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Tilting at Windmills

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January 30, 2011

AGAIN WITH 'EXCEPTIONALISM'?.... Of all the punditry following the State of the Union address, one of the stranger moments came when CNN's Kathleen Parker and House Speaker John Boehner complained on the air about President Obama's reluctance to embrace American "exceptionalism."

Parker isn't done banging the drum.

He didn't say it. That word: "exceptional." Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear. [...]

The exceptional issue may be political, but it isn't only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Americans view themselves, and the role of government in their lives and in the broader world. Is America exceptional or isn't she? Is there something about this country that makes us unique in the world?

Of course there is, and Obama has frequently acknowledged those things, including in the State of the Union. But he seems to avoid the word because, among other possible reasons, it is fraught with layers of meaning and because, to some minds, there's always the possibility he doesn't quite believe it. [...]

Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?

Oddly enough, he has delivered the one word. At a 2009 press conference in Europe, President Obama said, "I believe in American exceptionalism." Parker said the context was too intellectual and therefore didn't count. Who makes up these rules? Apparently, the right does.

This continues to be one of the more offensive and mind-numbing areas of attack from the right, but Tuesday's speech should have resolved the issue once and for all. Indeed, more than a few observers noted that Obama embraced American exceptionalism this week even more explicitly than he has in the past. Hell, even Marc Thiessen noticed and appreciated the rhetoric.

But Parker isn't satisfied. The president has to use the specific words Parker wants to hear, and in the context she prefers. Anything less is, to her mind, grounds for suspicion.

This is terribly misguided. If only Parker could stop listening for the "e" word, and consider the substance of the president's remarks. If so, this week, she would have heard Obama talk about the qualities that "set us apart as a nation" and the things we do "better than anyone else." And his belief that America is "not just a place on a map, but the light to the world" and "the greatest nation on Earth." And his reminder that "as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."

Did Parker miss all of this, or dismiss it because, to her, word choice matters more than principles?

She added in her column that the "e" word itself has "become a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution." That's probably true, but it's an indictment of sorts -- the observation suggests use of the word "exceptionalism" is now a lazy trope, used by politicians to simply appear patriotic.

But instead of pushing back against this nonsense, and explaining why the true test of patriotism goes beyond tired buzz-words, Parker effectively does the opposite.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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Comments

it shouldn't be that hard to go back through previous states of the union and determine how often the word "exceptional" was used in this context. my general memory is never, but i could be wrong: certainly, parker would have us believe that it was standard usage until 2008. can she prove it?

Posted by: howard on January 30, 2011 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

btw, my test of patriotism is that you don't say abysmally stupid things to score cheap partisan points. on that test, parker fails completely and should be kicked off the public's airwaves by her own standards. what a clown she is.

Posted by: howard on January 30, 2011 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Except for Ms. Parker, I do believe Americans are exceptional, and that in a nutshell, is my definition of American Exceptionalism!

Find a career more suited to waiting tables Kathleen, it's a more honest way of making a living! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on January 30, 2011 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

Her interview with Boehner looked like a paid infomercial. CNN is failing in the ratings. They're definitely trying to resurrect themselves as a new Fox News. I have a feeling once anderson Cooper's daytime network show settles in he'll bolt from CNN.

Exceptionalism. The right wing and Republicans have always taken words and TM'd them for their own purpose...."values," "patriotism," "terrorist." "exceptionalism" is the lastes, so when they complain that Obama didn't use the word what they're really talking about is "Republican exceptionalism." They own that word now.

Posted by: SaintZak on January 30, 2011 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

Parker is just worried about her job as a right-wing pundit on TV, and this is an easy ploy.

It is a totally abstruse, purely elite discussion, all this stuff about one word. Average Americans who heard Obama knew what he was saying and they care not at all about this insider word.

Instead of playing the pundit game on this, why not move on to more important issues on this blog?

Posted by: Theda Skocpol on January 30, 2011 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

RUBBISH, America is not more or less 'exceptional' than any other country that had vast untapped resources and a lack of natural enemies. Venice lasted over a thousand years with the same basic currency for 600 years. When America is 500 years old and we still are a world power in an age of scarce resources when China, India, and Brazil have been fully industrialized for 200 years, call me. But Not until then.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on January 30, 2011 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

" he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear."

