Monday, December 6, 2010

We're No. 1!

Perhaps because they've been too busy peering under the cranberry sauce in search of socialists or unmasking the homos running airport security, our conservative defenders of traditional values have been commendably quiet this year about the "War on Christmas" that they usually trot out at this festive season.

I always thought that coming out in favor of Christmas was the ne plus ultra of that particular species of political schmuckiness which consists of casting demogogic pandering as lonely courage. But then came the spate of Republican politicians (may of them presidential hopefuls) who spent much of this year staking out the even more daring position that, in the inimitable words of the Iowa GOP state platform, "America is good."

Taking the prize in the Profiles in Phony Courage award in this crowded field is probably Mitt Romney, whose recently published paean to "American exceptionalism" is titled "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." But many others have been hard at work, too, bravely telling the American voter how wonderful he is just for being himself. (And I thought these were the guys who were always making fun of "self-esteem" . . . )

I can think of many ways America is exceptional: institutions guided by the rule of law; a longstanding commitment (going back to the earliest days of the early republic) to seek a more just and humane international order; a willingness to confront our own imperfections and failings and correct them (slavery, most notably; the disfranchisement of African Americans and women); a tolerance for dissent that remains extraordinarily resilient.

Yet every one of these claims to genuine exceptionalism springs from exactly the opposite impulse from the self-satisfied jingoism that we're hearing ad nauseam from the brave souls standing up for American exceptionalism.

It is not exactly a radical notion that virtue begins with self-knowledge and the ability to question one's natural impulse to self-regard and self-interest. And the evil — evil is not too strong a word — that arises from the kind of simple self-admiration being loudly trumpeted on the right is in fact the very antithesis of American values.

For example: When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, there was a rush on the part of the Bush administration and its apologists to insist, with great circular reasoning, that what was done there was  virtually by definition not bad, since we were the ones who did it ("see, we don't torture," in the words of the commander in chief who approved torture). 

Contrast that with the Founders' recognition that people are people ("But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary," as James Madison wrote in Federalist 51); that what is popular is not always what is right, and that virtuous government is one that challenges and checks the natural impulses of man, that places principles above interests, and that holds accountable without favor those who do wrong.

I was recently speaking with a former Marine officer who (like a number of other military men I have spoken to on the subject) is still appalled by what took place at Abu Ghraib precisely because it was a blot on the honor of the nation; he understood what cheap politicos who bray about American exceptionalism do not — that honor is what you do, not just who you are.