As sincerely as I wish everyone involved with the George W. Bush administration would just go away — or at least agree to only appear in the public eye in brief, tweet-size increments — I must admit that I think the recent kerfuffle over former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rutgers University has been valuable, if only for the way it’s laid bare some of American society’s ugliest hypocrisies and quirks. I’m thinking of two in particular: the contradictory demands we make of our college students, and the intellectual ravages of our toxic cult of American exceptionalism.
For those who don’t know, here’s a quick recap of the incident: After a vocal student outcry at her selection, Rice decided she would not accept the university’s offer to speak at this year’s commencement, walking away from $35,000 and an honorary doctorate. “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Rice wrote in a Facebook note explaining her decision. Describing her invitation as “a distraction for the university community at this very special time,” Rice took the high road and swiftly put the controversy to rest by bowing out.
Because hers was just one of a recent handful of commencement reversals — the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde withdrew from a Smith College engagement, as did Robert Birgeneau from one at Haverford College — some pundits have since argued that Rice’s concession is proof that “liberal intolerance” is ascendant, threatening academic freedom and free speech all across our nation’s campuses. (To her credit, Rice disagreed, writing in her Facebook note that while she has “defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas” these values are “not what is at issue here.”) Other, smarter pundits have instead claimed that her story is an example of college kids being intellectual hothouse flowers, incapable of gracefully listening to opinions they don’t like without throwing a fit.
Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast, for example, wrote with obvious frustration that the class of 2014 needs to “calm the hell down” and recognize that “oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people.” Before declaring that young people “are the worst” (which, considering Nuzzi’s own young age, was almost certainly written with tongue slightly in cheek) Nuzzi writes that the “entire point of college is to be exposed to different things,” a truism that 2014 graduates of Rutgers and Smith shamefully forgot. “[M]aybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death,” Nuzzi grants. But still.
At the Week, meanwhile, Damon Linker took Nuzzi’s attack one step further, arguing that not only did these students fail to understand the point of college but that they were perpetuating “the tyranny of right-thinking moralism” that is ruining America’s institutions of higher learning. Noting that he, too, opposed the war of choice that will forever be Rice’s chief legacy, Linker writes that “[t]he world is an imperfect and morally complicated place, filled with people who regularly do things I consider wrong, stupid, misguided, foolish, and unethical” but that such people should still not be “excommunicated, ignored, or banished from public life.” Besides, Linker writes, what good does protesting Rice serve “beyond convincing the protesters of their own moral superiority?”
Two thoughts. First (and less important) is that bashing college kids — especially ones who are defined by their idealism and hunger for change — remains one of our most widely accepted and least logically defensible pastimes. Despite telling ourselves that we in America value youth, education and self-expression, there are few cultural archetypes more universally loathed than the campus activist. We say we want our kids to be independent, informed, fearless and disruptive, but then we attack, patronize and demean them as soon as they decide they’d like to be more than seen and not heard. (This dynamic is especially unfortunate when played out among the press. As my friend Ned Resnikoff snarked on Twitter, “What made you guys all want to be journalists? For me it was the thrill and fulfillment that comes with mocking college activists.”)
Moreover, there’s something particularly nonsensical about thwacking a bunch of students for supposedly ignoring the right to free speech when all they’ve done is exercise that right for themselves by peacefully organizing and expressing their disapproval.