Honey, the words they are longing to hear is "I RESIGN!"

(Failing that, "The House votes to Impeach Obama" will do. . .)

Posted by: DAY on January 30, 2011 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

The words I'm waiting for Obama to say (to the right) are: Go F***k Yourself. That's all the serious Presidential time they deserve.

Posted by: martin on January 30, 2011 at 10:44 AM | PERMALINK

Exceptionalism = lapel flag pin = birth certificate.

Posted by: ComradeAnon on January 30, 2011 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

OK, maybe it's a draw.

Obama doesn't openly use the word "Exceptionalism."

And they don't openly call him a "N****R."

THEY LIE!!!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 30, 2011 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

I'm so sick of right-wing self-flattery. It's so important to them that we all go around saying "We're the best country in the world!" but they aren't so interested in working toward actually improving things in our country.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on January 30, 2011 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't it blatantly obvious that the whole purpose of "American Exceptionalism" is to render American actions abroad immune from criticism? I would think even the right would have to acknowledge the slippery slope in play.

Posted by: DelCapslock on January 30, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Exceptionalism is the new flag pin. I will take wagers now on how quickly Obama adopts the phrase every time he opens his mouth, just like he started wearing a flag pin.

Posted by: CDW on January 30, 2011 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

"American exceptionalism" is the doctrine that the United States has been chosen by God for a Special Destiny. No sane person believes this.

Posted by: SqueakyRat on January 30, 2011 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

"I believe in American exceptionalism." Parker said the context was too intellectual and therefore didn't count. Who makes up these rules? Apparently, the right does.
Perhaps the word had too many letters for her.
There is also a very real danger in all of this kind of talk. If you have ever noticed a very pretty young girl who is always being told how beautiful she is and soon daddy has to widen the doors to get her big head into her room and her friends start to abandon her,you will see one of the dangers of such talk.

Posted by: roughdraft on January 30, 2011 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

Parker is a hypocritical fool. A shill for extremists when she isn't one herself.

American Exceptionalism is doing nothing but getting us into ever deeper trouble..the worst trouble being that we're anything but exceptional. We've allowed global corporations to destroy our manufacturing base, and destroy our job market. We've allowed global banks to destroy our credit market, and make new fortunes in the wake of that destruction, using our tax money. Just like in any other third-world country. We're not exceptional. We're like everyone else, and trying to pretend otherwise makes things worse.

Parker is a contemptible idiot and I don't know why anyone would listen to a word she says. She has nothing useful to offer except stupid extremist pique.

Posted by: LL on January 30, 2011 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

"...and therefore didn't count"

Funny how none of Bill Clinton's innumerable public apologies was ever good enough, eh?

On American "exceptionalism" - be careful what you wish for. The last I heard, "exceptional" was an educator term for "developmentally disabled."

Posted by: zandru on January 30, 2011 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

Could they or someone tell me just what is american exceptionalism? If you lined up a hundred people naked from around the world it's likely that the only exceptional attribute that the americans in the group would have is the number of tatoos on their bodies.

Posted by: Gandalf on January 30, 2011 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

the only exceptional attribute that the americans in the group would have is the number of tatoos on their bodies.

and fifty more pounds of fat;>

Posted by: martin on January 30, 2011 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Let's see, which side doesn't believe in American exceptionalism?


The President, who believes that we can recover from the worst recession in out lifetimes while still solving problems that have been festering for generations and still out innovate and compete with any country on earth in economics, education, science and technology, and still get our budget under control in the long term without doing it on the backs of those who can least afford it.

or

A party that thinks we can do none of those things.


I'm thinking theres more conservative projection at play here.

Posted by: atlliberal on January 30, 2011 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

Let's see, which side doesn't believe in American exceptionalism?


The President, who believes that we can recover from the worst recession in our lifetimes while still solving problems that have been festering for generations and still out innovate and compete with any country on earth in economics, education, science and technology, and still get our budget under control in the long term without doing it on the backs of those who can least afford it.

or

A party that thinks we can do none of those things.


I'm thinking theres more conservative projection at play here.

Posted by: atlliberal on January 30, 2011 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry for the double post, it said to try again!

Posted by: atlliberal on January 30, 2011 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

I suspect Parker began her analysis of the address in the same way as Boehner did: with a clean rocks glass.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on January 30, 2011 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

relatedly . . .

