Debating Empty Questions for Fun and Profit

Ah – here’s a glowing review of a new book – Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. This is the third and concluding volume of the biography he began more than three decades ago with “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” – winner in 1980 of a Pulitzer Prize – followed by “Theodore Rex” in 2001. This covers Roosevelt’s Jimmy Carter years – after the presidency, when Roosevelt liked folks to call him Colonel. If you like presidential biographies these books might be just your thing. Or if you like forceful and militant progressives – out to bust trusts and stick it to the rich and set up national parks– this might be up your alley. Everyone loves a Bull Moose. Or you might like these if you think military adventurism, with a lot of swagger, is cool, or if you think Teddy Bears are cool too. Teddy Roosevelt was quite a guy.

And Edmund Morris is quite a guy too – he spent fourteen years as Reagan’s authorized biographer, and in 1999 gave us Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan – but he himself was born in Nairobi, in Kenya, and attended Rhodes University in South Africa, then worked as an advertising copywriter in London before he ended up here in 1968. Perhaps he is an odd man to explain the essential American character to Americans, but maybe you have to be a bit of an outsider to see that sort of thing objectively.

But this is curious:

It’s not every day that a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian swears on national television, but it happened yesterday on CBS’ Face the Nation.

He was on the show promoting the new book and a question from CBS’ Bob Schieffer ticked him off. He said it was a bullshit question. CBS bleeped the word of course. And it went like this:

SCHIEFFER: What would Teddy Roosevelt think of today’s politics, Edmund?

MORRIS: You keep asking these present-less questions, Bob. … As the immortal Marisa Tomei said in My Cousin Vinny, that’s a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) question. Because you cannot pluck people out of the past and expect them to comment on what’s happening today.

To refresh your memory, from the 1992 movie:

D.A. Jim Trotter: Now, uh, Ms. Vito, being an expert on general automotive knowledge, can you tell me… what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor?

Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a bullshit question.

D.A. Jim Trotter: Does that mean that you can’t answer it?

Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a bullshit question, it’s impossible to answer.

D.A. Jim Trotter: Impossible because you don’t know the answer!

Mona Lisa Vito: Nobody could answer that question!

D.A. Jim Trotter: Your Honor, I move to disqualify Ms. Vito as an “expert witness”!

Judge Chamberlain Haller: Can you answer the question?

Mona Lisa Vito: No, it is a trick question!

Judge Chamberlain Haller: Why is it a trick question?

Vinny Gambini: [to Bill] Watch this.

Mona Lisa Vito: ‘Cause Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55, the 327 didn’t come out till ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center.

D.A. Jim Trotter: Well… um… she’s acceptable, Your Honor.

Morris to Bob Schieffer on Teddy Roosevelt:

I can only say that what he represented in his time is what we look for in our presidents now – what we hope for in our presidents now, and we’re increasingly disappointed. He was somebody who understood foreign cultures.

He represented the dignity of the United States. He was forceful but at the same time civilized. And what I really feel these days is we’ve become such an insular people. And I’m particularly sensitive to this, as I suppose Arianna (Huffington) is, as an immigrant, because I represent – I come from another culture. I can call myself legitimately an African-American.

And I’m aware of the fact that people elsewhere in the world think differently from us. I can, sort of, see us, us Americans, with their eyes. And not all that I see is attractive. I see an insular people who are insensitive to foreign sensibilities, [and] who are lazy, obese, complacent, and increasingly perplexed as to why we are losing our place in the world to people who are more dynamic than us and more disciplined.

Ouch. That raised a lot of eyebrows. Edmund Morris won’t be invited to any Tea Parties now. And it’s not just that Glenn Beck despises Teddy Roosevelt – as Roosevelt was the man who put us on the road to fascism, creating the national park system and with his anti-monopoly trust-busting and his support of government interventions like the Pure Food and Drug Act – “It’s big government, it’s a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer.”