The other (and more important) thing that comes to mind when surveying the backlash to the Rice backlash is the corrosive effect American exceptionalism can have on even the smartest and most skeptical among us. In both Nuzzi and Linker’s pieces — as well as a similar one from GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson — opposition to Rice is framed in partisan or ideological terms. Students don’t like Rice, we’re led to assume, because she’s a Republican, full stop. But while I’m sure that’s the case for at least some of the kids at Rutgers — who must be disappointed to hear that Rice’s replacement will be Tom Kean, another GOPer — it’s also a real misrepresentation of the fundamental problem with Rice and other top-tier members of the second Bush presidency. The implication is that the mistakes made by the last GOP president are more or less within the normal bounds of American politics, as if initiating an arguably illegal war and systematically flouting the Geneva Conventions is the same thing as cutting the estate tax or privatizing Social Security.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but: They’re not. And it’s only in a political world where the lives of non-Americans are unconsciously considered less valuable that such thinking could survive. To be clear, I’m not accusing Nuzzi or Linker of knowingly devaluing human life — Nuzzi describes the Iraq War in strongly negative terms, and Linker so hated Bush’s decision to invade Iraq that he left the Republican Party. Instead, what I’m arguing is that our mainstream political debate is so saturated with unstated assumptions about our inherent goodness, our natural righteousness, and our basic decency that serious war crimes, when committed by American politicians, are sanitized as matters of differing opinion. (And in Rice’s case, it’s not as if we can pretend that she was somehow only tangentially related to the administration’s worst crimes — here she is, back in 2009, defending torture with the Nixonian logic that nothing a president commands in service of national security can possibly be illegal.)
As if to make my point for me, the New York Times recently ran an Op-Ed from Timothy Egan in which Rice’s failures and mistakes — which, remember, cost perhaps as many as 500,000 human lives while wrecking millions more — are dismissed with a chilling breeziness. “Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war,” Egan writes (apparently unaware that the magic of Google allows him to find the protesters explaining their objections in their own words). “The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush,” Egan continues, “was clearly a debacle … But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts.” Taking the already grotesque line that non-American life is less important than entertainment to an even more hideous extreme, Egan continues, “You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”
So there you have it: Torture, when sanctioned by Americans, is basically a joking matter, an experience that’s comparable to being bored while sitting in the sun. And it’s the students at Rutgers who are the problem?
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, May 17, 2014
Dear President Putin,
Thank you so much for your letter to the American people! I am an American person, and when I learned on Thursday from the official Russian news agency, the New York Times, that you wanted “to speak directly to the American people,” I thought: How sweet!
I know I speak for many American people when I congratulate you on your English. It was flawless, with none of those dropped articles that plague so many of your countrymen. Please don’t be offended, but I have to ask: Did Edward Snowden help you with your letter?
It’s not just your English that impressed me. Your geopolitical points were smart — da bomb, as we American people like to say. (This is not the kind that would be used in Syria.) You were so thoughtful to bring up those memories of our days long ago as allies, and your references to “mutual trust” and “shared success” make me think that maybe we could be friends again. Your favorable mentions of Israel and the Pope remind me that we have so much in common.
Although some of us think it’s a good idea to have the U.S. military strike Syria, most of the American people agree with you that it would be a bad idea. (President Obama, you may have heard, is on both sides of the issue.) Your arguments against attack were creative, which is why it’s such a shame that, at the very end, you kind of stepped in it. When you told us that Americans are not “exceptional” — well, that hurts all of us American people.
I was surprised by this lapse because I think you really “get” Americans. When we saw photos of you shirtless in Siberia, you brought to mind one of our most celebrated American lawmakers, Anthony Weiner. When we watched you navigate around Russian laws to stay in power, you brought to mind another quintessentially American figure, Rod Blagojevich. The Harley-Davidson, the black clothing, the mistress half your age — you are practically American yourself.
This makes your crack about “American exceptionalism” all the more perplexing. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” you wrote. “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” (Thank you for the considerate mention of God, by the way; American people respond well to that.) But I’m guessing what went wrong here is your translators let you down when they defined exceptional for you as luchshyy (better) rather than razlichnyy (different).
Americans do not believe they are better than other peoples. If you doubt this, you need only look at Congress. If we really thought we were superior, is there any chance we would choose them to represent us? There are exceptions — we think we are better than Canadians, for example, but please don’t tell them, because they’re awfully nice — but generally we accept that all countries have their strengths. We know, for example, that Russians are better than us at producing delicacies such as caviar and dioxin. (Kidding!)
When we say we are exceptional, what we really are saying is we are different. With few exceptions, we are all strangers to our land; our families came from all corners of the world and brought all of its colors, religions and languages. We believe this mixing, together with our free society, has produced generations of creative energy and ingenuity, from the Declaration of Independence to Facebook, from Thomas Jefferson to Miley Cyrus. There is no other country quite like that.