Franz Boas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Boas):

In 1916 Boas wrote a letter to The New York Times which was published under the headline, "Why German-Americans Blame America." Although Boas did begin the letter by protesting bitter attacks against German-Americans at the time of the war in Europe, most of his letter was a critique of American nationalism. "In my youth I had been taught in school and at home not only to love the good of my own country, but also to seek to understand and to respect the individualities of other nations. For this reason one-sided nationalism, that is so often found nowadays, is to me unendurable." He writes of his love for American ideals of freedom, and of his growing discomfort with American beliefs about its own superiority over others.

"I have always been of the opinion that we have no right to impose our ideals upon other nations, no matter how strange it may seem to us that they enjoy the kind of life they lead, how slow they may be in utilizing the resources of their countries, or how much opposed their ideals may be to ours .... Our intolerant attitude is most pronounced in regard to what we like to call "our free institutions." Modern democracy was no doubt the most wholesome and needed reaction against the abuses of absolutism and of a selfish, often corrupt, bureaucracy. That the wishes and thoughts of the people should find expression, and that the form of government should conform to these wishis is an axiom that has pervaded the whole Western world, and that is even taking root in the Far East. It is a quite different question, however, in how far the particular machinery of democratic government is identical with democratic institutions .... To claim as we often do, that our solution is the only democratic and the ideal one is a one-sided expression of Americanism. I see no reason why we should not allow the Germans, Austrians, and Russians, or whoever else it may be, to solve their problems in their own ways, instead of demanding that they bestow upon themselves the benefactions of our régime."

Posted by: SteveADor on January 30, 2011 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK

Parker is merely exhibiting a common trope of right-wing behavior - it doesn't matter what you believe or do, it's what you say that matters. More specifically, it's your ability to faithfully execute the 'mandatory maneuvers' that signify to other tribe members that you are one of them. So, it doesn't matter if you are bonking the staffer and cheating on your wife, if you claim to defend family values. It doesn't matter if you have read or understand the Constitution, just that you have a pocket copy that you can wave. Your patriotism doesn't matter, it's your wearing a flag lapel pin. An clear, repeated expression of a belief in America as an exceptional country is worthless, unless you specifically say the "e" word.

Like many on the right-wing, she's not really concerned with political reality, she's actually upset about meta issues of tribal identity.

Posted by: biggerbox on January 30, 2011 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

Yep, this one ranks rght up there with the flag pin "debate" for sure.

Where does the American media dig up these brain-dead women???

Posted by: Squeaky McCrinkle on January 30, 2011 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

He didn't say it. That word: "exceptional." Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear.

Nice to see a prominent conservative pundit just state the truth plainly: "we don't care about actual substance, we just want to hear the words. We're that simple."

Posted by: 400metres on January 30, 2011 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

Sometimes I wonder how many Republicans belonged to the kind of fraternities and sororities that were depicted in "Animal House" when they were in college, and if this is where they acquired many aspects of their world view.

Their sense of entitlement,the disdain they show for others who aren't members in good standing, the punishments they mete out to those who don't follow the rules ("Thank you sir may I have another")and their fetish for the trappings of their status, such as emblems (swapping their pledge pins for American flags)and code words (American exceptionalism!), suggests that they haven't quite left their glory days behind them.

Their defense of American exceptionalism sounded much like the trial scene from "Animal House":

Otter: Ladies and gentlemen, I'll be brief. The issue here is not whether we broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with our female party guests - we did. [winks at Dean Wormer]

Otter: But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America.

The funny (or frightening) thing is that Bluto, the John Belushi character, eventually becomes a U.S. Senator. I wonder what the writers of Animal House would of thought of W becomming president.

Posted by: broken arrow on January 30, 2011 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Since when does "American exceptionalism" mean "America is the bestest"? During the Bush years I only heard it used to describe the idea that international law doesn't apply to us.

Posted by: tb on January 30, 2011 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

What I love about the word and the silly concept is that the coinage of the phrase isn't by you Yanks:

"Given the significance of the keyword �exceptionalism� within the field of American studies, it is ironic that the word is not originally an �American� coinage. Joseph Stalin devised the phrase �the heresy of American Exceptionalism� in 1929 to justify his excommunication of the Lovestoneites from the ranks of the Communist International (J. Alexander 1981; Tyrell 1991)."

