Ambiguously “American”

BY SHAY O'REILLY | MARCH 31, 2011 7:20 AM

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The pupating question is emerging from under the earth, as it does every four years.

Why caucus in Iowa? What makes our “fly-over” state, the stereotypical land of sweet corn and barbecue, the perfect arena for political showdowns?

The answer, according to panelists at the Conservative Principles Conference on March 26: Iowa, with its summer baseball games draped in buttery sunlight, is uniquely in tune with American values. Those are the American values, incidentally, that make us perfectly suited to a dominant role in the world.

But if American exceptionalism — the idea that the United States is uniquely qualified to shape international affairs — is based on wholly unique American values, these values still evade definition.

The very political strength of this concept lies in its lack of clarity. “There is a huge difference between Obama and the left and 80 percent of the American people,” possible 2012 GOP presidential-nomination candidate Newt Gingrich said in his conference address. He was referring to the 80 percent of Americans who believe that America’s history and Constitution make us the greatest country in the world, according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

(As Salon writer Glenn Greenwald pointed out Tuesday, Obama is hardly an apostate — his justification for U.S. involvement in Libya is rooted in the idea that we are obligated, by our exceptional nature, to intervene.)

While the GOP has separated the country from the executive so it is no longer un-American to criticize him, there is still a sense of nationalistic fervor. No longer is it inappropriate to question the president — the new inviolable relic is the “spirit of America” itself, however it comes to be defined.

“We are the first one to ever give the people real freedom,” Monique Barnes, a Des Moines resident, told me at the conference. “Our principles are based on ‘We the people,’ not on politicians.” Her response was representative: general platitudes, references to the Constitution, no real meat.

Here’s what I’d suggest: We don’t really know what it means to be American. Not really. We have a queasily vague sense of the American narrative playing like a montage in our head, all rags-to-riches, mythical cowboys, and Protestant work ethic. We augment this existential dream-world with buzz words that undergo revision depending on whatever outrage is fashionable.

Jeremy Freeman, a sophomore at ISU and a member of the College Republicans, told me at the conference that we are exceptional because of our freedom. “That is definitely in jeopardy,” he said. “It’s directly tied to the taxes we pay.”

Americans seem to have some inculcated predilection for liberty, even if we cannot agree on what that means; the word itself trembles in the air like a cello note. We never got past the first word in the three-word call (the French national motto, so pardon my secular heresy) for liberté, égalité, fraternité — brotherhood and equality don’t have that same resonance on our tongue.

Does that make us unique among nations? Dare we tell the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, India, Japan, the Czech Republic, and South Africa that they just don’t care as much about freedom as we do?

Perhaps more importantly, does that inclination alone make us morally vindicated? In my mind, no: We cannot measure the worth of a house solely by its theoretical foundation.

Instead, we must question our heritage. Not out of some rejection of the good things in our government, like Constitutional rights or a professed love for democracy but out of a desire to turn our stated values into a reality. Like the children of all nations, we have inherited a mixed bag: For every liberated concentration camp, we have a war crime; every economic boom, a Triangle-Shirtwaist tragedy; every Abraham Lincoln, a Pinochet. Our Founding Fathers were both intelligent revolutionaries and slaveholders.

We cannot ask, “Is this American? Is it in line with our history?” before we ask, “Is this just? Does it increase freedom and decrease suffering?” The two are not the same thing.

Demanding that our present actions fit one interpretation of our past trajectory asserts that we are headed on a destined path — something that I can’t help but reject. The conservative faction last weekend was wrong: We do not need to choose between binary options of success and failure. Even our state of heartland faux-nostalgia has vanguards of a few possible Americas, from socialist former Iowa City City Councilor Karen Kubby to far-right U.S. Rep. Steve King.

The future of our country is whatever we want it to be. If America is to be exceptional, it will occur because we make her so.

And it’s up to us to answer this: Exceptionally what?

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