Americans aren’t better than others, but our American experience is unique — exceptional — and it has created the world’s most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world. When you question American exceptionalism, you will find little support from any of us, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, doves or hawks.
I hope you won’t take this criticism badly, because I offer it in friendship. I was in Slovenia that day in 2001 when President George W. Bush looked into your soul and liked what he saw. And had your ancestors not chased my ancestors out of Eastern Europe, I would not be here today, participating in the American experiment.
Anyway, it was such a pleasure to get your letter. Please write again soon. I think this is the beginning of an exceptional friendship.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 12, 2013
“Yes, Vladimir, America Is Exceptional”: It’s Much, Much Better Than That Pink Negligee Russian Kind
As I read Vladimir Putin’s sanctimonious op-edabout U.S. policy in Syria, I imagined the Russian president sitting at the keyboard in a lovely pink negligee.
You will recall that when a satirical painting of Putin in lingerie went on display last month in St. Petersburg, police seized the offending artwork and shut down the exhibit. The artist, Konstantin Altunin, fled the country and is seeking asylum in France. No doubt he wanted to avoid the fate of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, three of whose members were arrested and sentenced to years in prison for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral.
So when Putin tries to lecture “the American people and their political leaders” from a position of moral superiority, no one on earth can take him seriously. As for Syria, the sinister and barbarous government of dictator Bashar al-Assad would not last one week without the military hardware that Russia generously provides. Putin thus has the blood of tens of thousands of civilians on his hands.
Putin’s piece in the New York Times does raise an interesting question, however: Has President Obama, the patient seeker of multilateral solutions, now embraced the idea of American exceptionalism?
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote. (Once again, I couldn’t avoid that truly exceptional image with the negligee.)
I, too, was struck by this passage at the end of Obama’s speech:
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
If this sounds like a big change in Obama’s worldview, you’ve been paying too much attention to the right-wing echo chamber — and not enough to what Obama actually says and does.
It is an article of faith among Obama’s critics that he believes the United States is just a regular country, no better or worse than others, and that, accordingly, he seeks to abdicate any leadership role in the world. Where do these critics get such an idea? From their own fevered imaginations, mostly.
What is supposed to be the smoking-gun quote came in 2009, when Obama, responding to a question during an overseas trip, said the following: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Aha, said the critics. He believes we’re just like post-empire Britain and bankrupt Greece.
But if you read the rest of the quote, the president was clearly saying that most people around the world have national pride — but the United States, in his view, is indeed unique.
He spoke of unmatched U.S. economic and military power. He said he was “enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.” And he added that “we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”
Ronald Reagan said it more poetically with “shining city on a hill,” but the idea is the same. Obama has told audiences many times that his life story would not have been possible in any other country. If anyone doubts his willingness to throw American weight around, with or without support from other nations, go ask for opinions in the places where missile-firing U.S. drones circle ominously overhead.
To me, the concept of exceptionalism underpins Obama’s strongest argument for taking military action in Syria. When we see more than 1,400 men, women and children killed with poison gas, it is not our nature to look away. We ask ourselves whether there is anything we should do. We weigh the costs and benefits, the risks and rewards, and we do what we can. The moral case for a strike against the Assad regime is predicated on the fact that if the United States doesn’t do something, nobody will.
Yes, Mr. Putin, you can call that American exceptionalism. I like it a lot better than the Russian kind.
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 12, 2013
Since Mitt Romney has decided, for reasons that are a bit obscure, to make foreign policy a major focus of his campaign at this sensitive moment of the presidential contest, it’s time once again to note a rather jarring contradiction nestled in the center of his and his party’s policies and rhetoric. It’s nicely presented once again in a Wall Street Journal op-ed signed by the Republican nominee himself.
It begins with the usual “American exceptionalism” rap: the world is safe if the United States not only walks tall, but walks alone in its status as the source of all virtue and power:
Since World War II, America has been the leader of the Free World. We’re unique in having earned that role not through conquest but through promoting human rights, free markets and the rule of law. We ally ourselves with like-minded countries, expand prosperity through trade and keep the peace by maintaining a military second to none.
