Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Un-Exceptionalism of Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker has launched another insipid attack on President Obama - he doesn't use the word "exceptional" enough to satisfy her. No, not that he doesn't use it - she things he "studiously avoid[s]" using the word. Much like "the left" supposedly "demonizes" wealthy people by using words like "wealthy" to describe them, or her suggestion that use of the "passive voice" in a speech means that you're a passive person... let's just say "Mistakes were made" in that abysmal column.

This also reflects Parker's tiresome tendency to try to jump on a bandwagon that seems to have already passed her by. Perhaps she's simply trying to revive a tired, old attack. Perhaps she's just plain out of ideas, so she has to flip through her "2009 Washington Times Thought of the Day" calendar for inspiration. Yes, the roots of Parker's nonsense appear to lie in right-wing attacks that deliberately take out-of-context and distort a 2009 speech.
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.
If we reject the conclusion that Parker is stupid, that leaves lazy, dishonest or some combination of the two. I'm putting my money on "some combination of the two". We don't have to question the dishonesty part - Parker devotes about a fifth of her column to regurgitating right-wing calumnies about that speech.

Parker actually gets worse from there:
On the right, the word "exceptional" - or "exceptionalism" - lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for "he's not one of us."
By "on the right", she presumably means "with right-wing columnists who push the same nonsense I'm pushing" - there are plenty of examples of that. Beyond that it's not clear what she's talking about. She, of course, provides no context for or example of this supposed tendency of "the right". As for her comical assertion about "the left", that's pure fabrication. A hollow man. After all, it's easy to fabricate an opponent, put nonsense into his mouth, then say, "That position is nonsense." Identifying the actual positions of your opponents and responding to them honestly and substantively? Not something that Parker is particularly good at....

Parker knows the reality, which is that there are people on all points of the political spectrum who take knee-jerk exceptionalism with a grain of salt. Why? Because they know enough history to understand how exceptionalism can be abused by political parties to lead the nation into self-destructive actions and policies. Because they read Ozymandias in high school and understand that you can be pretty damn special at a particular point in time but fade into oblivion if you don't do the hard work necessary to maintain and build upon the things that make you special. This doesn't mean that they don't tear up when they hear the National Anthem or enjoy a good 4th of July parade. It means that they understand that there's more to being exceptional than saying "I'm exceptional". That's the sort of self-esteem exercise that, in any other context, conservatives are supposed to make fun of.

Parker's prevarications continue:
Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?
Okay, we can start out with the statistics Parker presented earlier in her column - that 58% of Americans "think Obama believes that the 'U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,'" while 37% do not. That figure suggests that, to the extent "independents" are involved, we're largely talking about people who already lean to the hard right or are Tea Party-style "independents" - Republicans + Right-Wing Independents = 37%. Parker's column (and those like it) is penned for a population of readers who uncritically accept attacks on the President and the political left.1 I suspect that, to Parker, the only thing that mattered out of the poll was the following "implication":
Given that Americans already believe that the U.S. is exceptional and that its status as the greatest nation in the world is at risk, Republican candidates' political challenges would be to convince voters that Obama's policies and actions on the world stage are to blame, and that he does not share their values on this issue.
Who cares about the truth, right?

Beyond that, as Parker is not stupid, she knows that the central thesis of her column depends on a false premise. Nobody was hovering over the State of the Union Address waiting to hear a specific, talismanic word drop from the President's lips. No, what Parker knows is that it's the media coverage of a State of the Union Address that shapes the public's reaction. By penning a column like this she all-but-admits that her goal is to advance the Republican Party's effort to make the speech a negative, and that when it comes to helping her Republican allies or attacking President Obama she has no scruples.2

Update: If you're not looking for a talismanic word, it's easy to find references to American exceptionalism in the President's speech.
1. It's a natural human tendency to be less critical of arguments with which you agree; this isn't unique to the right.

2. By my count, in his various State of the Union Addresses, G.W. referred to the United States by the talismanic word, "exceptional," a whopping zero times.

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