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Tilting at Windmills

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March 29, 2011

CAN WE END THE 'EXCEPTIONALISM' DEBATE NOW?.... Not surprisingly, President Obama's remarks last night on U.S. intervention in Libya did not end the debate on the mission's value. No one seriously expected it would.

But maybe it can help end the debate on "American exceptionalism"?

About midway through the speech, Adam Serwer noted, "After this speech, anyone who argues Obama doesn't believe in 'American exceptionalism' deserves to be laughed out of town." That's entirely right (though those folks probably deserved to be laughed out of town before last night).

Mark Kleiman, pushing back against the right's odd preoccupation with the "e" word, highlighted this portion of the speech, in particular:

"To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and -- more profoundly -- our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

I can only assume this won't satisfy the Kathleen Parkers of the world, who are needlessly literal about Obama and use of the word "exceptionalism," but the principles here are plainly evident for anyone who cares to hear them. Indeed, the president wasn't subtle -- the United States isn't like other countries; ours is a country with unique power, responsibilities, and moral obligations.

It follows Obama's State of the Union address, when he talked 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."

The notion that the right is sincere about debating the "exceptionalism" question in good faith is itself patently absurd, but for anyone who actually cares about the substance of the debate, the question has been answered.

Garance Franke-Ruta didn't seem especially impressed with last night's speech, but noting the larger thrust of the remarks, she explained that Obama offered "a reminder to a war-weary nation that it is exhausting to be globally exceptional."

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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Comments

The right obviously doesn't care about "moral obligations" or "unique responsibilities". They care about, er, being RIGHT! So, exceptionalism is just a word to beat up other people with. Tranlated into wingnutese, it means we're better than you are. And if you're not a white, Christian bully, you're not really American.

Posted by: walt on March 29, 2011 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

There hasn't been a "debate" about American exceptionalism (god knows there should be), there have just been loony toon accusations made by fact-challeneged political hacks. It's a Monty Python sketch waiting to be rejected.

Posted by: martin on March 29, 2011 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

"The notion that the right is sincere about debating any question in good faith is itself patently absurd"

Fixed it for you.

Posted by: anandine on March 29, 2011 at 10:12 AM | PERMALINK

Until Obama goes to a mountain top and screams,
"We are an exceptional nation!
We are the exceptionally, most exceptional, EXCEPTIONLIEST EXCEPTIONAL nation in the history of the world!" he will not be taken seriously by the right.

And then. they'll tell him that since he's screaming, he obviously doesn't believe it!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on March 29, 2011 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

When it comes down to it Obama 's the kind of a guy I'd want in a foxhole with me. What he said is exactly what I was thinking. Would you all want to see the mass graves and debate whether we should act or sit idly by on the sidelines watching our hD TVs and sipping lattes while people who are sick and tired of a dictator whos been fucking them for over forty years are being slaughtered. Any of you want to justify that then you need to go live in a hole somewhere. Furthermore if some other country (France ) hadn't acted we would all be sippin tea at 3 in the afternoon and singing god bless the quenn right now.

Posted by: Gandalf on March 29, 2011 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

If he believed in American exceptionalism, then why cede authority for Libya to NATO?

If this was such an important mission, why not get authorization from Congress? If a Republican did this, I'd be plenty pissed. It's no different with a Democrat in the White House.

Something about this mission stinks. Maybe Qadaffi has compromising photos or information about Western leaders.

Posted by: Jon Stankley on March 29, 2011 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

; ours is a country with unique power, responsibilities, and moral obligations.

Steve, the problem is, that isn't what the right means by American "exceptionalism." For them, American exceptionalism lies in the fact that this nation was founded by Jesus, built by hard-working white people who turned an uninhabited continent into a modern power with nothing but grit, moxy and no help from the government, is the greatest nation to have ever existed, and deserves to be able to do whatever it wants in the world, and if some other countries have a problem with it, they can get bent.

By that standard, Obama is most certainly not embracing American exceptionalism. How often did the words "spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ" appear in his speech? There you go.

Posted by: jonas on March 29, 2011 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

Exceptionalism means different things to different people. The President last night was an example of what the word should truly mean -- a commitment to principles that guides the nation's actions and behavior. The tea-baggin' republicans and right-wing radio rant-jockeys have another definition of the word -- it means that U.S. is immune to international norms and deserves to be granted an "exception" whenever it acts contrary to the dictates of fairness and human decency.

