countries, too, and not want them to become mere dependencies or simulacra of one’s own.

Now, an American who loves his country can find, without stretching the facts, many things to admire about it. It is certainly exceptional in many ways: its wealth, its extent, its cultural and scientific and technical creativity, its capacity to draw “huddled masses” from around the globe and fashion their descendants into Americans, which in turn relates to the fact that its basis is a political rather than an ethnic or even geographic one: a Mayflower Yankee is no more “American” than – for example – a Luo/WASP hybrid from Hawaii. “All men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “due process of law” and “free exercise of religion” are all principles to be proud of, and all deep in the country’s DNA.

That same American might find many things to be sad about, or even ashamed of – violence, the health care system, mass incarceration, the national anthem – without loving his country any the less.

As to the claim of “exceptionalism” in the stronger, almost eschatalogical sense in which someone like Mike Huckabee or someone like Bill Kristol pushes it – a country uniquely blessed by God and thereby entitled to impose its ways on the rest of the world – well, I can’t speak for the President, but for myself I find being a member of one chosen tribe quite enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.

If the President wants to appeal to a kind of national noblesse oblige in the “City on a Hill” tradition – to say that some kinds of evil or indifference are unworthy of the Land of the Free – that seems to me like a perfectly reasonable rhetorical trope, as long as you take it well mixed with water. It’s exactly how I feel about torture: yes, I know it’s done around the world, but it makes me sick to my stomach to think that America does it.

But all this is rather remote from the point of my post, which is that the Fox News Republicans have taken the (false) claim that Obama disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project and used it to make the (also false, though utterly different) claim that he does not love his country.

I thought it was a nice trick on Obama’s part to use exceptionalist rhetoric in support of the Libyan intervention, both because it ought to make it harder for Republicans to oppose the war effort and because it so grossly falsifies a key Republican talking point against the President personally. But, alas, mere facts, even wrapped in clever rhetoric, simply find no purchase in the Party of the Big Lie.

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

17 thoughts on “An exceptional country?”

  1. Well stated professor. I for one followed you all along. People can see what they are looking for.
    I’m very glad the president is trying to use verbal jujitsu on those who want to twist his every word and intention. I just wish he were using it to do more of the change we thought we were voting for.

  2. Malcomtent likes to play the contrarian, or haven’t you noticed? He thought he had a “gotcha”.

  3. Solid gold line of the day:

    Since Glenn Greenwald has misread my post on Obama and American exceptionalism in precisely the same way as commenter Malcolm Kirkpatrick – though from the opposite pole of factional animus…

    I’m still belly laughing…
    Thanks…
    I needed that.

  4. “It is certainly exceptional in many ways: its wealth, its extent, its cultural and scientific and technical creativity, its capacity to draw “huddled masses” from around the globe and fashion their descendants into Americans”

    Sounds like Canada or Australia to me. Just a little bigger. And I guess you can find exceptional characteristics in most countries that way. Switzerland: oldest still existing democracy, no war with its neighbors for centuries, four language groups at peace. And chocolate! (Plus money laundering and small arms exports.)

    The problem with your argument is that this is not the way exceptionalism is usually understood in the US. So this is really about trying to fashion an argument that salvages the term so that reasonable non-jingoistic types can also use it, since avowing the term would be too costly politically. So it is a “nice trick on Obama’s part”. (Trick as in “I am using a term that makes the rubes believe I agree with them when in fact I mean something else”.)

    I guess short term, such rhetorical games can be useful, just as hippie bashing has its uses. But long term, sticking with the term might put you at a disadvantage.

