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“Even if beaten, Germany will pride itself…no other people will be so inebriated by their defeat.”
–Anatole France, quoted by Patrick J. Buchanan in “Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War”.
“When an Englishman loses his prejudices, he is no longer an Englishman.”
–Nirad C. Chaudhuri, quoted by Time-Asia
So might it be added that should an American lose his sense of exceptionalism, he is no longer American.
The notion of exceptionalism has long been part of the American psyche, but it has been given vulgar expression only in recent decades, after self-absorption in full public gaze became not merely acceptable but expected.
Only someone steeped in specialness would have declared, as did Vice President George HW Bush after America had shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft by mistake, “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are”. The same sense permeated Madeline Albright when she said that America was the one ‘indispensable’ nation. Leaders from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama have echoed this sentiment with varying degrees of grating.
Of John McCain, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, little needs to be said save that they are the Knights Templar of this Order — who else could have stood before the cameras and told Russia that invading other countries is not the way to settle disputes in the 21st century?
And the obvious question that the press should have asked? Well may you ask. If self-criticism is a dying art in American politics, reticence has long exited the news business. “The Best Political Team in Television”, Wolf Blitzer keeps repeating every few minutes. Maybe so, Wolf, one wants to tell him, but isn’t that something for others to say? The national mourning for Tim Russert broke all bounds of modesty: clearly old dictums of the journalist not becoming the news did not operate in America — here the press too was Exceptional.
Funnily enough, America was always viewed as exceptional by the world, long before the invidious boasts by its politicians on TV — it is rare that a show goes by without someone saying, “We have the best fighting force in the history of mankind”, or “American workers can out-produce anyone in the world”, or “The greatest country on the face of the earth”. As to the world, perhaps it is best to echo a character from the Jeffersons, “What can anyone say about you, Mr. Jefferson, that you ain’t said about yourself already?”
What has all this to do with 9-11? A lot, in my view. It is one thing to encourage a child and make him believe he is special and quite another to instill in him the false notion that success will be his no matter what he does. Americans have had it dinned into their heads that no matter what they do, things will be ok, because this is America. Among others, Benjamin Franklin warned against complacency long ago with his famous, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
America’s exceptional quality, to paraphrase Indira Gandhi, was that “she did ordinary things extraordinarily well”. Disasters happen, of course, even in the best of times, and under the greatest of leaders. But breakdowns are seldom caused by one great blunder. Instead, they are more often the result of a bad environment, an ethos where many small wrongs go unchecked.
Enough has been written about the fateful day when so many things could have prevented, or at least limited, the damage. But the real damage began when 9-11 ended. Where any other country would have sought to demand accountability for such a calamity, in our exceptional land, not one single head rolled. The normal process of instituting an inquiry was postponed, we had to fight to get a commission established: Exceptionalism at work again.
In the most iconic example of Exceptionalism of all, it has become customary to mark each anniversary of September 11 by noting how valiant President Bush and his colleagues have been in keeping the country safe ever since. The logic reminds me of a joke sent around by a friend: statistics show that 10% of all accidents are caused by drunk drivers, it follows therefore that driving sober causes 90% of all accidents.
This sense of hubris – Exceptionalism, if you will – has informed everything that has followed: a potential multi-trillion dollar war cost, billions in deficits of every variety, broker borders, a collapsing health care system and the shredding of the one thing that is truly exceptional about America – its Constitution. All unchallenged because the exceptional nation accepts exceptional unaccountability.
Where do we go from here? There is some encouraging news. While the slobbering sultans of self-absorption were neck-deep in lipstick-land yesterday, there was a meeting of the four small party candidates, brought together by Ron Paul. They have agreed on a common four-point program, mainly to restore Constitutional rule. They should sink their other differences and run a united campaign.
Talking of self-absorption, this writer is gratified that Ron Paul, who brought the four together, followed this plea offered in a column a few months back (see Restoration Boulevard):
“I have a suggestion: Ron Paul and Ralph Nader should unite to put together a platform with an single-point agenda: to restore the Constitution and the Rule of Law. All else can follow.”
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.