Sunday, February 28, 2010

Exceptionally Selective Memory

Because it is ultimately an emotional matter, it is hard to talk about nationalism in a dispassionate manner. What we’re dealing with, when you get down to it, is love. Even the most Spock-like among us know that love and reason don’t always work in the same direction.

When I teach the subject of nationalism in Western Civilization, I give my students a piece called “The Discourse on the Love of Country” written in 1789 by Richard Price. As a child of the Enlightenment, Price takes a decidedly rational approach to the subject: “The love of our country has in all times been a subject of warm commendations; and it is certainly a noble passion; but, like all other passions, it requires regulation and direction.” Love of country is a “duty,” he argues, but it “does not imply any conviction of the superior value of [one’s own country] to other countries.”

Price is not naïve: he recognizes that, as he puts it, “[w]e are too apt to confine wisdom and virtue within the circle of our own acquaintance and party. Our friends, our country, and in short everything related to us, we are disposed to overvalue.” That is entirely natural, just as love of one’s family is. However, he argues, a “wise man will guard himself against this delusion.” Sadly, the history of the last 200 years has repeatedly demonstrated that most peoples in most nations have lacked such wisdom.

In the U.S., that delusion has most often taken the form of what is called “American exceptionalism.” This concept is at the core of a piece in the National Review this week by Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. As they put it, “Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.”

The New Republic has a nice deconstruction of the argument by Lowry and Ponnuru, showing that what they are really arguing is that “America is exceptional because the nation’s creed is the ideology of the modern conservative movement.” What I’d like to explore is how incredibly selective their depiction of American history is.

Lowry and Ponnuru target what they, with only slightly veiled contempt, refer to as “the academy.” What they really mean is, well, people like me—i.e., trained historians who actually know their nation’s history in its true fullness, not the whitewashed, jingoistic version they prefer. These academics, they say, have created “a perverse version of American exceptionalism ... of criminality, conquest, and oppression.”

They have a point—quite a small one, but a point. It is, of course, possible to find some examples that resemble this caricature they present. But as any student of history knows, this is the natural progression of historical inquiry. Every dominant interpretation of history inevitably produces such a reaction: a revisionist interpretation that takes a contrary, often polar opposite view. What they fail to appreciate is that this “perversion” they decry is the predictable response to a previous, equally unrealistic interpretation of history: precisely the American exceptionalist theory they champion. A truly balanced view of history takes into consideration both a nation’s strengths and its flaws, its triumphs and its tragedies. That is not at all what Lowry and Ponnuru do.

In their one nod to reasonableness, they note: “None of this is to say, of course, that America is perfect. No nation can be.” Yet one searches their article in vain for any evidence of this imperfection (at least prior to the New Deal and, of course, the Obama administration). Most striking is the utter absence of any mention of slavery—this in an essay of over 5,000 words that purports to give an accurate evaluation of American history.

No doubt they would argue that to point this out is itself evidence of the way the academy seeks “to trash our Founding.” But pointing out indisputable historical fact is not to “trash” American history: it is merely an attempt to present the totality of that history rather than a selective fragment. If anyone were to argue that slavery is the only thing one needs to know about the U.S., they might have a point. But this, of course, is a straw man. No one in American political life (and no decent historian) does that. Yet plenty of people in politics take the equally distorted position that Lowry and Ponnuru advocate--it is practically an unquestionable article of faith in the Republican Party.

In their twisted view of reality, the only true interpretation of history is theirs, one in which America is not only exceptional, but utterly superior to all others in every way and essentially without any serious flaw, and therefore with nothing to learn from other nations—all of whom should blindly follow America’s lead. To grapple with historical facts such as slavery and segregation is unacceptable to them. To imply that America is anything but, as Sean Hannity regularly insists, "the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth" is to lack patriotism.

Theirs is basically the most infantile kind of nationalism. They are like little children who never move past the view that their parents are perfect, god-like arbiters of all that is good. We are all like that when we are very young. But as we mature, we come to see our parents as they are: flawed but good people, who love us and do their best. We love them without having to hold onto unrealistic illusions, loving them even more as we ourselves grapple with life's complexities and come to understand the difficulties they faced. It is a mature love, grounded in realities, not in idealized fantasies.

Cicero said: "To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child." Lowry and Ponnuru and the political vision they represent would have us forever remain in child-like ignorance of the entirety of American history. That might serve their short-term political agenda, but it would make us all easily manipulated political toddlers. Lowry and Ponnuru simplistically and ignorantly idealize the Founders, but I prefer what those Founders truly wanted: an informed citizenry.

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