Yeah, sixteen years and counting here in Hollywood and you get used to certain things. The apartment building looks like something from the first run of that old show Melrose Place, with the pool in the middle and the cute young things in bikinis, and sometimes less. A few times the courtyard has filled up with cables and lights and diffusion flats, with grips and gaffers everywhere – location managers like the place. And the young people come and go – the ones with purple hair and tattoos and ambition, and no agent yet. But the permanent mix is just as interesting – three units with French nationals, the Brazilian fellow still working on his novel, the pleasant old woman by the elevator who lapses into Yiddish when she’s upset, the manager whose Russian is better than her English, who hires repair guys who chatter with each other in Ukrainian – a different thing entirely. And the guys who take care of the basics speak Spanish of course. The night guard, who wanders through now and then, is black – a touch of Compton there. Thai Town is off to the east, but half of it is still marked Little Armenia – and they just gave up and call the place East Hollywood now, where there’s a great old Frank Lloyd Wright house floating above it all. Yes, to hear some Cantonese or Mandarin or Vietnamese you have to drive way out to Monterey Park, but still the place is fairly cosmopolitan, in a scruffy sort of way. And of course West Hollywood starts one block west, the wholly gay city. That adds to the mix. The parades are amazing.
Still you could say the place is insular. There aren’t any Tea Party folks around – no one hangs on Glenn Beck’s every word, or thinks Sarah Palin would make a fine president, or Michele Bachmann, if Christine O’Donnell doesn’t run. Here Obama is fine – a thoughtful pleasant young man, with a background as mixed as America is. What’s the big deal with his otherness? It’s all otherness. That’s life. Actually that’s what makes life fun.
The other view is down south. You drive down through Orange County, where the John Birch Society got started, past Rick Warren’s pop-evangelical megachurch at Saddleback, and cross into San Diego County, past San Clemente, where Nixon had his Western White House, past the big nuclear power plant and then Camp Pendleton – the largest Marine base in the west – and you’re in San Diego, a naval town, with the carriers and guided missile cruisers and nuclear subs out there in the harbor. And it’s a different world down there. There otherness is no fun at all. It’s dangerous. It’s basically un-American. And the next stop is Mexico, just down the road. Everyone knows that’s a crazy place. You could get killed there.
And all this made the recent trip down that way interesting. There was the fellow who started out as a cop and now heads security for that nuclear power plant, a bodybuilder now, totally ripped, and rippling, living on odd supplements with odd names, able to bench-press three of your neighbors with no sweat at all. And there he was giving a spirited defense of Charlie Sheen. Sheen wasn’t mad at all – he really was a winner, and had every right to throw that in everyone else’s face, as some folks are just superior. At the time Sheen had announced his nationwide tour – My Violent Torpedo of Truth / Defeat Is Not an Option – and the tour sold out in eighteen minutes, a Ticketmaster record. People know. Warner Brothers should not have fired him. He has Tiger’s Blood, or something. You had to admire his attitude. That was the attitude of a winner.
This was puzzling, but it sure beat talking about politics. Or maybe it was talking about politics in a veiled fashion. If fact, putting aside the fact that the guy’s name is actually Carlos Irwin Estevez, Sheen is sort of a model for what America had been up to in the Bush years – we, Americans, are winners, and we have every right to throw that in everyone else’s face, as some folks are just superior. That’s what neoconservatism and the Project for a New American Century were all about – we had seen the End of History and had come out on top, the sole remaining superpower, so we could do what we wanted and could simply remake the world into what it was supposed to be. That’s the prerogative of winners, and let the losers whine – they don’t matter. Of course we had our less than admirable quirks, much like Charlie Sheen, but so what? So we gave it a go.
It didn’t work out. Warner Brothers fired Sheen – he was nuts, and ruining the show – you could never tell what next bizarre thing he might do, or know when he’d even bother to show up, or who he’d insult for no reason at all. America fired the Bush crowd for the same reason. Obama may be culturally odd in so many ways, and distressingly cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and far too well-educated for a nation that hates books and thinking and all that boring stuff – but he wasn’t nuts.
