Still the One

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s National Review cover story on the president’s alleged rejection of American exceptionalism in spheres foreign and domestic is producing much consternation in the blogosphere. Most peculiar among the responses is that of my co-blogger David Rieff, whose initial reply last week associated Lowry and Ponnuru with the paranoids of The John Birch Society, who infamously alleged that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent. By arguing that the president is attempting to move America away from the qualities which make it exceptional—namely “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics” along with “our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force”—and adopt those of a European social democracy, the pair, Rieff says, are reprising long-standing conservative attempts to portray liberals as traitors. What Lowry and Ponnuru are essentially doing, Rieff writes, is alleging that, “President Obama and his supporters are enemies of the United States,” not to mention slyly nodding their heads toward those who argue that the president wasn’t born here.

It doesn’t end there. Like many other writers who express disagreement with the president, these two will no doubt soon have blood on their hands. “Lowry and Ponnuru would presumably indignantly deny that their accusations against President Obama and his supporters had anything of the same quality of the ad that ran in The Dallas Morning News the day President Kennedy was assassinated, accusing him of having made a secret deal with the Communists,” Rieff contends. Finally, in case his point wasn’t clear enough, he deems that the “language” used by Ponnuru and Lowry, “is not the language of political argument” but rather “the language that was in the north Texas air the day John Kennedy flew into Dallas. And while it may not end on a grassy knoll, it is almost certainly going to end badly. Very badly.”

There are many things one could say about this passage, but the most obvious is: Does David Rieff know that it was a communist who assassinated John F. Kennedy?

Meanwhile, the smartest reply to the National Review piece comes from my friend and colleague Damon Linker in The New Republic. He argues that the essay lazily conflates the policy preferences of conservative Republicans with the various creeds that the authors say comprise American exceptionalism. What makes America exceptional is not just laissez-faire economics, but also the struggles of the civil rights movement, largely led by people on the left. Liberal patriotism, more cognizant of America’s previous mistakes and current faults, “sometimes puts more faith in the American future than in its past or present.” That does not make it any less patriotic, just more nuanced. American exceptionalism should not be the exclusive preserve of those on the right, as it’s a tapestry of the various constituencies and movements which have made America freer, fairer, and more productive.

Where I differ from Linker is his view of how a belief in American exceptionalism should inform beliefs about America’s foreign policy. “Is anything less exceptional in human history than a country’s willingness to defend itself by force?” Linker asks, believing the claim that Americans are more supportive of a robust approach to overseas humanitarian crises and foreign aggression to be a straw man. To be sure, and not so long ago, European countries were willing to do a lot more than use force in self-defense. They would rape and pillage to expand their empires. But today, the exact inverse is true, as a gander at the defense budgets of most of our NATO allies attest, never mind their rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Europe, with few exceptions, is a post-martial society. A Gallup poll taken a week after 9/11 found that 80 to 90 percent of people in Europe and Latin America opposed military action against countries harboring terrorists, preferring extradition and prosecution instead (the Taliban, of course, refused to extradite any members of al Qaeda).

Rounding out the responses is this sneering comment from an unnamed (and undistinguished) contributor for The Economist blog, who types: “The fact that there is an American ideology that sees America as unique in the world and at the pinnacle of historical evolution is no more remarkable than the similar self-congratulatory provincial ideologies flaunted by nationalist Israelis, Iranians, French, Dutch, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, North Koreans and Vietnamese.” Because the esteem that we (and untold millions of people around the world) feel for America’s achievements is no more meaningful than the forced displays of loyalty on the streets of Pyongyang or Hanoi. There is an exceptional quality to this sort of argument, in that it is exceptionally dumb.

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