Taking Exception To American Exceptionalism

I didn’t really think it possible for Dick Cheney to lower my opinion of him. But then this happened (per Politico‘s Kendall Breitman):

Dick Cheney says it’s “outrageous” that President Barack Obama mentioned the summer’s unrest in Ferguson, Mo., while speaking about ISIL during a speech at the United Nations.

“I was stunned,” the former vice president said on Wednesday during an interview on Fox News’ “Hannity….”

“In one case, you’ve got a police officer involved in a shooting, there may be questions about it to be sorted out by the legal process, but there’s no comparison to that with what ISIS is doing to thousands of people throughout the Middle East through bloody beheadings of anybody they come in contact with,” Cheney said. “To compare the two as though there’s moral equivalence there, I think, is outrageous.”

Obama, of course, in NO WAY “compared” the two phenomena (sorry to “shout,” but it’s hard to overstate how little support there is for what Cheney is saying). The reference to Ferguson was in the midst of a long litany about America’s view of how it serves as a leader in a global collective security arrangement, and he immediately touted the domestic debate over Ferguson as a sign of our strength and virtue.

Cheney’s assertion is perhaps the most willfully stupid thing I’ve heard in years.

Having said that, I think the real objection on the Right to Obama’s speech is that he treated collective security as something other than an extension of America’s Sovereign and Imperial Will. The secular religion of American Exceptionalism–and I call it a religion because it sweeps aside all the universalism associated with crucial cultural influences from Christianity to the Enlightenment–is so powerful a force among conservatives these days that anything Obama said that wasn’t an arrogant insult to the rest of the world would not have satisfied them.

Sometimes I chafe at Obama’s efforts to propitiate the idol of American Exceptionalism rhetorically, even as he is explicitly treating America as subject to the same standards as any other people. Sometimes I wish my fellow-citizens in the country I love would wake up and acknowledge that the only “freedom” we enjoy that is denied to our global peers is the right to easily acquire lethal weapons. America largely invented the system of collective security that Obama is so avid to vindicate in his actions–wise or foolish–in the Middle East. His patriotism should not be impugned for taking it, and America’s claim to represent values beyond self-interest, seriously. And certainly not by the likes of Dick Cheney.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.