"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."
Barack Obama, March 28, 2011
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Barack Obama, April 4, 2009
In 2008, a book I wrote, entitled America Unraveling: A Politically Incorrect Analysis of Public Faith and Culture, appeared. In it, I stated that a unique public faith has held America together since its inception. One element of this faith is American exceptionalism, or the idea that America was chosen by God for a unique mission to the world. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln thought of America as "the last, best hope of earth" and trusted that it would keep the torch of freedom burning brightly throughout the world. This goal, he thought, was not inevitable, but would be accomplished, if at all, by an "almost chosen people."
America's public faith is beleaguered nowadays. It is questioned and criticized by pundits, theologians, and at times even politicians.
So, as I listened last evening to Barack Obama's speech concerning America's incursion into Libya, I was immediately startled by his declaration that "[t]he United States of America is different." He did not follow the word "different" with the word "from" as he should have. His grammatical construction was a bit sloppy. Yet I take it that the President was attempting to contrast this country to others with respect to its readiness to provide aid in the face of human massacre and mistreatment around the globe. Mr. Obama seemed to be suggesting that America is "exceptional," although this term does not comport well with his egalitarian mind-set. But, if America responds in a humanitarian way to atrocities and is different from those nations which do not do so, then I take it America is in this sense exceptional, wouldn't you say? Hold this thought.
Two short years ago, Mr. Obama held a news conference at NATO and, in so many words, disclaimed the doctrine of American exceptionalism. He stated that he believed in it just as Brits and Greeks believe the same about their respective countries. Exceptionalism does not indicate an objective measurement, but is a matter of patriotism and one's national allegiance.
This contrast between Mr. Obama's pronouncements then and now should give Americans pause to reflect. Is America exceptional, or is it not? Let me rephrase the question: Is the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which has always been part and parcel of America's public faith, one anchored in fact, or is it simply hollow rhetoric? For the life of me, I have no clear idea how the President might answer this question.
One point seems beyond dispute. When he desires to rally Americans to his point of view, he will not hesitate to invoke the doctrine of American exceptionalism and to speak glowingly of American values. But when he is philosophical and in his professorial mode he is anything but reluctant to discount the idea. It is rather like a preacher who takes the pulpit on Sunday and speaks of "God's providential hand" guiding us through difficulties but, then, on Monday, enters the classroom and states that this "providence" is a fiction in order to regulate our conduct.
Some pundits might wish to praise Mr. Obama for his ability to sustain two distinct worlds of discourse depending upon the circumstances in which he finds himself. I guess that speaks well for his verbal flexibility. Some people, including philosophers and politicians, are quite comfortable living in dichotomies. But it is my strong impression that the American people are not.
Americans have given their blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt we will do so in Libya as well. Many patriots died, and more will do so, in these places because of their conviction that America has an exceptional mission of freedom to the world. [Liberty enlightening the world is a theme that has something to do, I am told, with the Statue of Liberty. But who knows? The monument may be about immigration? Emma Lazarus seemed to think so.]
At any rate, it is vitally important whether American exceptionalism is an objective reality or exists merely in the eye of the beholder. Mr. Obama seems genuinely uncertain about the matter.
This uncertainty renders him a poster boy for the eroding doubts coursing through American culture at the moment and enfeebling the American spirit. Should it really surprise anyone that, when a vital rubric of our public faith becomes suspect, the foundations of the superstructure built upon it begin to tremble? America's institutions are largely dysfunctional. Many kinds of challenges afflict them. Faster horses, more money, younger women, and older whiskey seem to be the primary initiatives around which our culture coheres.
No single person exemplifies America's crisis of public faith and confidence any more or better than Barack Obama. His latest pronouncement that America is "different" is no more convincing than the fact that he now wears a flag in his lapel and places his hand over his heart during the singing of the National Anthem and the recitation of the Pledge. All are transparent political gestures in the opinion of many who have carefully observed him in the public arena. This is precisely why, when I hear him speak, I walk away with the sense that he is a political hypocrite whose style represents a triumph of form over substance.
March 29, 2011