American exceptionalism and the context of fear

Headlines roar over Rudy Giuliani’s latest personal shot against the president for being unpatriotic and an Oklahoma legislator’s bill to bar high school students from taking AP history. Both actions and reactions concern our image of America.

Giuliani gets attention whenever he tosses a rhetorical grenade. In his incarnation as a political personality (supported by a thriving consulting business), he is as provocative as a Rush Limbaugh, but as a former mayor and presidential candidate he has a certain, if dwindling, legitimacy.

Attempting to calibrate remarks in which he said Obama “doesn’t love America,” Guiliani wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “Irrespective of what a president may think or feel, his inability or disinclination to emphasize what is right with America can hamstring our success as a nation. This is particularly true when a president is seen, as President Obama is, as criticizing his country more than other presidents have done, regardless of their political affiliation.”

The key phrase is when a president is seen, as President Obama is. When who sees? Perhaps Giuliani knows – and perhaps he doesn’t – that the judgment about whether Obama criticizes his country, or does so more than other presidents, is his. Why not own it?

I ran across a crystalizing comment on the controversy on The New York Times website. “Jonathan” wrote, “The president is the leader of the USA. He is supposed to promote the glories of the American way of life, and tout the virtues of our system. We have enemies and college professors who can point out all the shortcomings.”

The swipe against professors brings us to Oklahoma, where Republican state Representative Dan Fisher said he would revise his bill, passed in committee on a party-line vote, to have the state replace the College Board’s Advanced Placement history course with a legislatively directed alternative. (AP tests, which universities nationwide acknowledge, enable students to obtain college credits.)

Barring funding for Oklahoma students to take the optional course, as Fisher proposed, would neither reduce students’ college costs nor improve their standing for admission. But the bill is consistent with a resolution the Republican National Committee approved in 2014, two years after the College Board rewrote its course guidance. The RNC condemned the 110-page “framework” as “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects . . . while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Policy disputes about the document have arisen in Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, a county in Colorado, and elsewhere.

What’s this about?

A struggle for national identity and narrative. It’s no accident that a controversy over “exceptionalism” is erupting in a political culture that has been polarized since the 2000 election. We have debated the meaning of 9/11, the “War on Terror” and its effects, the causes of and our responses to the Great Recession. We are divided not only on where to go but where we are. It’s not a fight from the 1990s, when we were riding high as the world’s superpower after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Then we were content to be exceptional. Now we argue over whether we – our president, our high school teachers – should promote the idea that we are.

According to the Pew Research Center, our sense of American exceptionalism has dropped sharply in recent years. Among survey respondents, the share that believes the U.S. is “exceptional” and stands above all other countries has dropped from 38 to 28 percent. Pew found in 2011 and 2014 that the belief in exceptionalism is much higher among Republicans than among Independents and Democrats, but it’s dropped by about the same proportions.

We are operating in a context of fear. People with whom we disagree aren’t merely wrong, they are unpatriotic. Not only are our adversaries stupid, they are evil.

It seems that, as our insecurity grows, our underlying beliefs become more entrenched. Rather than stepping back to check our assumptions, we hold tighter to being right.

It’s a belief. A belief is nothing more than a thought I continue to think. If you think it’s more than that, ask your neighbor what is true for him. Be prepared to listen.

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4 Responses to American exceptionalism and the context of fear

  1. Pingback: Belief as limitation, on campus and off | Transformational Citizenship

  2. Pingback: Belief and the ‘debate’ over global warming | Transformational Citizenship

  3. Bennett’s ‘conversations’ not only fill, but more like engorge the gap between opinions-masquerading-as-journalism ala Fox and the dearth of a common sense dialogue between the
    members of the American electorate


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