P. 108
Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PRESS

Posted by: pangloss on January 30, 2011 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

AMERICAN Exceptionalism uses the same arguments "Manifest Destiny" to justify a vague feeling that IT IS OKAY to belittle and destroy other cultures. It is in essence the same argument Arizona Republicans use to when they decry and made illegal the teaching of Hispanic culture in Arizona schools and whipped up anti-undocumented worker feelings so Repubs could please the private prison industry and get elected. Now they want to kick 280,000 people off Medicaid obstensively to balance the state budget.

Arizona has a gross State Product of ~$245 Billion. 18Th highest in the nation. The deficit is less than 1/2 of 1% of the GSP. Az Medicaid costs 1/2 that. It is only sheer Greed and sheer stubbornness of philosophy that prevents them from solving the problem without EPIC harm comming to low income Arizonans.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on January 30, 2011 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

it is so unbelievably arrogant to even think about American exceptionalism; but to go on and on about it, demand obama say it, and make an issue of it is the height of egomania - it is disgusting psycho-babble from dangerously self-absorbed morons.

What any decent human being would be thinking about is not the greatness of America of which their is scant evidence THESE DAYS, but what a decent human being would worry about is the suffering inflicted, and opportunity cost of the social Darwinism that the right embraces and has been using as justification for 30 years now to destroy what WAS great about America.

The right are complete putrid as human beings - disgusting in their indecent self-absorption.

Posted by: pluege on January 30, 2011 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

I notice they aren't allowing comments on Kathleen's editorial. Gee, I wonder why that is?

Posted by: kindness on January 30, 2011 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

An exceptional person would NEVER claim to be exceptional.

An exceptional peoples would NEVER claim to be exceptional

Only the very unexceptional, the lowest of the low would DEMAND to be called exceptional.

Posted by: pluege on January 30, 2011 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

Parker insisting that Obama use the term "exceptionalism" is like Michael Jackson insisting on being addressed as "The King of Pop".

Posted by: sublime33 on January 30, 2011 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

There was a time not long ago that Parker often had some useful observations. No more. In trying to be the right wing foil to Eliot Spitzer, she's not taking the time to think through any serious issue. Complaining about Obama not beating his rhetorical chest more often over American exceptionalism is juvenile nonsense. If one believes that America is exceptional--most other countries do as well--should you constantly remind others of your greatness?

Posted by: philat on January 30, 2011 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Also notice the repetition of "Why doesn't HE use that word?" or "Why doesn't HE want to use that word?"

Make no mistake, the right wing and the Republicans are definitely "whitening" up the word "exceptionalism"

Posted by: SaintZak on January 30, 2011 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

This is some War On Christmas level bullshit.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on January 30, 2011 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Hitler thought Nazi Germany was exceptional; Hirohito thought Imperial Japan was exceptional. Didn't work out too well for either one. Strikes me strutting around bragging that you are exceptional is more acting like an arrogant ass hole than a rational constructive approach to life.

Posted by: J. Frank Parnell on January 30, 2011 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

Exceptional, not exceptional, why should we care? Putting a label on something doesn't change what it is, or what it isn't. Can't we just recognize there are things that are done well in this country, and things that are not done so well, and have an intelligent discussion about what to do about the latter? Whether we call ourselves exceptional or not isn't going to change the range of options of how to address the challenges that face us.

This whole argument over a fairly meaningless phrase with no practical consequences is a complete waste of time.

Posted by: dsimon on January 30, 2011 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

What say you? The Repugnants should not say "abysmally stupid things just to score cheap political points", even we Demos have been guilty of that a time or two!

Posted by: Stan on January 30, 2011 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

WHY is America exceptional?

Our constitution? There are dozens of nations with Constitutions modeled after ours and they uphold it today better than we did under Bush 43.

Our innovation? Maybe, but given our refusal to update our energy and transportation networks, doesn't that make us rather pathetic instead of admirable?

Oil and coal for us!
Trucks and asphalt, the gold standard!
Dial Up and DSL internet for us. Fiber Optic is a luxury!

Our education system? Well, colleges perhaps, but given the complaints about our basic education system by our nation's self-appointed patriots, they sure seem to knock our "exceptional" nation an awful lot.

