Thursday, December 27, 2007

Not So Exceptional

The Los Angeles Times has been running a series of editorials examining what it calls "American Values" and the various presidential candidates' responses to those values. The series, contrary to what I expected, has been a pretty good one. There hasn't been nearly the amount of smarm I anticipated, and the framework works creditably when it comes to raising the issues most of us care deeply about. Today's edition works on the concept of American Exceptionalism and what the next president is going to have to deal with when it comes to relations with the rest of the world.

What intrigued me most in today's editorial was the introduction of a term that, while unwieldy and a bit ugly as far as neologisms go, I think captures the current philosophy of this administration.

Yet American exceptionalism has also stumbled into what the human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff calls "exemptionalism" -- the assertion that the United States, because of its inherent humanitarianism and moral probity, may exempt itself from the common rules that other civilized nations accept. This includes our refusal to sign treaties banning juvenile execution or land mines, and our insistence that the status and interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay may be determined solely by U.S. presidential executive order.

Under the Bush administration, exemptionalism has veered into the dangerous assertion of an expanded right to preventive war, a rash reaction to the 9/11 attacks that led directly to the unilateral invasion of Iraq and to our current inability to muster international consensus on issues from Darfur to Kosovo and, most crucially, to punish Iran for its nuclear intransigence.

Of course, more than our "inherent humanitarianism and moral probity" lies at the root of this exemptionalism: being the sole super-power with the biggest and most expensive military in the world is a large part of it. We attack another nation which has displeased us simply because we can. We use torture on those we have kidnapped and imprisoned because we can. And that, unfortunately, has led to the loss of any respect other nations might have had for us, and that is why we suffer from "an inability to muster international consensus."

And here's the irony: this exemptionalism also operates domestically and will, if unchecked, destroy those elements in our nation which made us exceptional to begin with. Our rights to free speech and privacy have been systematically whittled away by the spurious promise of security. Our tradition of welcoming the stranger to our land has been replaced by walls at the border. Our vibrant economy in which all participated and all benefitted has been replaced by a narrow and mean-spirited corporatocracy in which only those who have, get.

Yes, the next president will have a full plate of problems in January, 2009. Hopefully in the next 11 months the candidates will be prodded by the public and by the press into announcing how they would each address each of them.



Blogger shrimplate said...

"Exemptionalism" sounds to me like sociopathy writ large upon the actions of a nation.

I do not like it. Not one bit.

5:25 PM  

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