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American exceptionalism bulletin, 2005

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[Apr 25, 2005] America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism by Tom Munro

The problem is when a fully mature and militarily powerful country like the U.S. gets in its collective mind a desire to reshape the world. In the end the author is betting on the self correcting nature of American democracy to regain balance. Hopefully he is correct.
Tom Munro:
America re-living 1904

April 25, 2005

What this book suggests is that a significant number of Americans have an outlook similar to European countries around 1904. A sense of identification with an idea of nation and a dismissive approach to other countries and cultures. Whilst in Europe the experience of the first and second world wars put paid to nationalism in America it is going strong. In fact Europeans see themselves less as Germans or Frenchmen today than they ever have.

The reason for American nationalism springs from a pride in American institutions but it also contains a deep resentment that gives it its dynamism. Whilst America as a nation has not lost a war there are a number of reasons for resentment. The South feels that its values are not taken seriously and it is subject to ridicule by the seaboard states. Conservative Christians are concerned about modernism. The combined resentments lead to a sort of chip on the shoulder patriotism which so characterises American nationalism.

Of course these things alone are not sufficient. Europeans live in countries that are small geographically. They travel see other countries and are multilingual. Most Americans do not travel and the education they do is strong in ideology and weak in history. It is thus easier for some Americans to develop a rather simple minded view of the world.

The book suggests that the Republican Party is really like an old style European nationalist party. Broadly serving the interests of the moneyed elite but spouting a form of populist gobbledygook, which paints America as being in a life and death, struggle with anti-American forces at home and abroad. It is the reason for Anne Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. That is the rhetoric of struggle acts as a cover for political policies that benefit a few and lay the blame for the problems of ordinary Americans on fictitious entities.

The main side effects of the nationalism are the current policies which shackles America to Israel uncritically despite what that country might and how its actions may isolate America from the rest of the world. It also justifies America on foreign policy adventures such as the invasion of Iraq.

The book is quite good and repeats the message of a number of other books such as "What is wrong with America". Probably there is something to be said for the books central message.

Keith Wheelock

A Socratic 'America know thyself': READ IT!, August 13, 2010

Foreigners, from de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce to Hugh Brogan and The Economist's John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge, often see America more clearly than do Americans. In the post-World War II period, R. L. Bruckberger's IMAGES OF AMERICA (1958) and Jean -Jacques Servan-Schreiber's THE AMERICAN CHALLENGE (1967) presented an uplifting picture of America. Two generations later, Englishman Anatol Lieven paints a troubling picture of a country that is a far cry from John Winthrop's' "city upon a hill."

Has America changed so profoundly over the past fifty years or is Mr. Lieven simply highlighting historical cycles that, at least for the moment, had resulted in a near `perfect storm?' His 2004 book has prompted both praise [see Brian Urquhart's Extreme Makeover in the New York Review of Books (February 24, 2005)] and brick bats. This book is not a polemic. Rather, it is a scholarly analysis by a highly regarded author and former The Times (London) correspondent who has lived in various American locales. He has a journalist's acquaintance of many prominent Americans and his source materials are excellent.

I applaud his courage for exploring the dark cross currents in modern-day America. In the tradition of the Delphic oracle and Socrates, he urges that Americans `know thy self.' The picture he paints should cause thoughtful Americans to shudder. Personally, I found his book of a genre similar to Cullen Murphy's ARE WE ROME? THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE FATE OF AMERICA.

I do not consider Mr. Lieven anti-American in his extensive critique of American cross currents. That he wrote this in the full flush of the Bush/Cheney post-9/11 era suggests that he might temper some of his assessments after the course corrections of the Obama administration. My sense is that Mr. Lieven admires many of America's core qualities and that this `tough love' essay is his effort to guide Americans back to their more admirable qualities.

Mr. Lieven boldly sets forth his book's message in a broad-ranging introduction:

  1. The [U. S.] conduct of the war against terrorism looks more like a baroque apotheosis of political stupidity;
  2. Aspects of American nationalism imperil both the nation's global leadership and its success in the struggle against Islamic terror and revolution;
  3. Insofar as American nationalism has become mixed up with a chauvinist version of Israeli nationalism, it also plays an absolutely disastrous role in U. S. relations with the Muslim world and in fueling terrorism;
  4. American imperialists trail America's coat across the whole world while most ordinary Americans are not looking and rely on those same Americans to react with `don't tread on me' nationalist fury when the coat is trodden on;
  5. One strand of American nationalism is radical...because it continually looks backward at a vanished and idealized national past;
  6. America is the home of by far the most deep, widespread and conservative religious belief in the Western world;
  7. The relationship between the traditional White Protestant world on one hand and the forces of American economic, demographic, social and cultural change on the other may be compared to the genesis of a hurricane;
  8. The religious Right has allied itself solidly with extreme free market forces in the Republican Party although it is precisely the workings of unrestricted American capitalism which are eroding the world the religious conservatives wish to defend;
  9. American nationalism is beginning to conflict very seriously with any enlightened, viable or even rational version of American imperialism;
  10. [George W.] Bush, his leading officials, and his intellectual and media supporters..., as nationalists, [are] absolutely contemptuous of any global order involving any check whatsoever on American behavior and interests;
  11. Nationalism therefore risks undermining precisely those American values which make the nation most admired in the world;" and * "This intended as a reminder of the catastrophes into which nationalism and national messianism led other great countries in the past."