If someone were to nail down some specifics of the basis of conservatives' claims of uber-nationhood, perhaps they'd be a bit surprised how ordinary America is.

To some degree, America's exceptionalism was responsible for this decay in our #1 status:

Would Germany be the economic power it is without the US backing of the Marshall plan? Hardly.

Would Japan have become an export juggernaut without our post-WWII assistance? Unlikely.

Would France or the UK still EXIST without us? Maybe not.

A Korea overrun by the Chinese in 1952 would not be contending with us for supremacy in biotech today.

Would China have the clout it has without our massive infusion of investment by what used to be America's megacorps? Put bluntly: No.

India is ramping up thanks to a surge in high tech support systems outsourced from those same massive American engines of industry.

Would Brazil be of consequence without NAFTA? Who can be sure?

America may have lost substantial power, but only because that power was given away.

We often get angry about it, but perhaps we need to look at giving power away as "sharing" instead.

We share the work that needs to be done. We share the rewards that accompany it. We share the power the economic energy produces.

Is America weaker when its allies: Germany, Korea, India, the UK, France, and Japan have become far greater than ever? I can't see how.

The cause of humanity has been strengthened substantially since the high water mark coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Democracy and rights are crushing their opponents even as America has forgotten their importance.

Egypt threatens to establish a true democracy. Yemen may follow. The dictatorships of the world are sweating bullets even as a benevolent domino effect takes hold.

As Democracies spread, these miniature Americas may yet exceed their mother in freedom, human rights, economic power, and admirable greatness.

Part of America's greatness may lie in our capacity to wish them well as mature, loving parents should wish their children to exceed their own success.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on January 30, 2011 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK
An exceptional person would NEVER claim to be exceptional.

I agree. Similarly, no matter how hot a woman is -- even if she's smokin' hot -- the moment she acknowledges her own hotness she no longer has it as far as I am concerned.

Posted by: navamske on January 30, 2011 at 6:13 PM | PERMALINK

Okay, I was finally driven to go and check (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/sou/index.html). Bush never used the word "exceptional" in any of his State of the Union addresses.

Asshats.

Posted by: Redshift on January 30, 2011 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

"...a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution."

Usually, when I see some wingnut moron wearing his little made-in-China flag pin, I just figure he's either a fool, a a fascist or a criminal (think Nixon Administration, Reagan Admin, Bush #1, Bush #2, all the "patriots" who saw their duty as destroying the constitution and the republic they claim to love

Posted by: TCinLA on January 30, 2011 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

As a Chinese Australian from Sydney I just don't get it: What kind of mental illness do the American conservatives suffer so that they need to be constantly reminded by their president that their country is the greatest on earth? there must be a medical term for it. Having grown up in Communist China I remember being bombarded everyday with communist propaganda that China was the greatest ever socialist worker's paradise. The North Koreans even put the words "Democratic" and "People's" into their country's name so that people would think otherwise about the nature of the regime. I can understand communist insecurities (and necessary dishonesties) but why do Americans need the self-flattery which is the trademark of dictatorship regimes?

Posted by: HAN on January 30, 2011 at 9:38 PM | PERMALINK

The president has to use the specific words Parker wants to hear, and in the context she prefers. Anything less is, to her mind, grounds for suspicion.

That's way too generous. Parker has nothing of substance to say, so she said this drivel. Had Obama used the specific words Parker wants to hear, and in the context she prefers, then she would have said some other substance-free drivel. This was just the easiest piece of drivel that she could find. It has nothing to do with her suspicions.

Posted by: blank on January 30, 2011 at 10:51 PM | PERMALINK

American exceptionalism, (interesting, spell check doesn't know the word, that's encouraging), is the equivalent of catholic indulgences. Preordained permission to do as we wish with no notice taken by heaven or hell.

The U.S. always gets a pass because... well, just because. I'd like to see K.P. explain fully what exceptionalism is. I know what it means, but it would be interesting to hear her elaborate on our boundless, total and self administered absolution.

Posted by: burro on January 30, 2011 at 10:57 PM | PERMALINK

I hope Kathleen has the word "exceptional" tramp-stamped above her butt. Otherwise, the context is too intellectual and doesn't count.

Posted by: howie on January 31, 2011 at 6:40 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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