But Obama doesn’t get it, and isn’t maintaining our towering-colossus position:
President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy. Our economy is stuck in a “recovery” that barely deserves the name. Our national debt has risen to record levels. Our military, tested by a decade of war, is facing devastating cuts thanks to the budgetary games played by the White House. Finally, our values have been misapplied—and misunderstood—by a president who thinks that weakness will win favor with our adversaries.
But what is the supreme example of Obama’s “weakness” and refusal to keep the United States the world’s sole supremely sovereign super-power? Refusing to outsource our Middle Eastern policy to Bibi Netanyahu:
The president began his term with the explicit policy of creating “daylight” between our two countries. He recently downgraded Israel from being our “closest ally” in the Middle East to being only “one of our closest allies.” It’s a diplomatic message that will be received clearly by Israel and its adversaries alike. He dismissed Israel’s concerns about Iran as mere “noise” that he prefers to “block out.” And at a time when Israel needs America to stand with it, he declined to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values.
So the first step Romney urges is “placing no daylight between the United States and Israel.” And that clearly includes a shift in U.S. policy towards Iran away from opposition to acquisition of nuclear weapons to the “red line” Netanyahu is demanding, acquisition of “nuclear capability,” which because of the vague nature of the definition of “capability,” means a pre-justification for military action against Tehran any old time now.
Put aside for a moment the arguments about Iran’s ultimate intentions and its alleged historically unique indifference to nuclear deterrence, or about the actual balance of military power in the Middle East. Forget if you can the calamitous consequences, not only to regional peace and stability, but to the U.S. and global economies, of war with Iran.
Think about this: Mitt Romney is running for president on a platform of indistinguishable and conjoined exceptionalism for the U.S. and Israel. And because Israel faces a vastly greater military threat, this means America would abandon its own independence of action and consign its fate to Bibi Netanyahu, a man whose views on peace and security are highly controversial in Israel itself.
Republican foreign policy thinking has had to go through a lot of twists and turns to arrive at this extraordinarily anomalous place. But the bottom line seems to be remarkably similar to the one embraced twelve years ago by George W. Bush and his advisors, who took office determined to wage war with Iraq, despite the cover of all the middle-school bully-boy talk of preventing war by plotting it constantly.
If Romney wins and the United States supinely follows Bibi into yet another, and this time vastly more dangerous, Gulf war, nobody can say we were not warned.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Anmal, October 1, 2012
It’s treacherous for a US presidential candidate to travel overseas — lots of opportunities for mis-chosen words and getting drawn into other countries’ domestic politics. With Mitt Romney about to leave on his big trip abroad he may already have had his first big foreign stumble. At a GOP fundraiser in San Francisco last night, Romney said that Australia’s foreign minister had warned him that foreign leaders see the US in decline and — at least in Romney’s telling — was hoping for Romney-like policies to make things right.
That at least was the version of the comments that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald. A similar version, but without the full quotes, appeared in the AP.
Quoting Romney: ”And this idea of America in decline, it was interesting [Carr] said that, he led the talk of America being in decline. See that’s not talk we hear about here as much as they’re hearing there. And if they’re thinking about investing in America, entrepreneurs putting their future in America, if they think America’s in decline they’re not gonna do it.”
Whether or not the SMH got it right is one question. The Hill notes that the pool reports did not have Romney clearly characterizing the comments as a warning.
And now, Australia’s Foreign Minister’s office has come forward to shoot down Romney’s characterization of the discussion, calling Romney’s interpretation “not correct.”
You cannot take a shoot down like this at face value in any case. Whatever Carr said, he almost certainly didn’t expect Romney to turn around and use it as ammo in a political speech. Allies don’t want to get publicly embroiled in a US election — especially on the wrong side of an incumbent who they believe is more likely than not to get reelected. So he’d be under a lot of pressure to walk away from Romney’s comments, even if Romney was accurately characterizing them. On the other hand, maybe Mitt just made it up or gave it — probably the most likely option — a negative spin the retelling. One way or another, it will be interesting to see how Romney navigates this sort of stuff when he’s overseas.
By: Josh Marshall, Editor and Publisher, Talking Points Memo, July 23, 2012