Mr. Lieven addressed the above points in six well-crafted and thought-provoking chapters that I find persuasive. For some readers Chapter 6, Nationalism, Israel, and the Middle East, may be the most controversial. I am the only living person who has lunched with Gamal Abdel Nasser and David Ben-Gurion in the same week. I have maintained an interest in Arab-Israeli matters ever since. I find that Mr. Lieven's assessment of both the United States' and Israel's role rings true. While he does not excuse Arab leaders for their misdeeds, he clearly documents a history in which the United States has repeatedly subordinated vital U. S. regional interests in favor of accepting whatever Israel chooses to do.

In 1955 American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote,

"The most prominent and persuasive failing [of political culture] is a certain proneness to fits of moral crusading that would be fatal if they were not sooner or later tempered with a measure of apathy and common sense."

I am confident that Professor Hofstadter would agree with me that AMERICA RIGHT OR WRONG is a timely and important book.

E. David Swan (South Euclid, Ohio USA) From Nationalism to Imperialism

On international treaties right wing pundit Phyllis Schlafly wrote:

"The principles of life, liberty and property must not be joined with the principles of genocide, totalitarianism, socialism and religious persecution. We cannot trust agreements or treaties with infidels".

Here Phyllis borrows the language of Muslim extremists but the sentiment is pure American Conservativism for the new century. The message is fueled by a belief in a messianic roll for America in world affairs and an exceptionalism of its people. The only good foreigner is one who accepts, without question, the American system of free-market Capitalism. Believing in the superiority of the United States lends itself to a belief in the inferiority of the rest of the world. On this level the author draws a frightening parallel between America today and Europe circa 1914 prior to World War I. It is out of control nationalism.

History shows observable signs of growing imperialism. There is a heightened level of nationalism and a belief in the superiority of the people as well as a feeling of persecution and emphasis on ignorance over knowledge. The author traces the anger back to the civil war and southern states humiliation after their defeat at the hands of the north. The Cold War only served to briefly constrain the seething anger towards Communists and perceived sympathizers but with the fall of the Soviet Union the floodgates of hatred crashed open. The anger has broadened to include all but the most subservient foreign nations while the core hatred is aimed directly at other Americans who are seen as illegitimate or abnormal. The feelings are amplified and justified by religious fundamentalism and its inherent intolerance towards diversity. Phyllis Schlafly is a perfect example of the rage that Conservatives feel towards everyone outside their narrow spectrum. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect is the right wings hatred of government combined with extreme nationalism.

The match that ignites it all is our own government gleefully throwing gasoline on the fire of intolerance. Conservatives have been working to foment a hatred of foreigners for decades (see `Freedom Fries') and now Americans are being encouraged to support imperialism under the guise of preemptive strikes and spreading Democracy. There is a tradition, in Conservativism, of venerating authority and a belief that often the `Truth' must be protected by a `Bodyguard of Lies'. The WMD argument in Iraq was the initial smokescreen followed by the tale of spreading Democracy. Meanwhile, Republican's lace their speeches with what the author calls `Black Magic' words like `Traitor' and `Freedom' with the intention of chilling debate.

The quality that has traditionally restrained the United States is a strong loathing of imperialism across the political spectrum. Morality maven William Bennett has advocated complete subservience to conservative leadership. As the author points out, people like Bennett move beyond even `my country right or wrong' into `my country is always right'. This kind of thinking creates a complete chill on international negotiations.

I wouldn't say I found anything completely new in `America: Right or Wrong' but I found it to be an engaging synthesis of the direction America has been moving. The author even suggests that some areas of the world like the Middle East could use more nationalism in order to bind the disparate groups and ethnicities within countries. The problem is when a fully mature and militarily powerful country like the U.S. gets in its collective mind a desire to reshape the world. In the end the author is betting on the self correcting nature of American democracy to regain balance. Hopefully he is correct.

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