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Inhofe, "American Exceptionalism," and the Wackiness of the Academic Right

Yes, Senator James Inhofe ("I’m very proud that in the entire recorded history of our family, there has never been...any kind of homosexual relationship") is a sick and moronic bigot. Bill Bennett is a crude embarassment, mostly to himself.

But all their repulsive, and obsessive arguments against gay marriage, such as this from Inhofe -- "Now, stop and think. What’s going to be the results of this? The results are going to be that it’s going to be a very expensive thing, all these kids, many of them are going to be ending up on welfare" -- are to be found, dressed up in fancy-pants pseudo-Alisdair MacIntyre language, in this document, the Princeton Principles on Marriage, released recently.

The signatories to this document include such respectable conservatives as Jean Bethke Elshtain (Chicago), Robert George (of Princeton, not the young New York Post editorialist), Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law), Leon Kass (Chicago), Jeremy Rabkin (Cornell) and the legendary Mr. James Q. Wilson.

On reading this, my first reaction was that if the academic left can be a little wacky and irresponsible, the academic right is wacky and despicable.

The most specific of their arguments against gay marriage -- which is only one of the "Principles," but obviously they chose to release it to coincide with the debate -- is that marriage equals monogamy and gay marriage "would likely corrode marital norms of sexual fidelity, since gay marriage advocates and gay couples tend to downplay the importance of sexual fidelity in their definition of marriage." In other words, when gay people make a lifetime vow, they probably don’t really mean it because, well, you know how those gays are.

They do have other arguments, some rooted in plain-old ugly sexism, such as that children can’t be properly raised by parents of the same gender because men are hard-wired for discipline and women hard-wired for nurture. As to whether a child might not be better off with two nurturers or two disciplinarians than cycling through foster homes, they don’t say. And after they explain that, maybe they can tell me why if I’m such a natural disciplinarian, I can’t get my daughter to drink her milk in the morning and cave, while my wife can.

There’s an interesting point in the last section of the document, though, which goes to the definition of the phrase "American Exceptionalism" that we’ve been hearing a lot recently. A couple weeks ago, I attended a forum at the Hudson Institute with a star-studded panel of conservatives arguing, basically, that conservatives had deep philosophical ideas ("foundations") whereas liberals had none. But the panel was hardly about conservatism at all; with some exceptions, it was devoted to a lengthy exegesis of how liberals or "the left" don’t believe this or that. We don’t believe in the Declaration of Independence, one speaker (a signatory to the Princeton Principles) declared, and above all, over and over, I heard that we don’t believe in "American Exceptionalism."

Now I happen to think I believe in American Exceptionalism. I believe that it matters that this is the first and only country founded on an idea and an ideal, of equality and justice. As an American, I believe we have a distinctive role in the world, a distinctive obligation, some of which is inherent and some of which is derived from our postwar and post-Cold War status. I think this country’s great -- though not that whatever it does is automatically great just because it’s America. So I listened to all this and thought, "I don’t know what these people are talking about."

Now the last section of the Princeton Principles is entitled, "American Exceptionalism and the Way Forward." What does that have to do with gay marriage? Evidently, it goes something like this: While the rest of the Western world is loosening the bonds of marriage, we Americans "are the only country with a "Marriage Movement." "The great task for American exceptionalism in our generation," they write, "is to sustain and energize this movement for the renewal of marriage." If the rest of the world zigs, exceptionalism means we zag.

And of course, you can see where one would go with this, segregation in the past and the death penalty today are also examples of American exceptionalism, if it is defined simply as things that make us different from the rest of the developed world. Is that in itself justification for them?

I won’t go too far with this argument, because it’s silly -- they really don’t want to go there. All this about "American Exceptionalism" is just fancy dressing for an argument that’s as crude and ugly as Mr. Inhofe’s.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 7, 2006 | Permalink


How the f**que can these people support American Exceptionalism and the torturers in the executive branch at the same time? (I'm assuming they do.)

If the torturers in the executive branch prove anything it is that this country is now an empire like any other in history; they are no more about principle than the Romans or the Spanish or the Mongols were.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Jun 7, 2006 9:40:46 PM

Oh, maybe it's my lefty-academic background, but I thought "American exceptionalism" usually had a more specific reference: the fact that class politics don't break down into the (relatively) neat antimony between bourgeoisie and working class that marks European economic and political life. Of course, identifying American exceptionalism, however you mean it, can be a descriptive rather than a normative move. For that reason it seems bizarre to hear claims that the Left doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. It does believe in its existence, it just doesn't like it!

Myself, I'm don't put much stock in normative versions of American exceptionalism, but one point of nationalism that's always held strong for me is a certain pride that the US was where gay liberation was invented (or discovered, depending on your perspective). Oddly enough, we perfected both the oppressive forms of pervasive homophobia and the political expression of opposition to those forms.

