America: Innocence and Exceptionalism

In an essay in The Atlantic titled AOC’s Generation Doesn’t Presume America’s Innocence,” Peter Beinart writes:

American exceptionalism does not merely connote cultural and political uniqueness. It connotes moral superiority. Embedded in exceptionalist discourse is the belief that, because America has a special devotion to democracy and freedom, its sins are mostly incidental. The greatest evils humankind has witnessed, in places such as the Nazi death camps, are far removed from anything Americans would ever do. America’s adversaries commit crimes; America merely stumbles on its way to doing the right thing. This distinction means that, in mainstream political discourse, the ugliest terms—fascismdictatorshiptyrannyterrorismimperialism, genocide—are generally reserved for phenomena beyond America’s shores.”

Beinart also writes: “Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘concentration camps’ comment questions an old orthodoxy: that only other countries—and not the U.S.—are capable of evil.”

To begin with, people are guilty or innocent. It’s odd to say this about a country or a state. The confusion is analogous to the error of “state’s rights.” States don’t have rights. They have powers. People have rights.

Beinart’s rhetoric is a good example of the reification that haunts popular discourse. Such rhetoric can have dramatic consequences. Speaking this way makes bombing people easier. You aren’t bombing innocent people; you’re punishing a guilty country. The moral leader calculates collateral damage (soldiers call it “bug splat”) in a surgical strike; dehumanization is the consequence of personifying country and region. Remember Bush wrecking Afghanistan to get at al Qaeda?

But to say that America is exceptional is not the same thing as saying it is innocent. Nation-states, like people, can be exceptional. From the git-go, Beinart’s op-ed is problematic.

Secondly, American has a complex history. It’s hardly alone in that fact. But there’s a difference between recognizing that complexity and loathing America or routinely not appreciating what’s great about it.

If America were a person it’s hard to see any appreciation on the identitarian left for its remarkable history of reformation, a curious sentiment in light of a rhetoric of redemption, the legacy of Christian logic that, typical of that particular faith-belief, is only selectively and superficially observed. In truth, the framework AOC and her ilk deploy in reckoning justice for America is an essentially racialist one.

Demagogues like AOC are convinced that history obligates (albeit only some of) the living. In her telling, it’s as if nothing has ever really been achieved. Nor could it be considering who founded it and for whom it was founded. Its founding in genocide and slavery is its purpose. It needs replacing not reforming.

America-bashing has become the left’s pastime. It’s not a critique of capitalism—it’s not scientific socialism. It’s not a critique at all. Rather, it’s dogma conceiving of an America that is intrinsically evil because white European rational Protestants built it upon a foundation of reason. And so the desire to defend that foundation is nativist, racist, and xenophobic.

The identitarian left is comprised of progressives who deprecate progress. A godless constitution, with a bill of rights separating church and state attached, establishing the basis of scientific work and rapid development in technology, is no great moral achievement. Emancipating people from the centuries-old inherited system of chattel slavery, leading much of the West in recognizing the right of women to participate in their government, and of the right of men to marry other men and women to marry women, of shackling the police to the demands of liberty, of defending opinion from censorious desire, and a myriad of other accomplishments—if these are appreciated (certainly freedom from religion and speech are not), they must result from resistance to the idea of America, not as the progressive realization of American ideals.

But America is an exceptional country. The West is an exceptional civilization. People are freer in the West than anywhere else in the world. And the progress made, for example on the race question, is not because we refused the founding principles of our democratic republic, but because we challenged ourselves to honor them.

It is untrue that the imperialism of the capitalist class, enabled by the governments of the West, goes unrecognized, then and now. But what does seem to go unrecognized on the left is that opposition to imperialism is a western value. Our history books admit past slavery and genocide. Abolitionism and conventions against genocide and torture originated in the West. It is untrue that the US government is fascist and that, therefore, antifascist action is justified (anarchists will always find justification for “propaganda of the deed”).

The West established humane treatment of refugees and opened its countries to immigrants. The United States is the most generous country in the world when it comes to welcoming immigrants. It’s absurd to claim that borders and border control indicate evil by virtue of their existence or their existence in the West, that the immigration processing centers found in the US, Norway, Sweden, and elsewhere in the civilized world are “concentration camps.” But just as for anticommunist propagandists every prison in the former Soviet Union must carry the horrific tag of gulag, and every death the result of some decision Stalin made, so immigration processing centers must be concentration camps. Because the United States is a wicked nation.

To be sure, a great task remains: overthrowing capitalism. Capitalism is the source of modern imperialism and war. More fundamentally, it’s the contradiction keeping liberalism alienated from itself (for example, restricting the free exchange of ideas with the institution of copyright). But it is the very exceptionalism of the West that produced the United Nations and the recognition of human rights bringing peace and progress to its nations. That a project has problems does not condemn the project.

It’s often said that, from the vantage point of the North Pole, everywhere is south. Using this metaphor, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has noted the existence of a “Left Pole,” a vantage point from where any belief that doesn’t conform to dogma must be rightwing and therefore bad. AOC and her crowd live at the Left Pole.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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