  5. (Kleiman): “…Glenn Greenwald has misread my post on Obama and American exceptionalism in precisely the same way as commenter Malcolm Kirkpatrick…
    Earlier…
    (Malcolm): “Professor, what is exceptional about ‘the American project’?”
    (Malcolm): “…he (Kleiman) says it’s ‘stupid’ to say that President Obama ‘somehow disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project. So I asked for clarification.”
    (Malcolm): “
    If Professor Kleiman calls ‘stupid’ the assertion that President Obama ‘disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project’, then the exceptional nature of the American project must be pretty obvious (to both President Obama and Mark Kleiman). Seems to me, anyway. I’m asking the Professor, a professional educcator, to explain the term ‘exceptionalism’. Why is this request illegitimate?

    Where do you see any misreading of your earlier post? I asked for definition, clarification, expansion. Now we get:

    Now, an American who loves his country can find, without stretching the facts, many things to admire about it. It is certainly exceptional in many ways: its wealth, its extent, its cultural and scientific and technical creativity, its capacity to draw “huddled masses” from around the globe and fashion their descendants into Americans, which in turn relates to the fact that its basis is a political rather than an ethnic or even geographic one: a Mayflower Yankee is no more “American” than – for example – a Luo/WASP hybrid from Hawaii. “All men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and “due process of law” and “free exercise of religion” are all principles to be proud of, and all deep in the country’s DNA. That same American might find many things to be sad about, or even ashamed of – violence, the health care system, mass incarceration, the national anthem – without loving his country any the less.

    Which is what I requested. I agree, mostly. If that defines “exceptionalism” or “the exceptional nature of the American project”, then I would say that President Obama and Professor Kleiman “disbelieve” in exceptionalism, so defined. Liberty and equality before the law require limits on the discretionary powers of government agents. Most of the discussion on this blog turns on the general topic of discretionary power versus general principles or, to put it another way, rule by experts (e.g., czars) versus the rule of law, with Professor Kleiman consistently supporting anti-competitive policies that empower political authorities. “Czar” comes from Caesar, who overthrew the Roman Republic, the rule of law. What I see as exceptional about the US was a legal system and prevailing political ethos which empowered ordinary people to find their own way in the world.

  6. Mark, why do you feed the trolls? I think your blog can do better than a deliberate misreading of an argument.

    ” If Professor Kleiman calls ‘stupid’ the assertion that President Obama ‘disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project’, then the exceptional nature of the American project must be pretty obvious (to both President Obama and Mark Kleiman).”

    Wrong, but he knows this. It isn’t a question of if America is exceptional, but rather if it is an obvious fact that Obama believes that America is exceptional. Troll Malcolm knows this as well, and was just trying to get a rise out of people.

  7. Benny, go troll yourself.

    Every country is exceptional in some way or another. I have not used the word “exceptionalism” ever except in response to other people’s use of it, and then, usually, to ask what they mean. “Exceptionalim” is an abstract noun. This lends itself to grand but vague statements and rhetorical traps (like “the Bush doctrine”). So I asked for clarification. What’s wrong with that? Professor Kleiman gave us: ” ‘All men are created equal’ and ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘due process of law’ and ‘free exercise of religion’.” If this means “equality before the law” (in what other respect can people be “equal”?), and “liberty” and “due process of law”, then I see that as support for a market-orientrd legal system, as Hayek explains in __The Constitution of Liberty__. It is incompatible with, for example, ObamaCare and its health insurance mandate and its 1000 exceptions for friends of Obama, which Obama (obviously) supports. As does Professor Kleiman.

  8. I suspect he “feeds the trolls” because he hasn’t yet bought into the habit of labeling anyone who disagrees with him a “troll”, for which I salute him, even though I frequently disagree with him. More than one blog has been turned into a sterile echo chamber as a result of that practice.

  9. I don’t understand the comment about the national anthem. Why would someone be sad about or ashamed of it?

  10. Gotta agree with Brett here. For some reason, this blog attracts a certain kind of libertarian as commenters. I don’t know why, but it does. Most of them are not trolls. They might be bullheaded on occasion (aren’t we all?), but they generally argue in good faith, don’t threadjack, and often even respond to reasoning and evidence. They even sometimes seek common points of agreement. And sometimes, they even-IMO-win a particular point. And if anything, I see less ad hominem stuff from our libertarian threadmates than from my fellow pinkos.