And that’s how the campaign went. Obama carefully and methodically demonstrated that he wasn’t nuts, over and over and over, and McCain pretty much promised he’d go nuts at the drop of a hat, any time and any place, because he was proud and angry and whatnot. McCain did run a campaign that sort of was all about his Violent Torpedo of Truth – and defeat was not an option of course. He said that enough, about almost everything. And all Obama had to do was let him run on – McCain was in full Charlie Sheen mode, before Charlie Sheen was. More than enough voters found that just tiresome, and dangerous.
But it persists. We actually might have something like Charlie Sheen Conservatism, with its notion that America should act like Charlie Sheen – sneering about being superior, and doing any damned thing we please. Losers don’t question winners. No one questions winners. And America never apologizes for anything. Wrong – that’s not a concept that applies to us. How could it? This is a recurring theme on the right these days.
A more conventional view of today’s conservatism comes from Richard Florida here:
Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America’s least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind. The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism’s hold on America’s states. This trend stands in sharp contrast to the Great Depression, when America embraced FDR and the New Deal.
Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama administration, and the Democratic Party moving forward. But the much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.
The data are clear here, of course. The least well-off, least educated and most economically hard-hit are pissed off. Bring it all down. And they very well may do that. But as they do they will still talk about American exceptionalism, and do that Charlie Sheen thing. And Glenn Greenwald examines that in this item on that odd concept.
Greenwald is fascinated by everyone noting that Obama’s Libya speech rested on an affirmation of American exceptionalism – Obama did appeal to “America’s responsibility as a leader” and claim that “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.” Obama just didn’t go all Charlie Sheen about it.
But Greenwald does note that Steve Benen said that Obama’s speech should put an end to any debate over whether Obama believes in America’s exceptionalism – “the president wasn’t subtle – the United States isn’t like other countries; ours is a country with unique power, responsibilities, and moral obligations.” And Andrew Sullivan also said that exceptionalism was “the core message of the President’s speech” and that “he clearly believes in that exceptionalism – and now will live with its onerous responsibilities.” Sullivan wasn’t pleased.
And UCLA’s Mark Kleiman said that the speech exposed “one of the stupidest of right-wing talking points about Obama, that he somehow disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project.” Greenwald goes on to cite Adam Serwer saying that after Obama’s speech “anyone who alleges the president doesn’t believe [in exceptionalism] deserves to be laughed out of town.” And even Bill Kristol in the Weekly Standard was pleased – “President Obama had rejoined – or joined – the historical American foreign policy mainstream” and “the president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn’t shrink from defending the use of force or from appealing to American values and interests.”
Damn – Kristol said Obama was now a neocon, and he loves that. But Greenwald asks some good questions:
It’s long been obvious that Obama deeply believes in American exceptionalism, and I agree entirely with these commentators who say that last night’s speech left no doubt about that conviction (not because he says he believes it in a speech, but because his actions reflect that belief). But what none of them say – other than Kristol – is whether they believe this to be a good thing. Does the U.S. indeed occupy a special place in the world, entitling and even obligating us to undertake actions that no other country is entitled or obligated to undertake? And, if so, what is the source of these entitlements and obligations? Is it merely our superior military power, or is there something else that has vested us with this perch of exceptionalism?
But everyone says we are exceptional:
Beginning almost immediately after 9/11, George W. Bush frequently asserted that America was “called” – by whom he didn’t say – “to defend freedom.” A Gallup poll from late last year found that 80% of Americans believe their country “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” There are very few political propositions which can command 80% support; that this one does shows just how much American exceptionalism is solidified as political orthodoxy in the United States.
