J.L.’s discussion of American exceptionalism last week was really spot-on. Placing American greatness within its proper historical context is necessary both in order to understand what makes America truly great, but also to understand our flaws as a nation and a people. To understand history is to understand ourselves, after all. The map backward is also a map forward.
I see the inability to grasp this as symptomatic of a larger trend of anti-historicism on the right, of which American exceptionalism bereft of historical context is only one small part. Here’s David Frum:
Too often, conservatives dupe themselves. They wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information. In this closed information system, banks can collapse without injuring the rest of the economy, tax cuts always pay for themselves and Congressional earmarks cause the federal budget deficit. Even the market collapse has not shaken some conservatives out of their closed information system. It enfolded them more closely within it. This is how to understand the Glenn Beck phenomenon. Every day, Beck offers alternative knowledge — an alternative history of the United States and the world, an alternative system of economics, an alternative reality. As corporate profits soar, the closed information system insists that the free-enterprise system is under assault. As prices slump, we are warned of imminent hyperinflation. As black Americans are crushed under Depression-level unemployment, the administration’s policies are condemned by some conservatives as an outburst of Kenyan racial revenge against the white overlord.
The trick with closed information systems is that they need to be constantly protected from outside contamination (inconvenient facts, hard questions, etc.). (In this sense, Sarah Palin can be seen as almost the embodiment or avatar of the closed information system, furiously impervious to reality.)
If one considers the use of American exceptionalism in this context – as historical outlier rather than part of any sort of logical, historical continuum – one can quickly see why folks who push this particular breed of exceptionalism bristle so quickly at anything which might threaten their version of American greatness.
Jon Chait comments on Frum’s piece:
The whole piece is a dead-on attack on the central thrust of conservative thought over the last two years. I think it’s desperately necessary that sane people reform the conservative movement into a non-pathological, reality-based force in American politics. But I fear Frum is slaying so many sacred cows that nobody in the movement will listen to him.
I would suggest that perhaps the conservative movement itself is the most sacred of sacred cows here, and also the greatest impediment to conservatism as a ‘reality-based force in American politics’. More than anything, it is the movement itself which creates these closed information circuits, which revels in anti-historicism and the weaving of conservative illusion. In some ways it is also a great political force, but I also suspect that it is nearing its zenith in terms of both heat and light. These sorts of movements by their very natures have poor immune systems which is why they guard themselves so fiercely, why they are forced to create alternative narratives, alternate histories. They are brittle. The conservative movement, for all its ferocity and political savvy, is brittle, because it relies too heavily on its own illusions – illusions which have been made in recent years all too convincing by outlets like Fox News.
P.S. Mike Farmer writes, in the comments: “Let’s analyze the liberals, now.”
I think the signs of similarly closed information systems developing on the left are there in greater and greater proportion, actually. For the purposes of a post on American exceptionalism, however, the left is rather less at fault than the right.