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American Exceptionalism: GOP Presidential Hopefuls Versus President Obama

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(2) Next, President Obama says, "We have unmatched military capability." Even though I am not in principle opposed to reducing our military spending by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by making other cuts in the defense department budget, I have told students that the point of the Homeric epic the ILIAD is that if you are as wealthy as Troy was, you should have a big defense department budget in case you have to fight Achilles. Alexander the Great, whose role model was Achilles, conquered wealthy Athens, the home of the first great experiment in democracy in the Western world, along with a lot of other places as well.

As we might expect, President Obama's conservative critics have cherry-picked the first sentence alone for criticism, conveniently leaving aside the rest of his lengthy response. Nevertheless, their cherry-picking that one sentence shows that they take exception to it, as though it alone contained some kind of heresy. But what exactly is the supposed heresy in that one sentence?

A Brit had asked the question, so I assume that President Obama referred to the Brits and British exceptionalism as a way to acknowledge the questioner's heritage and to acknowledge the British empire. Has any group that started an empire ever done so without feeling a sense of exceptionalism?

President Obama's reference to the Greeks is in the present tense, so he may mean that Greeks today have a sense of exceptionalism. Perhaps the Greek sense of Greek exceptionalism today is based in part on the ancient Athenian empire at the time of Pericles. Or perhaps it is based in part on the empire subsequently established by Alexander the Great, which led to the widespread use of the Greek language in the ancient world.

Perhaps President Obama's first sentence is best understood as meaning that probably no country will long endure if its citizens do not share a sense of its exceptionalism. His answer was extemporaneous. As I have indicated above, Dickerson understands Obama's conservative critics to be criticizing him only for this first sentence, not for the rest of his 300-word statement.

As I have indicated, Zimmerman appears not to be aware of Obama's 300-word statement. As I have shown, Obama himself has no obvious problem with American exceptionalism. Your guess is as good as mine as to why he has not thus far responded directly to the line of argument advanced by the GOP presidential hopefuls named by Zimmerman.

However, the title of Zimmerman's essay ("Exceptionalism and the Left") clearly suggests that liberals apparently have a problem with American exceptionalism. But is this indeed the case?

Where do Rob Kall and other liberals today stand regarding President Obama's view of American exceptionalism? Do they join with his conservative critics in taking the opening sentence as the expression of some kind of heresy? And what do Rob Kall and other liberals today have to say regarding the rest of President Obama's lengthy response?

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It strikes me that liberals today should be able to articulate and endorse a view of American exceptionalism that is free of the kind of triumphalism expressed by Pericles regarding Athenian exceptionalism, as President Obama has shown he can.

Moreover, liberals should be able to turn the tables on the GOP presidential hopefuls not only by calling attention to Obama's full 300-word statement about American exceptionalism, but also by making triumphalism the issue in discussions of American exceptionalism.

The movement conservatism that Buckley helped engender was predicated not on a realistic sense of American exceptionalism, such as President Obama's realistic sense of American exceptionalism, but on an exaggerated sense of triumphalism. The triumphalism of anti-communist conservatives was heady stuff. Movement conservatism today wants to continue to that kind of heady stuff.

By contrast, Zimmerman shows how a realistic sense of American exceptionalism has been used by the great warriors for social justice in American history. They used the idealistic claims of American ideology to critique American shortcomings.

However, at the present time, as Zimmerman says, the GOP presidential hopefuls are making American exceptionalism their battle cry. But I am suggesting that they are doing this because they want to renew the heady stuff of triumphalism.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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The media have covered the GOP presidential hopefu... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Dec 19, 2010 at 7:03:22 AM
The media has no interest in presenting any sort o... by Richard Girard on Monday, Dec 20, 2010 at 4:52:53 PM