Yeah, well – whatever. What Edmund Morris said was even worse. It wasn’t about policy. It was about the American character – lazy, obese, complacent, and increasingly perplexed about everything, and insensitive to foreign sensibilities, or unaware that there are such things. This was an attack on the whole concept of American Exceptionalism. We are exceptional, but not in a nice way. Or it seems that way from the outside, looking in.

The right was appalled. But one might expect that. The morning after Morris unloaded, the Washington Post decided to cover the common conservative meme that President Obama has, like Morris, dismissed American exceptionalism:

With Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world’s other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

“This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney writes in his campaign setup book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

Get your copy here if that’s your thing, but there’s more:

On Monday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is also considering a White House bid, is scheduled to address the Detroit Economic Club on “Restoring American Exceptionalism: A Vision for Economic Growth and Prosperity.”

For former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the concept is a frequent theme in her speeches, Facebook postings, tweets and appearances on Fox News Channel. Her just-published book, “America by Heart,” has a chapter titled “America the Exceptional.”

Get your copy of the Palin book here if that’s still your thing, but there’s more:

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, contends in his speeches that Obama’s views on the subject are “truly alarming.”

In an interview in August with Politico, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee went so far as to declare of Obama: “His worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we’ve had. … To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”

And last week, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, told a group of College Republicans at American University: “Don’t kid yourself with the lie. America is exceptional, and Americans are concerned that there are a group of people in Washington who don’t believe that any more.”

That’s the word on the street. And Jonathan Chait comments:

The entire root of this attack line stems from a single sentence by Obama, endlessly repeated on the right: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” You see!, conservatives say – he thinks American exceptionalism is no more valid than any other country’s national pride!

It is endlessly debated. Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru go on about it at length in this item – in all seriousness. But Chait points out that what Obama actually said was a defense of the idea of American Exceptionalism.

Yes, Obama began by acknowledging other forms of national pride, but he then argued for American exceptionalism anyway:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think 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.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

Chait comments:

There’s been a debate about epistemic closure on the right, and this is a prominent example. Conservatives repeat Obama’s single sentence over and over, seemingly unaware that the context of his remarks leads to a conclusion very nearly the opposite of the one they claim. You could wade through this discussion in the right-wing media for hours and hours without ever coming across any excerpt of Obama’s remark that goes beyond the one cherished sentence. It’s pure epistemic closure. The other possibility, I suppose, is that all these people are dishonest hacks.

They just want to win the next election, of course. And Greg Sargent covers that:

Let’s stipulate at the outset that there’s really no point in getting into a debate with right-wingers over the question of whether Obama believes in “American exceptionalism.” That’s because the right intends this attack line as a proxy for their real argument: That Obama is not one of us.

And yes, you can argue about what Obama said, in part or in full, and what it means, and what he meant:

But, really, the right doesn’t intend this as a debate over what Obama really believes. Rather, it’s part and parcel of a larger effort to advance an argument about Obama’s cultural roots and identity.

While respectable right wing commentators are careful to disavow the “Birther” movement, the suggestion that Obama is not really one of us subtly permeates virtually every aspect of the right’s critique of the Obama administration and its policies. Republican officials have openly argued that Wall Street reform and health reform risk remaking our society and economy into something that’s no longer recognizably American. While officials making this claim may very well believe to varying degrees that this constitutes a meaningful critique of Obama’s approach to domestic policy, the intended subtext of the argument is unmistakable.

So the 2012 GOP hopefuls have signaled that the 2012 campaign will be about Obama’s “Americanness” – and there you have it.

Indeed, Romney has come right out and said: “President Obama fails to understand America.” Surely Romney would insist that this is a critique of Obama’s policies, but the real game here is laughably obvious.

So think of it this way:

Getting into an argument with the right over Obama’s views is to miss the point. The real goal is to hint that you should find Obama’s character, story, motives and identity to be fundamentally alien, unsettling, and insidious.

