Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Obama's Crusade, High Horses And American Exceptionalism

The reaction to President Obama's observation that we shouldn't condemn an entire religion, in this case Islam, because of the barbaric acts done in its name is another reminder of how difficult it is to have a serious conversation about issues that have the potential to undermine our unwavering belief in American exceptionalism.

Obama stated a fairly obvious truth:  "Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

The overheated response from the right, from Christian groups, and even from some mainstream pundits for what Ta-Nehisi Coates described "as relatively mild, and correct, point" should not have come as a surprise.  We don't really like to think about those burning crosses do we?  We don't like to think about slavery or Jim Crow or the institutional racism that continues to have a profound impact on our society.

We don't like to think about the decimation of the native population that succumbed to our Manifest Destiny.  We don't like to think about the internment of Americans of Japanese heritage or the deployment of not one, but two atomic bombs.  We don't like to think about the many popularly-elected governments we have overthrown in the name of freedom.  We don't like to think about our use of torture (we don't even like to use the word, preferring 'enhanced interrogation').

There have been critical moments in our country's history where it was imperative to face up to some of our more malevolent deeds, confront hard truths, point out where we have strayed from what America is supposed to stand for and deal honestly with the fall out.  All too often, we have punted. 

When Richard Nixon resigned, his successor Gerald Ford declared that "our long national nightmare is over."  A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, apparently deciding that the nightmare was not over.  Ford did not wish to "prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed" and exercised his power "to firmly shut and seal this book."  And so, for the sake of less fitful sleep, we were denied a true reckoning of the many abuses of power committed by the Nixon Administration, all but guaranteeing that future high government officials would feel similarly unconstrained.  (See, e.g., Iran Contra Affair)

Say what you will about the inefficacy of Jimmy Carter's presidency but he did try to get us to be a bit more reflective.  His derisively (and inaccurately) dubbed "Malaise Speech" in July 1979, describing a "crisis of confidence" in America's future, was supposed to be a wake up call for the nation to pull together to ease the energy crisis.  Carter acknowledged the loss of faith in government stemming from "the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.," "the agony of Vietnam," and the "shock of Watergate."  He conceded that "these wounds are still very deep" and "have never been healed." Carter's idea was to reinvigorate Americans through our joint efforts at energy conservation and innovation:  "the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.

Americans soon opted instead for Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" and the promised end to our national nightmares.  Reagan disavowed Carter's pessimistic soul-searching for a rosy view of America as a "shining city on the hill."  The cure for Carter's "crisis of confidence" was  an invasion of the little island of Grenada to restore our military glory.  Reagan cloaked our unsavory policies in patriotic rhetoric.  The "contras" we armed and trained to overthrow the Nicaraguan government were "freedom fighters," "the moral equivalent of our founding fathers."  In Reagan's America there were no hungry children, ketchup was a vegetable and welfare queens drove Cadillacs. 

Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, gave the keynote address at the 1984 Republican National Convention, where she portrayed Democrats who criticized U.S. policy as disloyal, repeating the mantra, "they always blame America first." She closed by saying:  "The American people know that it's dangerous to blame ourselves for terrible problems that we did not cause . . . With the election of Ronald Reagan, the American people declared to the world that we have the necessary energy and to defend ourselves, and that we have as well a deep commitment to peace. And now, the American people, proud of our country, proud of our freedom, proud of ourselves, will reject the San Francisco Democrats and send Ronald Reagan back to the White House."

We did send Reagan back to the White House, and more than 30 years later, the same dynamic remains.  True patriots  are "proud of our country, proud of our freedom, proud of ourselves."  Then there is the pessimistic "Blame America First" crowd whose relentless questioning of the underpinnings of America's mythic greatness is a threat to that very greatness.

So when President Obama, referring to slavery, acknowledged that "the United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history" or suggested we may have "a moral responsibility to act" on arms control because only the U.S. had "used a nuclear weapon," he was hammered for apologizing for America.  When, after Trayvon Martin's murder, Obama explained that the "African American community is looking at this issue through  a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," he was accused of fomenting racial divisions.  And, most recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he tried to provide some badly needed perspective on religious extremism, his remarks were characterized, for example, by former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore as "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime" and by Catholic League President Bill Donohue as "insulting" and "pernicious."

The American psyche is not so fragile that it can't stand a bit of reflection and self-criticism.  We really aren't such a simpleminded people that we can't hold two conflicting concepts at the same time -- we can love our country and the many great things about it while recognizing its deep flaws.  It is therefore far past time to rid ourselves of Reagan's literal and figurative amnesia about America, to get off that high horse, and engage in meaningful conversations that raise troubling questions about our history and what it means for the future. 


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