Sunday, May 03, 2009

"To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really are"

Driving home from church on Sunday, I like to listen to a bit of Fareed Zakaria on the radio. This last week, he was interviewing Defense Secretary Gates. Fareed asked if the US is falling into an "imperial trap" -- spending too much time and energy putting out all of the fires of the world, while countries like China concentrate on building a great prosperous industrial machine." I found Gates' answer to be instructive. He denied that the U.S. was an imperial power, but utilized the now-familiar bromide that America was an indispensable power (This, of course, from President Clinton's Second Inaugural Address. Thanks, Bill.) Gates concluded that "If you look around the world, nothing ever gets done without American leadership at the end of the day."

This is as self-serving a myth as there is. But this view of American exceptionalism--our "indispensability," if you will, is not confined to the upper echelons of power. This self-perception, coupled with an exalted view of individualism and our unique take on liberty forms the very foundation of American society. This is the creed of our public religion. At a recent prayer breakfast in my city, a Methodist minister offered the following (as a prayer, mind you):

"Wherever there is injustice and wherever there is an abuse of civil rights, American military personnel is there. We get bad mouthed by other nations for sticking our nose where it doesn't belong, but our nose belongs where we go because God has commissioned us to be the caretakers, the protectors of the world."

This is a jingoistic perspective, with little thought to its implications, to be sure--but hardly unique in my part of the nation. For this reason, it is all the more important that the viewpoints expressed in Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism receive wider circulation. I have been reading about the book for months now, but put off actually reading it until after Great Lent. In my estimation, this is an essential book that should take its place on the shelf with Huntington, Lukacs and Kennan.

A few quotes from Bacevich (a retired military man who lost his son in Iraq):

Seeing themselves as a peaceful people, Americans remain wedded to the conviction that the conflicts in which they find themselves embroiled are not of their own making. The global war on terror is no exception. Certain of our own benign intentions, we reflexively assign responsibility for war to others, typically malignant Hitler-like figures inexplicable bent on denying us the peace that is our fondest wish.

Freedom is the altar at which Americans worship, whatever their nominal religious persuasion. "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed. Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination.

Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans, their "culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort."

Centered on consumption and individual individuals, American never cease to expect more.

Crediting the United States with a "great liberating tradition" distorts the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U. S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale, thereby providing a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis.

Accept the proposition that America is freedom's tribune, and it becomes a small step to believing that the "peace process" aims to achieve peace, that Iraq qualifies as a sovereign state, and that Providence has summoned the United States to wage an all-out war against "terrorism."

The Big Lies are the truths that remain unspoken: that freedom has an underside; that nations, like households, must ultimately live within their means; that history's purpose, the subject of so many confident pronouncements, remains inscrutable."

By extension, Americans ought to give up the presumptuous notion that they are called upon to tutor Muslims in matters relating to freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion. The principle informing policy should be this: let Islam be Islam. In the end, Muslims will have to discover for themselves the shortcomings of political Islam, much as Russians discovered the defect of Marxist-Leninism and the Chinese came to appreciate the flaws of Maoism--perhaps even as we ourselves will one day begin to recognize the snares embedded in American exceptionalism."

As is the case on most topics, Daniel Larison has some cogent comments on the pernicious influence of American exceptionalism (this from a post deconstructing a particularly sophomoric article by Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis in defense of the concept.)

There are good reasons to push back against the idea of American exceptionalism, if only because it does seem to encourage tired jingoism far too often, but we should do this mainly to show that there is the possibility of an admiring respect that need not devolve into arrogant triumphalism that American exceptionalism tends to encourage....Confidence in America and respect for our actual, genuinely considerable accomplishments as a people are natural and worthy attitudes to have. Understanding the full scope of our history, neither airbrushing out the crimes nor dishonoring and forgetting our heroes, is the proper tribute we owe to our country and our ancestors. Exaggeration and bluster betray a lack of confidence in America, and strangely this lack of confidence seems concentrated among those most certain that mostly imaginary “declinists” are ruining everything. More humble confidence and less horror that our President is not engaged in stupid demonstrations of machismo might be the appropriate response to present realities.