But we should not be surprised:
It’s a common human desire to believe that one is special, unique, better than all others. Few people aspire to ordinariness. We view the world – physically and mentally – from our own personal perspective, and are inherently situated at the center of it. As tribal beings, we naturally believe that our customs and the beliefs with which we were inculcated from childhood are superior to THEIRS.
But Greenwald suggests you try this on for size:
The probability that I happened to be born in the greatest country on Earth – or, even more so, the greatest country ever to exist on Earth in all of human history – is minute. Isn’t it far more likely that I believe this because I was taught to, rather than because it’s true?
How does that feel? It doesn’t feel good, does it? But it’s the most likely thing, and Greenwald adds this:
But the desire to believe something is a powerful force, and this belief is thus extremely widespread. Still, it’s not a particularly appealing trait for an individual to run around hailing themselves “the greatest in the world,” so it becomes perfectly acceptable – mandatory even – to nationalize this sentiment: “my country, the United States, is the greatest country in the world,” and thus – to use Benen’s description of Obama’s mindset – “the United States isn’t like other countries; ours is a country with unique power, responsibilities, and moral obligations”
And turning into Charlie Sheen comes next:
Conservatives seem to believe that American Exceptionalism justifies America doing whatever it wants in the world. By contrast, Obama – at least rhetorically – emphasizes that being exceptional is a standard to meet, not a license for America to capriciously enforce its will upon others. Where conservatives sometimes refuse to acknowledge that there are limits to American power, Obama acknowledged: “The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that.”
Obama was being all Hollywood there, fairly cosmopolitan, in a scruffy sort of way, but also playing to the crowd:
It’s a nice political point on the President’s behalf to insist that he has proven his belief in American exceptionalism. That insulates him from a political vulnerability (i.e., from the perception that he rejects a widely held view), which is nice if politically defending the President is an important goal for you. But the harder – and far more important – question is whether this American exceptionalism that you attribute to him is actually true, whether it’s well-grounded, and whether it should serve as a premise for our actions in the world.
Is Charlie Sheen a role model?
And in response to Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan tries to think this through:
But do we all mean the same thing when we talk of this idea? And is this more than mere national solipsism and myth?
It’s easy to see where Romney, for example, gets his belief. Mormonism is the only all-American religion, placing Jesus in America itself (“I just got crucified, you guys”). But for Christians, the notion of God preferring one land-mass or population, apart from the Jewish people from whom the Messiah came, is obviously heretical. As a Catholic, I see no divine blessing for any country, and the notion that God would make such worldly distinctions strikes me as surreal as it did when I first wrapped my head around the phrase “Church of England”. If God is God, one island on one planet in a minor galaxy is surely the same as any other, and the truth about our universe surely cannot be reduced to one country’s patriotism. Yes, we can ask, as Lincoln did, for God’s blessing. But seeking God’s blessing is not the same as being God’s country – with all the hubristic aggression that can lead to.
Of course some see Lincoln as the Second Founder, and see the abolition of slavery as the return of the West to the tip top best of the best, but Sullivan has some caveats:
It certainly seems true that in Lincoln’s words and America’s example, key ideas about human equality and dignity gained momentum – and you can hear those ideas today in the mouths of a new Arab generation, in a culture so alien to our own it is close to impossible to understand in its complexity. What deeper proof that these ideas are universal and true?
But this also reveals the limits of American exceptionalism. If America’s ideals are universal, they cannot be reduced to the ownership of one country. And that country’s actual history – as opposed to Bachmannite mythology – is as flawed as many others. Why, after all, did America need a Second Founding under Lincoln – almost a century after it was born? Which other advanced country remained so devoted to slavery until the late nineteenth century? Which other one subsequently replaced slavery with a form of grinding apartheid for another century? Besides, much of the thought that gave us the American constitution can be traced back to European thinkers, whether in Locke or Montesquieu or the Enlightenment in general. Seeing America as the sole pioneer of human freedom is to erase Britain’s unique history, without which America would not exist. It is to erase the revolutionary ideas of the French republics. It’s historically false.
