The danger of exceptionalist thinking »« Academic blogging

Pandering to the American people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In any election to any public office in the US, all candidates have to agree that America is the greatest country in the world and its people the greatest people. This has to be asserted without proof or evidence. Even to offer proof or evidence is seen as shameful as not only must a politician take such statements as true, they must take it as so obviously true that it requires no evidence. Anyone who offers proof of any kind immediately becomes suspect as not being a true believer.

No politician ever paid any price for pandering shamelessly to the ego of the American voter, however ridiculous the claim. You can see this whenever someone criticizes the actions of the US governments or the military. Immediately the cloak of American Goodness is used to absolve the actions. Here is George W. Bush trying to dodge the question of whether he is pursuing a flawed strategy in his fight against terrorism by turning it into a criticism of American Goodness: “If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic. It’s just – I simply can’t accept that.” So according to him, some things are simply unthinkable, unacceptable on its face, whatever the facts and evidence may be.

I recall the time when Bush was (once again) using the events of 9/11 to pander. He said that after that disaster, how uniquely American it was for people to rush out and help one another. News reporters and analysts let this absurd statement go without challenge because it is an unwritten rule of journalism that you never challenge someone when he or she is operating on full pander mode. In fact, researchers find that whenever disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the people who rush to help and do the most good, are those in the vicinity such as family, friends, neighbors, and bystanders, even if they themselves were affected. The impulse to help others in times of great tragedy and need seems to be universal. It took comedian Jon Stewart to replay Bush’s remarks about the uniquely helpful Americans and add ironically “unlike, say, the Swedes who never help each other, ever.”

Iraq warmonger and editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart provides another example of pandering. This followed the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha. He used even this atrocity as an occasion for preening and smug self-congratulation.

This horrible story from Haditha powerfully underscores the liberal vision, which is this. We are not angels: without sufficient moral and legal restrictions, and under conditions of extreme stress, Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What’s makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That’s how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don’t just assert it. We prove it. That’s the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it’s what we need right now in response to this horror. (my italics)

Note that after admitting that on rare occasions we can be the equal of others and commit atrocities too (but we do it only “under conditions of extreme stress” unlike, presumably, people in other countries who commit them casually, just for the fun of it), he then immediately points why we are still superior to everyone else. But his justification is absurd on a number of levels. Other societies never recognize their own errors? Other countries don’t bring killers to justice? Others don’t institute policies to prevent future occurrences? The number of atrocities committed by the US forces is decreasing? Where is the evidence for any of this? But evidence is not necessary when you are in full pander mode. Especially after some awful event like Haditha when there is the danger that people might fear that we are just like other people, the need of the hour is to absolve ourselves of guilt and make us feel good about ourselves again.

It would be nice to have a Tom Paine in politics today, Paine saw himself as a citizen of the world and one who believed that one’s obligation was to humanity before any nation. He is said: “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good” although the actual words he is quoted as saying is different:

“My country is the world, and my religion is to do good” is a line written by Thomas Paine in his political work Rights of Man (not Age of Reason, as many people believe). It’s often quoted in a somewhat different form, as “The world is my country, and to do good is my religion”; possibly because Robert Ingersoll quoted it that way (probably without checking the source), but it could have simply become popularized that way because, frankly, it sounds better.

Paine’s frank views on this and other topics (such as religion) did not endear him to the public during his own time, just as any politician who espouses such a global view today can give up all hope of being elected to any significant office.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on pandering

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Comments

  1. Eric says

    “Humanity was my business!” – Dickens, “A Christmas Carol.”

    The problem with a global view is the Tragedy of the Commons.

    Morality largely consists of benefitting a group at the expense of the individual – whether the group is a family, village, ethnic group, religion, or (as you’ve pointed out) country, which we then label “patriotism.” We have classes, songs, flags, holidays, and all sorts of other devices to help teach national patriotism: the idea that the survival of the state is more important than that of the individual.

    But global patriotism doesn’t have any of those devices; it has to rely on our common humanity to unite us, and that concept is too abstract for a lot of people to grasp.

  2. Heidi Nemeth says

    Recent visitors from Germany and Austria made fun of American hubris by saying, not “God Bless America” but “God Bless Germany!”

    And what is to keep us from getting our come-uppence as Germany did in WWII?

  3. says

    I take it that you weren’t raised in America. (I checked that you undergraduate degree was from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka) :-)

    The reason that I bring this up is that there is a quirk in how most Americans are raised and I don’t know if this is the same other countries.

    One of the things most of us (American Citizens) are told from day one is that our country is somehow “blessed by God” to be, well, “different”. Our founders came here and then “civilized” the rest of the continent. We were that “city on the hill” for all eyes to see; all of this was enhanced by WWII where we faced a truly evil enemy; by the standards of Nazi Germany we were “good” (as was just about any other country..but never mind that)

    The idea that we are merely one country among many and that, like most countries, we have an ebb and flow to our power and that we do some things very well and other things not-so-well makes us, well, too “ordinary”.

    Add this to the fact that our economic and military strength is well above most other countries means that when we make a mistake or do evil the effects are felt world wide.

    I am going to post this to my facebook account and see what others think. It was very interesting!

  4. Mat says

    ‘And what is to keep us from getting our come-uppence as Germany did in WWII?’

    Tell me you aren’t real.

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