Sunday, November 7, 2010

On Maybe Being Better Than Everyone Else

The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson defends American exceptionalism against Michael Kinsley:

[T]he idea of American exceptionalism has the benefit of being true. The United States is fundamentally and demonstrably different from other countries. It is bound together by a founding proposition, and properly applied the proposition has brought freedom and prosperity to more people, and more kinds of people, than any other....

Fair enough; the United States was founded on an idea and not an ethnicity, which has served us well in the long run. It's part of why Muslim immigrants assimilate better here than in Europe. But this clean slate came at the expense of millions of African slaves and most of the original inhabitants of this continent. There's no getting around that. The story of this country has been the story of increasing freedom, not just around the world--and our record is hardly consistent on that front--but within our own borders. No society could improve the lot of blacks or gays without admitting there were shortcomings in the first place.

Ferguson's takeaway point underscores the problem with his thinking (emphasis mine):

For many sophisticated Democrats the belief [in American exceptionalism] is not merely childish but dangerous. It distracts us from the urgent matters at hand. “This conceit that we’re the greatest country ever may be self-immolating,” Kinsley wrote. “If people believe it’s true, they won’t do what’s necessary to make it true.”

This strikes us—and will strike most Americans, we’ll wager—as the precise opposite of the truth. Americans through time have already done “what’s necessary to make” the country unique in all the world; that’s why Glenn Beck and all those Tea Partiers prattle endlessly on about the Founders. Thanks to the ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice of earlier generations, our obligation now is to conserve the arrangements that make us exceptional, reaffirm them, and prepare to pass them on, with an abiding faith in personal liberty. And this much should be obvious: If Americans don’t believe “we’re the greatest country ever,” we won’t be for much longer.

Again, the operating assumption is that the work is finished--and apparently, was finished with the Founders(!).

This is conservatism as embalming. It takes for granted that nothing need be done to improve the nation, that the American legacy--a legacy won only after overcoming the sometimes violent objections of the small government crowd--need only be "preserved" like a museum showpiece. Issues like declining auto factory wages, or life expectancy, or health care efficiency, or scientific literacy, are just details. Who does details anymore?

Conservative American exceptionalism fails even on its own terms, since conserving things like infrastructure (Ferguson cites the Stimulus without a hint of irony) and international standing and living standards require large government investments that just might wiggle a pinky toe in the direction of the dread Socialism.

Moreover, they require humility and consideration, and not the assumption that America is and will always remain right. That way lies madness: open-ended and unfunded wars, the enshrinement of torture in our intelligence-gathering, the demonization of over a billion adherents of a world religion, and so forth. No one can look at, say, Hurricane Katrina and its implications for poverty and government competence, and conclude that the hard work of bringing about American greatness is finished. It can never be "finished." But if one starts with American exceptionalism as a conclusion, one need not look much at Hurricane Katrina at all. And that's not so great.

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