    If you want to see real rightwing trollery and plenty of it, I suggest you look at the comments section of the Washington Post.

    But dang, why are you libertarians so attracted to this site?

  11. What Malcolm said. Plus, once you get a professional to sing it, it’s still a fairly rotten piece of music after about the first three bars, and the lyrics are both weak poetically and quite obscure unless you’re up on your Napoleonic Wars military history. We had a perfectly good, singable, marchable national anthem in Yankee Doodle, just as the Aussies had Waltzing Matilda. In each case, trading in the genuine indigenous product for something more arty and genteel was a mistake. We’ve produced some great patriotic music – most of all the Battle Hymn of the Republic – but, even as a Baltimore boy, I have to say that The Star-Spangled Banner doesn’t make the list.

  12. The only thing about the national anthem being sung at various public events that bothers me, is that the song has THREE stanzas, blast it, not one. And it gets better as it goes along! Would it kill them to finish the thing just once? That’s my dream, that somebody will be invited to sing it at some sporting event, reach the end of the first stanza, and just as everybody is about to go on with what they were going to do, keeps singing. You imagine the band disorganized for a moment, then picking it up again… Many of the people there might hear the second and third stanzas for the first time in their lives. And they are quite moving.

    “But dang, why are you libertarians so attracted to this site?”

    Because we like a good argument, and you can’t get that from people you agree with? Besides, what’s so obscure about wanting to bring people around to agreeing with you, which, again, you can’t do with people who already agree with you?

    Might be better to ask, what is it with liberals, that they only want to talk with people who 100% agree with them? That they actually like echo chambers, to the point where a considerable fraction of them point and start keening “troll” like some kind of knock off pod people, if a dissenting view is aired?

  13. I agree with Brett and Ebenezer. What would be the point of allowing comments on a blog if alternate views were to be discouraged? They should be welcomed and appreciated, as they seem to be here. During the run-up to the Iraq war, I used to comment frequently on a military blog, where I often dissented from the views of the blog authors and most of the commenters. I wanted better understanding of the pro-war faction’s reasonings, and I wasn’t going to get much of that on anti-war blogs. Of course, I took a lot of flack, but for a while there, it seemed that dissenting opinion was at least tolerated, if not appreciated. But after a while, they decided they preferred an echo chamber and started deleting or blocking dissenting comments. So I moved on, and now I don’t even remember the name of the blog any more, and I have no idea if it still exists. There is very little value in debating with those who basically agree with you, and even less in attempting discussion with those who would rather silence dissent than engage in debate. This may answer Ebenezer’s question as to why dissenters would be attracted to this site.

    I hope no-one takes my earlier comment about “Malcomtent” as ad hominem. I was trying to make a funny about Malcolm’s predictable tendency to challenge Mark on just about anything he says, but I truly value his participation here, as well as Brett and others who often dissent. They add much value to the comments section, whether I agree with their statements or not.

  14. I just saw Brett’s latest comment, and I must add that the preference for echo chambers and calling dissenters “trolls” (or worse) is hardly limited to liberals. I would have worded the question “What is it with partisans….”.

  15. I’m sorry that you fail to discern a difference between a dissenting opinion and someone making a mendacious argument in order to get a rise out of people. I disagree with this blog on a number of topics like welfare for seniors. But I actually engage in criticism that is more than strawmen, baseless assertions, etc.

    Maybe that is why you have so few thoughtful comments compared to Matthew Yglesias?

  16. Yo, Brett:
    The Star-Spangled Banner has four stanzas, not three. The one that is usually omitted is even worse than the other three:

    And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
    A home and a country, should leave us no more?
    Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
    O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    Although the only words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that I ever care to remember are those in its triumphant coda: “PLAY BALL!”

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