Posted by: Chris | Jun 8, 2006 10:00:06 AM

This is a very ugly document. One reason why marriage is such an important indicator of social well being is because law and custom already enshrines marital status as a touchstone for preferential treatment in tax, inheritance, and legal and employment based benefits. This goes hand in hand with the fact that, because we have such an inadequate social safety net for individuals on the basis of their membership in society at large, husbands and wives are the de facto safety net for each other and their offspring for many, many families.

So when thinking about this, you might do one of two things. You could move heaven and earth to prop up marriage to preserve its special status, even though all social trends over the last 50 years have clearly limited the social importance of marriage for all classes and sectors of society, and many people view marriage as a suboptimal route to personal if not financial well being. In other words, you can structure society to coerce people to enter into marriage even if, strictly speaking, they'd rather not, and simply punish those who won't as desrving of their relative poverty, etc. because they are deviant. I believe this is the path that this document adopts. Hence, regulation of the fertility industry ensures that lesbians or single women have much reduced access to having children and doesn't otherwise have much to do with marriage at all.

Or you could try to restructure society so that marriage is not the only available vehicle for delivering a social safety net.

Posted by: Barbara | Jun 8, 2006 12:08:46 PM

"Now I happen to think I believe in American Exceptionalism. I believe that it matters that this is the first and only country founded on an idea and an ideal, of equality and justice. As an American, I believe we have a distinctive role in the world, a distinctive obligation, some of which is inherent and some of which is derived from our postwar and post-Cold War status. I think this country’s great -- though not that whatever it does is automatically great just because it’s America. So I listened to all this and thought, "I don’t know what these people are talking about."

I think you've totally hit onto something important.

Because if people DON'T believe in American exceptionalism in the best sense of the word there's no outrage when our government engages in torture in the name of "freedom", wiretaps everyone in America, wages a genocidal war based on lies, fails the most basic tests of humanity and competence time and again in places like New Orleans.

Instead people shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives like good Germans. And that makes it harder to change anything.

A big part of the problem today is that the right wing has claimed the mantle of American exceptionalism and used it to support empire, in exactly the way that Stalin appropriated the notion of workers control of industry to promote industrial slavery and rigid authoritarianism based on fear.

It's this method of equating America's vision for world freedom with blind jingoism and unconditional support for genocidal wars that has to be fought. And the only way to do that is to stand up for what America SHOULD stand up for and fight for things that matter to ordinary people.

And this is what the Democratic party has consistently failed to do over the last many years. That has fueled the idea that nobody on the left has any "ideas".

Posted by: Cugel | Jun 8, 2006 1:41:53 PM

Mark, always I find your postings spot-on and breathtakingly incisive. But this posting was especially interesting ... and not a little bit frightening. The reason I find it a little frightening is because of somethning I think you missed.

The rightwing, as we should all know by now, has a well-oiled system for finding and devloping new ways to "frame" issues to their liking. They know how to create "memes" that can take root throughout the rightwing world. They constantly experiment with new arguments, running ideas up the flag pole endlessly, constantly searching for something -- anything -- that will gain a little traction and be useful in advancing their agenda of gaining and holding power, and winning elections.

More often than not, those ideas are laughable, and doomed almost out of the gate. We always laugh about their latest idiotic language or framing, and sometimes predict that it's a sign they're sliding downhill. But then the idiotic wanna-be-meme vanishes, to be remembered only if you care to wade through yellowing newspaper clippings. (Seems like an examination of George H. W. Bush's two presidential campaigns would give you lots of examples like that).

But ... these guys are thinking like nature does when it comes to, say, seed production. An insect lays a gazillion eggs, yet only one if 10,000 survives. But that's enough. So the same for them: they EXPECT a high failure rate. But when one sticks, the benefits are huge. Think for a second, and you'll remember the earliest (and arguably most successful) example: the conscious development in the mid-1960s of the "Eastern liberal media establishment" meme, later shortened to just "liberal media." That it NEVER had any meaningful basis in fact meant nothing; it proved an incredibly powerful vehicle for undermining opposition, holding their own troops in tight order, and as a means of "playing the refs" when it came to news coverage.

Many other examples both big and small abound: "Compassionate conservativism," "litigation CRISIS," "the war on Christmas," "tax-and-spend liberalism," "political correctness," and a thousand more over the years.

And now the term "American exceptionalism" is perhaps joining the list. Doesn't it seem like a variation of the Atwater / Rovian concept of taking your enemy's best trait and using it as a weapon? In this case, taking a liberal (and mostly academic) concept and turning it into a badge of honor?