But wasn’t the discovery of America some kind of divine providence? Well, maybe not:
The Puritans certainly thought so. And the blessing of a vast continental land mass with huge resources is certainly rare in human history. But, of course, that land mass was available so easily because of the intended and unintended genocide of those who already lived there – which takes the edge off the divine bit, don’t you think? Call me crazy (and they do) but my concept of God does not allow for God’s blessing of genocide as a means for one country’s hegemony over the earth.
This is not to say that America doesn’t remain, by virtue of its astonishing Constitution, a unique sanctuary for human freedom. We are freer here in terms of speech than in most other advanced countries, cowed by p.c. laws and restrictions. We are freer here in labor and capital than most other countries. To feel pride in this is natural. It is why I love this place and yearn to be one of its citizens. And the vast wealth of an entire continent, unleashed by freedom’s flourishing, gave this land of liberty real and awesome global power, which it used to vanquish the two great evils of the last century – Nazism and Communism. This is the noble legacy so many now seek to perpetuate, with good intentions and benign hearts, despite the disastrous and costly interventions of the last decade.
But as the 20th Century wore on, this kind of power had its usual effect, and the establishment of a massive global military machine, as Eisenhower so presciently noted, created the risk of a permanent warfare sustained by domestic interests. Throw into the mix a bevy of intellectuals busy constructing rationales for a unipolar world – on the neocon right and the neoliberal left – and we slowly became, at best, the indispensable nation and at worst, a benign imperial bully.
So one might get serious here, and be sensible:
America’s exceptional freedom and exceptional wealth did not exempt it from unexceptional human nature or the unexceptional laws of history. To believe anything else is to engage in nationalist idolatry. In retrospect, Vietnam was a form of madness brought on by paranoia. In Iraq, America actually presided over 100,000 civilian deaths as it failed to perform even minimal due diligence in invading and occupying another country (while barely a few years later, we invoked – with no irony or even memory – the risk of mass murder as a reason to invade another country). And US forces are still there – and the same alliance that gave us the Libya campaign will surely soon be arguing for extending their presence as the Potemkin democracy slowly collapses. In Afghanistan, the graveyard of so many empires, we are busy sending drones to hit targets with inevitable civilian casualties in a war that has no end, no discernible goal, and has now lasted longer than any war in the country’s history. When America finds itself in wars where it can accidentally kill nine children gathering firewood, it seems somewhat abstract to talk uncritically of America’s moral superiority. And when America has also crossed the line into legalized torture, and refuses to acknowledge or account for it, let alone hold the war criminals responsible, it has lost the moral standing to dictate human rights to the rest of the world.
Of course Obama had a chance to turn this around, but he’s not been doing that:
He did end the active torture of prisoners of war. He promised to end the war in Iraq, to close Gitmo and to reframe America’s relationship to the world. But he refused to bring the torturers of the last administration to justice, thereby effectively withdrawing from the Geneva Conventions. We remain in Iraq, we have much more aggressive war in Afghanistan, and Gitmo is still open. The kind of humiliations we once inflicted on prisoners of war are now inflicted on American citizens in custody, as in the case of Bradley Manning. And with all this still on our plate Obama has just – unilaterally – committed America to an intervention in a third civil war in a third Muslim country, with the grave risk of our taking responsibility for another effort at nation-building abroad, when nation-fixing at home was the reason he was elected. …
What I see here is far from exceptional. It is the routine pattern of the rise and fall of all republics that become empires. It is what happened to Rome and Spain and Britain: Success, over-reach, hubris, bankruptcy and decline. And the withering of the sinews of a republic’s body – as in the supine, divided, incompetent Congress, and a court so deferent to the emperor’s unrestricted power in waging war wherever he pleases.
But other than that, American exceptionalism is just peachy. But then Charlie Sheen thinks his life is just peachy too.