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American Exceptionalism: GOP Presidential Hopefuls Versus President Obama

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) December 17, 2010:   In my article "Reflections on Ian Morris' Book About the West and China" that was published at OpEdNews on December 13, 2010, I singled out President Obama's view of American exceptionalism for praise. I praised his view of American exceptionalism for his explicit wording "though imperfect" regarding our laws and our beliefs in free speech and equality. I suggested that the words "though imperfect" saved his view from the kind of triumphalism that Pericles expresses regarding Athenian laws and practices in his famous "Funeral Oration" (as reconstructed by Thucycides in his HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR).

As I indicated in my article, I had borrowed the quote of President Obama's view of American exceptionalism from John Dickerson's article "How He Ticks: Five of the Most Revealing Moments of the Obama Presidency" that was published online at SLATE MAGAZINE on December 10, 2010. President Obama had made his 300-word statement about American exceptionalism extemporaneously in a news conference in Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009. Dickerson reports that the president's conservative critics criticized the first sentence of his extemporaneous remarks. However, as Dickerson notes, the substance of Obama's 300-word extemporaneous statement has not become widely known.

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On December 13, 2010, Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University published an op-ed piece in the LOS ANGELES TIMES titled "Exceptionalism and the Left." He frames his essay by pointing out that "Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and other GOP presidential hopefuls have all declared Obama insufficiently attuned to American exceptionalism." Zimmerman accepts their criticism at face value and then proceeds to suggest different points that President Obama might use in making a statement about American exceptionalism. However, it appears to me that the conservatives' criticism of Obama that Zimmerman refers to is exactly the conservative criticism that Dickerson refers to. But Dickerson understands the conservatives' criticism to be based only on the first sentence in Obama's extemporaneous remarks, not on his full 300-word statement. By contrast, Zimmerman does not appear to be aware of Obama's 300-word statement about American exceptionalism. I myself was not aware of Obama's statement until I read Dickerson's article.

In light of the fact that so many GOP presidential hopefuls are making an issue out of this, I think that Obama's full 300-word statement deserves more media attention and discussion. Apart from the seemingly weak opening sentence, it contains much to be admired in my estimate, so I propose to quote it in its entirety below and then discuss certain points that Obama makes in it. However, I first want to discuss American exceptionalism during the Cold War, with special attention to anti-communist hysteria in the United States and in American foreign policy.


In the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008), a key figure in the emergence of movement conservatism during the Cold War, helped popularize the slogan coined by the German-born American political scientist and philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985): "Don't immanentize the eschaton." The term "eschaton" refers to the end-time envisioned in ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. In the apocalyptic tradition of thought, the end-time was envisioned as occurring when through divine intervention God would bring about justice of this earth. In short, God would intervene to bring about justice of this earth. But God is understood to be transcendent.

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The term "immanent" is used as the contrast with the term "transcendent." So if mere mortal human beings envisioned bringing about justice on this earth without divine intervention, such a vision would involve immanentizing the end-time by making it sound as though mere human effort without divine intervention could produce justice on this earth.

Voegelin thought that communist ideology envisioned justice as occurring on earth without divine intervention. In this way, communist ideology immanentized the eschaton. With Buckley as a key leader in the emerging movement conservatism, anti-communism became the central tenet of movement conservatism, which is still with us to this day despite the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989. Moreover, all of the GOP presidential hopefuls mentioned by Zimmerman want to enlist the support of movement conservatism in their efforts to become the GOP candidate for president in 2012.

However, American ideology refers to liberty and justice for all. Thus the American goal of justice for all can be understood as immanentizing the eschaton, even though this is not what Voegelin and Buckley meant to call attention to. But American ideology of liberty and justice for all is an important tenet in American exceptionalism.

I, for one, am willing to credit ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought with an invaluable insight: Justice on earth will result only through divine intervention bringing about the end of the world as we know it. Unless and until this decisive divine intervention occurs, our human attempts to bring about justice on this earth will be limited and imperfect.

I, for one, am willing to say that justice is indeed a noble goal to aim for in our human striving. Nevertheless, we may have difficulty in defining and explaining exactly what all justice may mean. See, for example, John Rawls' attempts to define and explain justice as fairness. But by allowing that justice is a worthwhile goal to aim for, I am crediting both communist ideology and American ideology with positing a valuable vision of the future. Nevertheless, I have said that our human efforts to establish justice of earth will be limited and imperfect. Yet how many other Americans are willing to join me in crediting not only American ideology but also communist ideology with positing something of value? Voegelin and Buckley weren't ready to join me in allowing this. Does it threaten our sense of American exceptionalism to allow that communist ideology envisioned the goal of justice?

During the Cold War, Republican politicians and Democratic politicians seemed to be engaged in a contest to see who could sound more fervently anti-communist. For example, in the presidential election campaign in 1960, both Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon were anti-communists. More recently, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan explicitly referred to the former Soviet Union as the "evil empire." His expression about "evil" echoed the apocalyptic thought-world of ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought, in which the forces of good were imagined as conquering the forces of evil to bring about justice on earth.

Still more recently, President George W. Bush echoed President Reagan when he referred to an "axis of evil" in the world today composed of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. I myself would have no problem with agreeing that the then-current regimes in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were up to no good. But I would resist using the term "evil" to describe them, so as to avoid employing the apocalyptic thought-world that the term "evil" has historically been rooted in.

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By definition, the term "evil" means "not good," the opposite of good. In principle, it might be possible for somebody to use the term "evil" without deliberately intending to invoke the framework of ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought.

But for all practical purposes, American presidents are probably going to be understood as deliberately invoking the ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition of thought when they use the term "evil" to refer to another country or countries.

Next, I want to suggest that during the Cold War, American foreign policy and the attitudes of many Americans could be described as apocalyptic because many Americans understood communism and communists to be up to no good and therefore "evil." But was there any other way for Americans to understand communism and communists than to have considered them to be "evil," even though they may have been up to no good? Sure. Americans could have understood both communism and communists as misguided. But this would have taken a lot of the hot air out of anti-communist hysteria.

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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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