Race, American Exceptionalism, and the Delicate Art of Criticizing Obama

A few weeks ago I had my virtual fingers slapped by some Facebook friends.  It happened after I clicked, for the first time ever, one of those little “Like” buttons at the bottom of an op-ed.

Here is the paragraph in the op-ed that caught my eye:

To be sure, no white candidate who had close associations with an outspoken hater of America like Jeremiah Wright and an unrepentant terrorist like Bill Ayers would have lasted a single day. But because Mr. Obama was black, and therefore entitled in the eyes of liberaldom to have hung out with protesters against various American injustices, even if they were a bit extreme, he was given a pass. And in any case, what did such ancient history matter when he was also articulate and elegant and (as he himself had said) “non-threatening,” all of which gave him a fighting chance to become the first black president and thereby to lay the curse of racism to rest?

You of course are free to agree or disagree, but I thought the paragraph did a good job of describing how a first-term Senator with a thin resume and a dodgy taste in friends was able to convince 69 million Americans that he should be elected to the most powerful office in the world.  I saw the Like button, I clicked it, and I went on to something else.

I’m not sure what I thought the Like button would do, but I soon found out.  It copied the headline and subhead of that Norman Podhoretz op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to my Facebook wall, topped by an unambiguous statement of my approval.  Thus:

Kirk Petersen likes a link:

“What Happened to Obama? Absolutely Nothing.
He is still the same anti-American leftist he was before becoming our president.”

The first response came from a civil and fair-minded friend, who pointedly asked, “What is it you like about that, Kirk?”  Other offended friends, thoughtful people one and all, weighed in, and I quickly realized I had fallen into the common trap of overlooking the rhetorical excesses of someone with whom I otherwise largely agreed.

Labeling Obama a leftist is certainly fair game, but calling him anti-American borders on calling him a traitor. Besides being unfair, it’s counterproductive. It’s the type of drive-by slur guaranteed to alienate virtually all of those 69 million Americans, some of whom might otherwise be open to a more measured critique of the Obama presidency.

So after a feeble attempt to defend my beliefs while regretting Podhoretz’s choice of words, I deleted the link and posted this instead:

Two lessons learned tonight: 1) Inflammatory language inflames people. 2) Impulsively clicking a “Like” button on an op-ed can be an insufficiently nuanced way of expressing an opinion.

Three weeks later, also in the Wall Street Journal, Shelby Steele provided the missing nuance.  It is not that Mr. Obama is anti-American, but rather that he rejects the very idea of America as the one indispensable nation.

Mr. Obama came of age in a bubble of post-’60s liberalism that conditioned him to be an adversary of American exceptionalism. In this liberalism America’s exceptional status in the world follows from a bargain with the devil—an indulgence in militarism, racism, sexism, corporate greed, and environmental disregard as the means to a broad economic, military, and even cultural supremacy in the world. And therefore America’s greatness is as much the fruit of evil as of a devotion to freedom.

Mr. Obama did not explicitly run on an anti-exceptionalism platform. Yet once he was elected it became clear that his idea of how and where to apply presidential power was shaped precisely by this brand of liberalism. There was his devotion to big government, his passion for redistribution, and his scolding and scapegoating of Wall Street—as if his mandate was somehow to overcome, or at least subdue, American capitalism itself.

Anti-exceptionalism has clearly shaped his “leading from behind” profile abroad—an offer of self-effacement to offset the presumed American evil of swaggering cowboyism. …

So, in Mr. Obama, America gained a president with ambivalence, if not some antipathy, toward the singular greatness of the nation he had been elected to lead.

In 2009, during his “global apology tour” shortly after taking office, Obama was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism.  His answer showed that either he did not understand the term, or that he was carefully pretending not to understand it:  “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  Obama thereby signaled that he rejected a belief of America’s role in the world that goes back more than 170 years, to Alexis de Tocqueville.

As Shelby writes,

Clearly Americans were looking for a new kind of exceptionalism in him (a black president would show America to have achieved near perfect social mobility). But were they also looking for—in Mr. Obama—an assault on America’s bedrock exceptionalism of military, economic and cultural pre-eminence?

American exceptionalism is, among other things, the result of a difficult rigor: the use of individual initiative as the engine of development within a society that strives to ensure individual freedom through the rule of law. Over time a society like this will become great. This is how—despite all our flagrant shortcomings and self-betrayals—America evolved into an exceptional nation.

To describe Mr. Obama’s attitude as anti-American is to caricature it.  But he does seem motivated by a vision of America as just one more unremarkable country among many.  That point of view has a constituency — but I’m not part of it.

Two lessons learned tonight: 1) Inflammatory language inflames people. 2) Impulsively clicking a “Like” button on an op-ed can be an insufficiently nuanced way of expressing an opinion.

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