He also links a recent excellent article by Bacevich, here.

There was a time in my life (in the not so very distant past) when I accepted such views unquestioningly, as I suppose most people do. Obviously, my conversion to Orthodoxy signaled a marked change in attitude. My self-perception and my relationship to others as fellow-citizens of a particular nation have undergone a thorough-going and much-need overhaul. I would be curious how other Orthodox see this evolution of thought in their own lives.


elizabeth said...

I really enjoy your posts of this nature. I do not have an educated opinion per say. However I grew up in the Midwest of the US and went to school in Canada and became Canadian. Through this experience, and being in various churches with "Cradle-Orthodox" has brought me a deeper fullness in understanding cultural differences and perspectives.

Milton T. Burton said...

I can give you the Primitive Baptist perspective: I grew up being taught that this was one of the better countries on earth, and that this wasn't saying a whole hell of a lot given the fallen nature of man. I remember when I was in my twenties finding some of my grandmother's church newspapers from the WWII era. I was much surprised because the temper of the articles in them was so much different from the temper of what was afoot in the culture at large. They pointed out that war, while sometimes necessary, was always evil and a sin against both God and man. There was no triumphalism to be found in them, but rather a skepticism toward all human institutions and motives.

Note: John, I cannot remember which of us found Bacevich first, but he is the true heir to Kennan. As such, if anyone in power ever bothers to heed him, they will get it wrong just as they did with Kennan himself.

Milton T. Burton said...

And as I try to tell people (with little success), true patriotism is loyalty to land, people and culture. It is not mindless obedience to whatever gang of thugs happens to be running the government at the moment.

John said...

you are right in that being Orthodox, by its very nature, exposes you to a different cultural perspective. But beyond that, it is altering my self perception. I am no less a Caucasian Southern American than before, but somehow I find that, and it's necessary allegiances, less important than before.

You raise an important point. While I think that there has always been a strain of American exceptionalism in our history, it hasn't always carried the day, and has often been the domain of fringe elements. But it certainly played a part in our acquisition of territory throughout our history. The idea went mainstream, however, with Reagan, his "City on a Hill," and the marriage of the traditional GOP base with movement conservatives. Every President since has gone along with it, with Bill Clinton laying it on as thick as anyone. Even Obama gives lip service to the concept, though it remains to be seen to what extent.

The frightening thing about it is how many people just assume that it has forever been thus--much like Premillenial dispensationalists assume that their late 19th-century convuluted eschatological theories have been the thinking of Christians throughout the ages. And I might add, there is no small relationship between these 2 misconceptions.

Milton T. Burton said...

Premillenialism is ancient and respectable though I do not agree with it. Dispensationalism dates from about 1850. Historically speaking, science fiction dates from about the same time. I will leave the conclusion to you.

Milton T. Burton said...

Clinton was not a bad president though he was something of a bad man, largely due to the fact that he had no more morals than a weasel on speed.

John said...

No, in retrospect he was not such a bad president (in domestic policy only), but a huckster of the first order. I was just observing how his rhetoric, as much as Reagan's, played up to the idea of American exceptionalism.

Milton T. Burton said...

I understood that and am in agreement. The truth is that Clinton was a highly intelligent version of Flem Snopes.

Kirk said...

The Methodist minister fails to see the irony in the words of his prayer, "Wherever there is injustice and wherever there is an abuse of civil rights, American military personnel is there."

Reminiscent of this famous quote: "Wherever there is injustice, you will find us. Wherever there is suffering, we'll be there. Wherever liberty is threatened, you will find...

...The Three Amigos!"

Milton T. Burton said...

It reminds me of Casey's speech near the end of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath."

Kirk said...

Forgive me for assuming the Methodist minister would be a man! :)

Milton T. Burton said...

I want to meet a Methodist who can tell me what "the method" is.

The Scylding said...

Milton, I think your defintion of patriotism is very helpful: But what I, as a "ghastly outsider" (to quote Wodehouse) see eminating from our neighbour to the south is often nothing else than unmitigated nationalism/imperialism (especially coming from F_x), in the politcal, cultural and commercial sense.

