Damon Linker: Liberalism and the American Exception

Roundup: Talking About History

[Damon Linker is a Senior Writing Fellow at the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes for the New Republic.]

...The first thing to note about American exceptionalist thinking is how crude it often is. The problem is not just, as Rieff rightly points out, that it presumes and encourages historical ignorance or amnesia. More fundamentally, those who espouse the rhetoric of exceptionalism often haven’t even figured out what they mean by the concept. Do they mean merely that America is distinctive in various ways, and worthy of admiration for certain of those distinctive qualities? This, in itself, isn’t a particularly controversial claim, since every nation is distinctive in particular ways, and some of those marks of distinction are admirable. But of course this isn’t all that champions of American exceptionalism mean when they deploy the term. In most cases, what they also mean is that America as a nation is uniquely virtuous, or better than, other nations. This is where things begin to become ridiculous.

The first thing to said about the latter view is that . . . we would think so, wouldn’t we? Going back to Aristotle, if not before, thinkers have noted the obvious truth that human beings are poor judges in their own cases. When reflecting on ourselves, self-love and other passions distort and bias our judgment, leading us to exaggerate our virtues and deny our faults. It is hardly surprising, then, that Americans tend to forget or downplay the importance of the morally dubious, and even at times morally outrageous, things our country has done over the years. We nearly exterminated the indigenous population of North America; we kept human beings as slaves for two-and-a-half centuries; we denied the descendants of those slaves full civil rights for another century after that; we made all sorts of mischief (and sometimes much worse) in Latin America and Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and much more recently, we invaded and toppled the government of a sovereign nation on the basis of mistaken intelligence and then horribly mismanaged the occupation for years, precipitating a sectarian civil war that left many thousands dead and many more thousands displaced.

Those are the indisputable facts. To recognize and take them into account when judging our nation is not to single us out for opprobrium. That would be American exceptionalism in reverse—an example of the Chomskyite tendency to treat the country as singular in its moral monstrousness. The truth is that in many ways the United States is not exceptional at all. The world is a nasty, vicious place, and we’ve contributed our share of nastiness and viciousness over the years.

And yet America is also distinctive, and distinctively admirable, in many ways. In my view, the most distinctive and admirable of all our qualities is our liberalism. Now let me be clear: unlike Lowry and Ponnuru, who identify American exceptionalism with the laissez-faire capitalism favored by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I do not mean to equate the ideology that dominates one of our country’s political parties with the nation’s exemplary essence. On the contrary, the liberalism I have singled out is embraced by nearly every member of both of our political parties—and indeed by nearly every American citizen. Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship. To be a liberal in this primary sense is to favor a political order with these institutions and to abide by the political rules they establish.

...Despite what one might conclude from the disastrous presidency of that liberal moralist George W. Bush, the imperative to support and encourage liberalism abroad does not necessitate stupidity. On the contrary, it demands intelligence and sobriety about how best to affect liberal change in divergent places at different historical moments. It demands that we temper our longing to fulfill our liberal duties with a clear-headed assessment of the possible unintended consequences of our actions. It demands that we remain forever mindful of the efficacy, as well as the limits, of our power (both hard and soft). It demands, in sum, that we combine grandly idealistic ends with cunningly realistic means, just as Niebuhr called on us to do, and as Lincoln showed us how to do....

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/28/2010

<That would be American exceptionalism in reverse—an example of the Chomskyite tendency to treat the country as singular in its moral monstrousness.>
The author of the phrase quoted above has little if any understanding of the main and crucial idea of all Chomsky's works in the sphere of politics: to reveal double standards and other sophistic trickery the US political elite and mainstream intellectuals on its pay use to establish as an indispensable national way of thinking this country's exceptionalism, in order to justify its transgressions (monstrosities, in author's definition), while condemning and punishing the other countries for practically the same or even lesser transgressions (monstrosities.)
One important (if not crucial for the receiving party) difference in the respective singling out procedures has rarely been commented on: if singling out the US has never gone beyond spoken or written word (at least in the course of the 30-35 years) at a state level, the singling out of any state(s) by the US, as a rule with minor exceptions, leads to really grim prospects for the accused, starting from freezing loans and curtailing the trade, then to complete economical embargo, then (if the previous actions didn't work) to direct or proxy aggression/invasion sawing death and destruction on a massive scale.