The Ideal and the Real, or Whither Exceptionalism?

18 12 2014

I’ve been reading the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. You know, a little light holiday reading. Unsurprisingly, its release has been met with lots of outrage – outrage over the release, not what it describes. Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros said that the release was all about partisan politics by the America Haters on the left, proclaiming “The United States is awesome. We are awesome. We’ve closed the book on it, and we’ve stopped doing it. And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.” That, along with the study itself, got me thinking about American Exceptionalism.

And here’s what I think…

I’ve always considered myself a patriot. I remember feeling intense pride at being an American when I was a kid, loving to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and thinking the flag was just about the coolest thing ever. All of that sprung from what I knew of the country then – it was the elementary school version of the American story, all about the Enlightenment ideals that lead to our amazing Constitution, a work of incredible genius that was so cleverly wrought that it could grow and change and shift to match our growing, changing, shifting country, while still keeping us firmly rooted in our ideals of equality and fairness. I don’t think we’d even learned about slavery and the Civil War yet – it was 100% America as a Shining Beacon of Reason and Equality. And that was an amazing thing to be a part of.

Obviously, I’ve learned a lot since then, much of it clouding and complicating my national pride. For all of its apparent genius, the Constitution is also a document of compromise, and we continue to find strife and discord in declarations kept vague enough to guarantee ratification. It is also marked by the hypocrisy of slave owners proclaiming the freedom and equality of all men. It has also been all too easy to ignore when the times seemed to justify it – the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and, of course, the CIA’s use of torture in prosecuting the “war on terror.” Then there are the things that don’t necessarily rise to the level of unconstitutional that are nonetheless just plain wrong – that only men were allowed to vote, and the utterly disgusting concept that a slave was just 3/5ths of a person. Jim Crow. Wholesale murder and forced resettlement of Native Americans. The Tuskegee Syphilis experiments. My Lai. COINTELPRO. The NSA’s massive surveillance network looking in on everyone without any meaningful oversight. There are so many things that chip away at an easy patriotism.

And yet, I still consider myself a patriot. My patriotism is different from Andrea Tantaros’s, though. Do I believe the United States is “awesome?” I could go with a trick answer, a bank shot off of the traditional definition of “awesome” – inspiring awe – but I won’t. No, I don’t think the United States is awesome, as in “perfect” or “the best” or… man, it’s hard to pick superlatives that don’t have potentially tricky actual meanings. I could say “we’re not that great,” but on many levels, we are “great.” Anyway, let’s just say that I certainly don’t think the United States is beyond reproach, or that America is automatically special or amazing or … crap, let’s go with “great” again.

Someone once said something along the lines of “Republicans love America like a child loves its mother – she is perfect and can do no wrong. Democrats love America like a spouse – they see and celebrate all of the good while living with and working to improve on the bad.” Ignoring the inherent insult to Republicans and the Democratic humblebrag in there, there’s some truth in it. I don’t understand why it breaks down on partisan lines, but there seems to be a clear left/right split when it comes to the idea of American Exceptionalism. On the right, it seems to readily become “My country, right or wrong” and a belief in an “awesomeness” that has very little to do with what we’ve actually done. On the left, and certainly for me, it’s more about our ideals and a constant effort to live up to them more perfectly.

Many on the right (and some on the left, including the Obama administration) have questioned the wisdom and worth of releasing the Intelligence Committee study. As Tantaros said, “We’ve closed the book on it, and we’ve stopped doing it.” Looking into it any further, they argue, is pointless. I couldn’t disagree more. If we want to believe we’re exceptional, our actions had better prove it, and the CIA’s Counterterrorist Detention and Interrogation Program doesn’t do that (well, unless you say it was exceptionally cruel or unnecessary or… dammit, literal brain – shut up!). It shows a failure to live up to our ideals, a choice to take the expedient path instead of the right one, and if we want to be the good kind of exceptional, it behooves us to look directly at the awful things done in our names and under our flag in order to learn from them and make sure we do better next time. Sweeping it under the rug and creating a happy fiction that doesn’t ever require confronting something ugly just means we’ll end up with more ugly in the long run.

Thing is, we’re going to end up with more ugly in the long run no matter what – we’re human, and failing to live up fully to our ideals is sort of the favorite trick of the species. What makes us exceptional is a willingness to take the hard, painful steps to identify where we’ve gone wrong before in order to make better choices when similar circumstances arise in the future. When we learn about things like the Tuskegee experiments, we work harder to create effective frameworks for informed consent and a better understanding and application of medical ethics (though “Let’s tell these people we’re treating their syphilis and then not do it, just to see what happens” doesn’t require a great scholar of ethics to know that it’s really, really wrong). When we see the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII without the panicked lens of the “post-Pearl Harbor reality,” we recognize that it was wrong and do what we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. While our behavior toward Muslims after the September 11, 2001 attacks, as people and as a government, has been far from perfect, we haven’t resorted to rounding up all Muslim US citizens and holding them in camps. We saw what we did wrong and we learned to not do it, becoming a bit closer to our ideals in the process. Seeing that we were willing to torture, even though our beloved Constitution strictly forbids “cruel and unusual punishment” (which seems to include a much larger scope of behaviors than the concentrated-upon “torture”) and we’ve ratified multiple treaties against it – and in fact were even loudly proclaiming our opposition to torture even while members of our government were advocating and committing it – really looking at that gives us the opportunity to learn about our beliefs, fears, and motivations in a way that can be instructive as we face a world of threats and choose how to proceed.

Andrea Tantaros isn’t interested in that kind of learning. She seems perfectly happy to wave the flag and proclaim our awesomeness in willful ignorance of the ways we’ve missed the mark over and over again with genuinely horrific results. I don’t have much use for that kind of patriotism and exceptionalism. I’m still a patriot, yes, but not in the mode of flag worship and “my country, right or wrong.” I’m a patriot in that I want to be a part of our never-ending quest “to form a more perfect union.” That quest takes hard work, and we will make mistakes as we pursue it, often with terrible and tragic results. Ignoring those mistakes only guarantees we’ll make them over and over again.

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