I'm quite the Anglophile (as any of my blog readers can attest), with good Anglo Saxon & Norman ancestors as well, but I know what damage that Imperialist mindset can do - as my ancestors where very much at the receiving end of British Imperilaism. That is why I would adivse my American friends to go and look at the same debate as it raged in England at the end of the nineteenth century. Chesterton was at the forefront of the old Liberals called the "Little Englanders". Of course, these same people carried the day at the polling booth less than a decade after the Imperialist forces placed some of my ancestors in concentration camps, killing tens of thousands...

But, the became enmeshed in the politcs of the day, till the First World War came upon the scene. What should America do know? If the courage would only be there to reject the pernicious doctrine of American Exceptionalism! Such doctrines always destroys in the long run, be it the British, or the Germans, or the Romans, or the Afrikaners, or whoever.

But as the old saying goes, it seems that the only lesson we can learn from history is that nobody ever learns from history.

Milton T. Burton said...

I am a fan of Chesterton's and a "Little America" man. I think my observation about patriotism is more than "helpful." It is the very essence of the matter. Take Robert E. Lee. He opposed both slavery and secession. He was offered complete command of all the Union armies. He declined because, as he said, he could not raise his sword against his family and friends and the people he had grown up with. I go back to E.M. Forster's remark that if he had to make the choice between betraying his country or his friends, then he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. Nationalism is an abstraction, and I am both weary and suspicious of abstractions. As Goethe said, "Theories are gray while real life is green."

Milton T. Burton said...

We will not give up our imperial ambitions. There is something in them for everybody. Read the NY TIMES. The liberals there would get us out of Iraq (which they supported in the first place) and then have us spend our treasure bring sweetness and light to the blighted parts of the world like Africa. The right wingers will never relent on their obsession that the rest of the world can be flogged into shape. The messianic impulse is too deeply embedded in our national psyche.

We once had a strong anti-imperialist movement in this country, one that was founded by such luminaries as Mark Twain, former president Cleveland, and William Graham Sumner. Their reasoned admonitions were buried under the squeals and squawks of the hysterical jingos.

The one thing that takes the greatest leap of faith for me is not the notion that Christ died for his people, but that they were worth him dying for them. Sometimes I think that humanity was a dreadful mistake in the first place.

John said...

I admire a man who can quote the classics with such ease.

John said...

First things first--stop watching F_x! It is scary, not so much for what they say, as it is for the knowledge of their legions of followers who believe that F_x and F_x alone is the Gospel. I would not disagree with your impression of what is emanating from our side of the border.

And thanks for the tie-in to Chesterton. I am not surprised. (As an aside, didn't even Chesterton, though, get swept-up in the war ferver during WWI?)

For me, the big question about Obama is whether he buys into AE. He gives some lip service to it, but I suspect he only half believes it, if that. We shall see.

I am not optimistic about changing our attitudes. But if enough people would simply stop and say "Now wait a minute!" whenever someone voices some of these idiocies--whether it be your neighbor or your congressman--then maybe there could be some progress.
Bottom line: we have to replace hubris with humility, and that is always tough.

John said...

I know that your observations are never merely helpful, but always essential--Ha! But I do draw back from your final observation, as we are created in His image.

The Scylding said...

I don't watch F_x. But I sometimes interact with people who do. And sometimes Jon Stewart "quotes" them. And then sometimes their insanities reach even the CBC - there was a case some months ago where they said the most unimaginable things about Canada's military, ignoring the over 100 lives Canada has sacrificed in Afghanistan. The Canadian government demanded an apology, and they gave a real half-_ss one. It was downright dastardly...

But that aside. Attitudes can change, but rarely do. I really feel for folks like you trying to maintain a sense of humility and blalance in the environment you live in. Not to worship the Imperial Cult, yet to remain a loyal Roman, is a very fine line. I hope with you that Obama manages to make a start on changing those attitudes. But it won't be done in 4 or 8 years. It takes more than a generation - or a massive overhaul of the politcal landscape.

Hilarius said...