Posted by: Bo on March 29, 2011 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

How about "selective exceptionalism"? To be used only when target country has oil and doesn't have nukes.

Posted by: jward23 on March 29, 2011 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

When you are carrying the philosophies that project your future as a cross between the Amish , Mennonite , Shaker , style communities , with a bracing dash of armed to the nuclear (nucular nook koo lar) teethe nation building exceptionalism ,

Tom Lehrer : Be Prepared

Be prepared, that's the Boy Scout's marching song
Be prepared, as through life you march along
Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well
Don't write naughty words on walls if you can't spell

Yes , aside from the wit of Mr. Lerher's wise thinking on this and many other transferable subjects , our immutable friends of the Right should make an exception for the toothyness of fate , facts , and the crushing juggernaut of reality . For instance , and I know this will be of little use to our deep thinking intellectual leadership of brash Right thinking , Oil and Water do not mix ! Light and Dark are incompatable ! Up and Down never come closer than rest !
Indeed .
Somehow , despite these well intentioned plea's , the concepts are invariably alien to the swash-buckled down style , the pragmatic my way or the hi way physiks of Limmbaugh-Kristol (ad nauseum) magic .
In the words of the seasoned , imaginary , detective Monk , "I don't think so" .

Posted by: FRP on March 29, 2011 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

This fellow "Obama" is too, too nuanced.

He needs to climb gulag's hill, and, waving a big foam finger, shout "WE NUMBER ONE!"

(-number what at WHAT is open to debate. . .)

Posted by: DAY on March 29, 2011 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

Did he actually say the word "exceptional"? Huh? Did he? If he din't SAY it, he don' BELIEVE it.

The right wing is just like my 4th grade playground at recess.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on March 29, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Pre-emptive humanitarian military intervention? George W. Bush and Dick Cheney couldn't have put it any better.

Posted by: square1 on March 29, 2011 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

If he believed in American exceptionalism, then why cede authority for Libya to NATO?

If this was such an important mission, why not get authorization from Congress? If a Republican did this, I'd be plenty pissed. It's no different with a Democrat in the White House.
Posted by: Jon Stankley on March 29, 2011 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

Listen jon, the same reason the terrorists are mad at us and attacking us would be exacerbated with the perception we are attacking muslims yet again.Yet , the way Obama is handling Libya , it possibly could quell terrorist anger against the US.

Posted by: Michael on March 29, 2011 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

The "exceptionalism debate" should never have begun. Talk about allowing conservatives to frame the debate! What kind of progressives actually want Obama or anyone else to "believe in" American exceptionalism?

We should want our nation to use its unprecedented power and resources responsibly, but this isn't exceptionalism. Exceptionalism has various religious and political meanings, but none of them correspond a legitimate vision for American progressives.

Is Obama an American exceptionalist? I hope not.

Posted by: MudFunk on March 29, 2011 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

"American exceptionalism"

The American poor starving in the streets.
Sick,
robbed of their retirement,
forced to pay taxes to support the wars of the rich,
blinded by media propaganda,
induced to fighting wars between themselves based on religion, sexual issues, drugs and crime.

This isn't the America I was raised in.

Posted by: Dean on March 29, 2011 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

American Exceptionalism = Our Shit Doesn't Stink

It's used almost exclusively as cover for conservative hypocrites who are anything but exceptional.

I get ill when it's invoked by anyone in our party.

Please stop.

Posted by: bdop4 on March 29, 2011 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

"Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

The implication in that statement is that the United States is exceptional because it, unlike other unnamed countries, doesn't "turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries."

But that's not right, is it?

Posted by: bdop4 on March 29, 2011 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

I think the important point is not that he ended the "debate" about whether he believes in American exceptionalism, but that he took the issue away from them. (So naturally, they'll find a way to continue to criticize him about it.) To the right, American exceptionalism is about how we're allowed to do whatever we want, even the same things we tell everyone else not to do, because we're special and we're always right. But Obama laid it out in terms of exceptional responsibilities. Whether or not you agree with this particular application of that logic, I think it's a much better starting point for debate than the wingnut version.

Posted by: Redshift on March 29, 2011 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

Well, that is a shame. Belief in our own exceptionalism is just xenophobia with a different name.

Posted by: bobbo on March 29, 2011 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

This is Obamas Sally Struthers moment.
Yes, for only 50 missiles a day, you can help a Libyan kid live one more day.

Posted by: Neo on March 29, 2011 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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