Or, conversely, like the rest of us, you find his character, story, motives and identity quintessentially American – he’s kind of like the walking embodiment of the American Dream – a mutt from nowhere who made something of himself, and by smarts and hard work got to the top, without losing his sense of humor or his humanity. What more do these people want? Something else is going on here. No wonder Edmund Morris is grumpy.

Steve Benen has a bit more:

The idea is pretty straightforward: those who accept American exceptionalism believe that the United States has a special and irreplaceable role in the world, quite possibly as a result of supernatural intervention, that gives us a unique character and identity.

For the right, those who resist the nationalistic impulse are failing to celebrate the greatness of the country.

Yeah, but celebrations don’t get things done, and this is just nasty:

There’s an unhealthy ugliness to the right’s presidential attacks, and this only helps underscore the malice. For the unhinged right, we have those who question the president’s birthplace and faith. For the “respectable” right, we have those who obsess over the president’s commitment to “exceptionalism.”

They are, however, related angles to the same odious strain.

But it’s an argument about nothing. As Morris implied, it’s a bullshit question.

And as the Republicans block any attempt to bring ratification of the new START treaty to a vote, and inspections have now stopped and every low-level terrorist organization is scrambling to buy or grab nuclear material or functioning nuclear bombs, Steve Benen is getting increasingly frustrated:

I can appreciate why it’s unusual, if not downright reprehensible in some circles, to question politicians’ motives. It’s the inviolable line – everyone is expected to be patriots acting in good faith, with sincere disagreements over the merits of competing policies. Without clear evidence of malicious intentions, motivations are supposed to be largely off limits in the civil discourse, especially when it comes to Republicans.

The problem with the GOP lately is that even those inclined to give the party the benefit of the doubt simply can’t come up with a good-faith explanation for their actions – which leads to awkward questions about whether they’d actually put their partisan goals ahead of the national interest. It’s almost a modified, political version of Occam’s Razor – if one can’t come up with a reasonable explanation for a party’s actions on policy grounds, it necessarily makes questions about motivations plausible.

Benen points out that Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to the first President Bush, can’t figure out why his own party would be acting this way, which leads him to assume something odd – Republican senators are putting “the desire for the president not to have a foreign policy victory” ahead of the nation’s security interests. And at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Norm Ornstein says, “I cannot fathom why they are doing what they are doing.” And the Washington Post Dana Milbank argued that Republicans appear to be “trying to weaken Americans’ security” – which is ironic – “To borrow Bush’s phrase, are Republicans not interested in the security of the American people?” And of course there’s Paul Krugman – Senate Republicans are blocking ratification “not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it’s an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.”

Benen:

If Republicans care about squelching questions about their intentions, they should probably come up with at least mildly coherent talking points. Or they could drop the nonsense and endorse ratification, but that appears highly unlikely.

Well, they could say that the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center. At least that would be something.

But we don’t live in the age of mildly coherent talking points. People just keep raising bullshit questions. And now and then a presidential historian explodes in frustration. We think we’re exceptional. And we’re talking about nothing in particular.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Debating Empty Questions for Fun and Profit

  1. Rick says:

    First of all, when it comes to “American Exceptionalism,” whatever happened to what George M. Cohan wrote about back in the early twentieth century, in “You’re a Grand Old Flag”: “Ev’ry heart beats true/’neath the Red, White and Blue,/Where there’s never a boast or brag.”

    It would seem there was an earlier time in American history when being “patriotic” didn’t involve boasting or bragging. Here’s to the good old days.

    But also, what I find frustrating about this current argument that Obama doesn’t believe in “American Exceptionalism” is that we’re stuck making the counter-argument — that is, that Obama does believe in it, and to say he doesn’t is a baldfaced lie — instead of allowing ourselves to argue truthfully that “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that every country in the world has to follow the rules except us, is flag-waving phony-patriotic brain-dead nonsense. Which it is.

    If ever this country gets its collective head together, it won’t be until we regular people find a way to embarrass the right wing for even trying the crap they’ve been getting away with lately.

    Rick

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