Re: your question in original post -

I'm not sure that coming to the Orthodox Church has changed my attitudes about what you call American Exceptionalism . . . I'd already had a good dunking of cold water realism in watching laws get made, applied, and fought about, as well as watching (and participating in) the process of scientific inquiry and the like before ever I set foot in an Orthodox Church. Moreover, I've seen the reality of modern warfare.

So with healthy skepticism I've watched our work in the world. It's been good and its been bad. Are we 'indispensable'? Perhaps for the moment our economy and our security operations are essential to the maintenance of the current world order (such as it is), but so much can also be said of the G-8and China, perhaps.

What has changed for me, becoming Orthodox, has been a steady movement to see much of the larger political machinations in the world as interesting but not of too much relevance compared with the realities of individual interactions with people, whatever their nation or background.

If you look at our Lord's ministry, he seems indifferent to the larger movements of political discourse, and perfectly happy to focus his attention on a Samaritan Woman here, a Centurion there, a Tax Collector on over yonder, as well as beggars, religious elites, diseased outcasts, etc.

He does not worry about concepts of Roman Imperialism that I can see, or political implications of puppet governments such as Herod's as it relates to social justice in the region.

But he does notice the blind man at the pool, Zaccheus in the tree, and sees to the depths of their souls, and heals them.

I've also come to appreciate the paradox of Orthodoxy that we laud as Saints some pretty shady characters - folks like Mary of Egypt, or Abba Moses, or Emperor Constatine (not to mention Saul of Tarsus or King David). I do not say this in disrespect, but only to say that there is that in Orthodoxy that reminds me, more than ever I found in my previous upbringing, that even those with violence, and rivers of blood on their hands, and untold shame are not necessarily irredeemable.

Re: Mr. Burton's last comment - one of my favorite quotes from a Graham Greene novel is appropos:

"Shall I tell you what I've done? -- It's your business to listen. I've taken money from women to do you know what, and I've given money to boys . . . "

"I don't want to hear"

"It's your business."

"You're mistaken."

"Oh no I'm not. You can't deceive me. Listen. I've given money to boys -- you know what I mean. And I've eaten meat on Fridays." The awful jumble of the gross, the trivial and the grotesque show up between the two yellow fangs and the hand on the priest's ankle shook and shook with the fever. "I've told lies, I haven't fasted in Lent for I don't know how many years. Once I had two women -- I'll tell you what I did ..." He had an immense self-importance: he was unable to picture a world of which he was only a typical part--a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession--Man was so limited: he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard around you, the greater glory lay around the death: it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization. It needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt. . . . .
- The Whiskey Priest and the Mestizo from Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory

-Eric John

Milton T. Burton said...

Hilarius, what I said was meant to be ironic. And I don't do irony very often. It was not the great evils I was thinking of. It was the little banalities. It was the fact that we sell our souls so cheaply.

John said...


Coming to Orthodoxy didn't in and off itself directly address American Exceptionalism for me. What it did do, however, was force me to look at myself honestly (to the extent possible for us), to discard the pretense and excuses, and see myself as I really am, that is, the lowest of sinners. This process is ever ongoing in Orthodoxy. It has been much like coming out of a long slumber, or stupor, and adjusting your eyes to the light. In so doing, such notions as American exceptionalism, quickly fall by the wayside.

I appreciate your articulation of what I was struggling to say, namely:

"What has changed for me, becoming Orthodox, has been a steady movement to see much of the larger political machinations in the world as interesting but not of too much relevance compared with the realities of individual interactions with people, whatever their nation or background."

Your observations about our saints are much appreciated, as well.

Hilarius said...

Mr. Burton - indeed, we sell our souls for the trivial; that's why I thought the quote fitting - it truly takes a God to die for we half-hearted and corrupt humans. I certainly did not intend to offend or seem rude in reply, and my apologies if I did.

John - unfortunately mine's a terribly written comment - the dangers of slapdashing out something in a combox . . . it's not very articulate, but thanks!

Milton T. Burton said...

Hilarius, I'm not quite sure what you are talking about. I was far from offended by anything you posted. Good exchange.