And of course you didn't know what they were talking about! That's the genius of it: you hear the term, and immediately try to fit their usage with what you already know of the term (and the historic understanding we liberals have of it). But they don't care about that at all! The term's very ambiguity -- its lack of specific meaning to non-academics -- and its intrinsic nationalistic tone are almost perfect for their purposes. Its actual meaning counts for nothing.

I don't know that it can be proved or ever will be, but I'd bet dollars for doughnuts that one of the rightwing's many thinktanks (perhaps the Hudson Institute itself) popped up with this at some recent point -- probably just weeks or months ago -- and you are now seeing its implementation. They are co-opting the term, and will use it to bash us with. "Liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism!" The average person on the street hears that, and it doesn't matter WHAT the actual meaning of it ought to be, their minds will fill in the blanks ... and never to our advantage.

If this was the first place the term "American exceptionalism" was bandied about in the rightwing -- and it very well may be -- then, Mark, you were Present for the Creation. Congratulations! (And, yeah, it COULD have been the very first place it was ever used. You say that it was being used right and left. Don't assume that it is just an idea that worked its way into the rightwing universe; it's entirely possible that nearly every single person who used it that day was prepped to do so).

How to defend ourselves ... and, perhaps, turn the table and put them on the defensive? Well, we could start -- I think -- just the way you've done. Without giving the rightwingers any credit at all for anything, we could just try to convince a ton of prominent liberal writers and figures to start using the term "American exceptionalism" in a POSITIVE way (that is, talking about our history as the world's first true democracy, or our invention of the concept of the National Park, or our willingness to endure a trial of blood in order to end slavery, or anything else we have to be proud of and that is not common in other nations). Co-opt the word right back from them.

Just a thought.

Posted by: Roger Keeling | Jun 8, 2006 7:04:22 PM

I wish I had a cite, but the notion of "American Exceptionalism" (if not the exact term) has been used for some time by some on the Evangelical right to refer to the notion that the USA has replaced the ancient Hebrews as God's chosen people. In this sense it goes back at least as far as Jonathan Edwards.

The new meme is that the term has taken on a political tone involving the issues the Evangelical right cares about. This, also, is not new. The same tranformation took place in the 1840-50s as Manifest Destiny. Different application, but the same basic idea. Apparently it floods its religious banks every 150 years or so.

Posted by: Kurt Ehrsam | Jun 9, 2006 10:25:06 AM

the ties into religion that kurt ehrsam notes are suggested in the text of the Principles and confirmed by a little googling on the various names mentioned in the post and on one of the main researchers referenced in the notes. that pretty much ties it together in my mind. these are in fact exceptional people in every way: exceptional achievers living no doubt exceptional life styles (due, I trust, to their exceptional self-reliance) in an exceptional country and with an exceptional relationship to god. it's easy for some of us to accept our unexceptionalism, but with all that going for them, what can one expect from these folks?

well, perhaps that they would exept themselves from the signatories to such an inane, ideology-driven, hypocrisy-laced document. could it be they are exceptional in some less flattering ways as well?

Posted by: ctw | Jun 9, 2006 7:30:36 PM

In my mind American Exceptionalism has always had a strong if not dominant foundation that is theological. If that is out of line with historical convention so be it but certainly in todays context it is almost impossible to find among it's strongest and most vocal proponents anyone who isn't an Evangelical or is making appeals to them.

God has a special place for America in His plans. That in a nutshell it the belief. Bush said so directly at least one time during the 2000 campaign. (Which was weirdly reported by Frank Rich to be what Liberman said, not Bush. Go figure) No doubt every single fundamentalist Christian who holds that idea dear belives that Bush believes it as well.

The democratic/free market ideal as a civic matter is inseperable from the thieologial one. They go hand in hand.

I doubt that there are few tribes or nations during all history which haven't subscribed to this notion about their group to some degree. The Enlightenment was a direct assault on these beliefs. It's argueable I suppose if the architects of the Constitution and the nation were embracing rationality over religion but I think it's fair to say the majority of historians based upon documentary evidence support the idea that their bias was strongly secular. I'd guess the Second Great Awaking was the date when the theological exeptionalists gained the upper hand in the popular mind. Long before them however Jonathan Edwards make plain in his Sinners at the hands of an angry God sermon the direct connection of the idea and ideals of American with the direct intervention of God.

I'd hazard a guess and say there isn't a politician in America who would openly scorn the idea of theological exeptionalims. Some majority probably holds the belief in God's direct interest is Americas role in history as it unfolds but even the stronest secularists must know that rejection of that idea would be the kiss of death .

Posted by: rapier | Jun 11, 2006 11:35:01 AM

American Exceptionalism = Cultural Relativism

All morality is relative to American nationalists.

Posted by: NeoDude | Jun 13, 2006 12:54:08 PM

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Purge Congress seeks to cleanse, cleanup and purify Congress.

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Posted by: Michael | Jun 22, 2006 7:35:11 PM