Steve Hayes said...

Many years ago, when Namibia was still under South African rule, two friends of mine went to have dinner with an American foreign affairs fundi, George Kennan, who was sussing out the place, and wanted to get their view on the situation.

They came away with the impression that he was utterly naive, and gave the impression that all he had to do was to get one of his contacts to press a button in the womb of the Pentagon, and all Namibia's problems would be instantly solved.

We later discovered that he was fairly well respected in the US, but if that is the kind of foreign policy advisor that US governments listen to, no wonder US foreign policy is such a mess. If the people who are supposed to know what is going on are so naive, who can blame Methodist ministers for getting it wrong?

Milton T. Burton said...

Kennan certainly got it right in the late 40s with his prediction that the Soviet Union was unsustainable. He gave it forty years and it lasted forty three from that time. Not bad. He was also author of the Containment Policy, which was the longest sustained foreign policy in U.S. history. I suggest you check his record a little more closely before you condemn him. And please remember that he cut his teeth in the diplomatic service. If you thought him naive it is probably because that is what he wanted you to think. Diplomats operate by Talleyrand's dictum: "When a diplomat says 'yes,' he means 'maybe.' When he says 'maybe' he means 'no,' and when he says 'no,' he is no diplomat."

Ron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RiverC said...

I share much of Hilarius' view on this. I used to watch Fox because I saw that CNN and such wore liberal blinders. Coming to Orthodoxy in various ways caused me to discard my conservative blinders (both the liberal and conservative are 'Great America' positions.)

I feel for the Canadian, as Fox news expresses - while without a certain set of blinders - a Great America perspective, it is nonetheless the flip side of the CNN/MSNBC coin. As a person who comes from the 'other side of the aisle' (they say being mugged by life makes you conservative) CNN and MSNBC - as well as Stewart and his ilk - contain just as many offensive ignorances as Fox.

Anyway, I didn't come all this way to place on a new set of blinders.

I came to be sympathetic to the Chesterton perspective early on - I recall previously that my technocratic mind thought 'nepotism' meant hiring someone you know. Oh! So much for the experts these days, you know? But it's all truly nepotistic, i.e. hiring those who are incompetent just because you know them or can put the screws to them.

Chesterton's perspective took awhile to work on my AE perspective, mostly because I thought at first that it made the liberals 'correct' and the conservatives 'wrong' - it took awhile, but I began to see how the liberals of our era are engaged in just a different 'side' of the same AE.

Obama, sadly, is the newest version of the left's AE. I would have hoped our first black guy to get elected prez would do a better job, but based on the ascendancy of what is being called 'Great America' it cannot be otherwise. The way America will be humbled is in Obama's failure; first the right fails miserably, and then the left. This leaves no room for either side to be triumphant.

Also, I think Reagan's 'City on a Hill' was just the conservative variant of Johnson's 'Great Society'. He may have introduced the right to 'Great America' but it certainly came before him.

I agree on Clinton. He was like the anti-Carter: Too good a politican, too bad a man.

John said...


Good points. I agree with your basic premise re: F_x vs. the other side of the aisle, but in matter of degrees, I do believe that F_x is in a class all by itself.

And yes, AE knows no political boundaries: Johnson-Reagan-Clinton-Bush-Obama, American Exceptionalists all. Clinton and crew were no slackers when it came to AE, and Obama has used the rhetoric (though still too early to judge how far he will carry it.) Though Reagan's articulation of the theme and Bush's excesses have tended to brand the GOP with it, the ideology is common to both parties.

Milton T. Burton said...

The theory of American Exceptionalism is held by many millions who have never heard the term. It is reinforced in thousands upon thousands of churches and schoolrooms and in hundreds of media outlets, both left and right, even including such venerable liberal rags as the NY TIMES. In its right wing version it is God who has chosen us to be the moral arbiters of all mankind. In the left wing version it is "fate" or more often "the forces of history" or some other pseudo-mystical nonsense. It is pernicious in either version because it treats people---and particularly our young soldiers---as something other than autonomous human beings with lives and hopes of their own.