President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.
The President proclaimed that in choosing to act against ISIS, America was assuming its role as leader of the free world. “This is American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom; and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.” Such leadership, he went on, is necessary and is a bulwark for freedom around the world:
Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America — our scientists, our doctors, our know-how — that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people — or the world — again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.
America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia — from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East — we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding. Tonight, I ask for your support in carrying that leadership forward.
The President continued with the theme, calling upon the example of American led bombing of ISIS position that helped rescue Yazidi refugees:
When we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant mountain, here’s what one of them said. “We owe our American friends our lives. Our children will always remember that there was someone who felt our struggle and made a long journey to protect innocent people.”
That is the difference we make in the world. And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.
May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.
When the President speaks of American exceptionalism, conservatives disbelieve him, insisting that he does not really love America. Liberals, on the other hand, cringe, embarrassed to hear an American President puff up his chest with American hubris, suggesting that America is specially and God-chosen to lead the free world. But there is another reaction, that simply argues that whether American exceptionalism was once a force for good or for evil, it is disappearing.
For centuries, America was in fact different from most other industrial and capitalist democracies. It was more religious. Americans were more convinced that their country was a force for good in the world. Immigration were welcomed more freely. And class divisions were less present while economic mobility and the American dream was more possible. America was truly different, as visitors had recognized since Alexis de Tocqueville.
But today those differences are diminished. Americans, and especially younger Americans, are no longer more religious than their contemporaries in Europe. Americans, and especially younger Americans, are no longer more likely than people elsewhere to think their has a special role in the world. Economic mobility is no longer more palpable in the United States than elsewhere. And static class differences, something America avoided even amidst eras of conspicuous wealth, have emerged and solidified. What is more, America looks, to many, as just another self-interested imperialist power rather than the savior of the free world.
The meaning of the loss of American exceptionalism, celebrated by some and bemoaned by many, is the topic of the upcoming Hannah Arendt Center conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?” In preparing for the conference last week, I taught Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. Murray will be speaking at the conference and his book is largely about the rise of class divisions in the United States, a development that he argues has split America into two countries, rich and poor. The “coming apart” of America risks undermining what Murray calls the “American project,” the moral and spiritual virtues that “has made America America.”
The basic conceit of Coming Apart is twofold: First, that the wealthiest elite of American society are segregating themselves in super elite bubbles of privilege and excess. There were always rich Americans and wealthy neighborhoods, but today there are “superzips” where nearly everyone is white, wealthy, college educated, and part of a broad or even narrow elite. The residents of this elite world “share tastes, preferences, and culture.” They rarely interact with the poor or uneducated and they are fully out of touch with mainstream America. “They are increasingly isolated. The new isolation involves spatial, economic, educational, cultural, and, to some degree, political isolation.” In short, Murray argues, the elite for the first time in American history “increasingly constitute[s] a class.”
Second, Murray argues that the poorest Americans—he limits himself only to considering white Americans to isolate issues of class rather than race—are no longer a fringe class of societal outcasts. While there were always poor people who were distinct from the working class, the white working class is now poor. The poverty of the working class is both economic and cultural, but the impact of the change is that the working class lives increasingly in isolated and dysfunctional communities that impact the “ability of people to live satisfying lives.” For Murray, we witness the “formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known.” He argues, “the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what made America America.”
Murray’s focus on the resurgence of class—and his relentless skewering of the insular and out-of-touch nature of the elite—fits him well within the current liberal Zeitgeist that worries about the rise of the 1% as well as the less vocal minority of liberals who insist on reminding us of the desperate plight of the poor. But Murray is not a liberal. He is the author of both Losing Ground, which argued against welfare, and The Bell Curve (with Richard J. Herrnstein), which argued that intelligence both predicts worldly success and is becoming unevenly distributed across class and racial lines. In Coming Apart, Murray leaves race out of the picture and focuses solely on class.
Murray differs from the mainstream accounts of class by attributing both elite privilege and poor despair to the loss of virtue. “The new upper-class culture is not the product of great wealth. It is enabled by affluence—people with common tastes and preferences need enough money to be able to congregate—but it is not driven by affluence.” The crisis of the elite is driven by a crisis of virtue that has produced an “elite that is hollow at the core.”
In short, Murray argues that the elite live in their bubbles of privilege, but they believe in nothing. They suffer from a “loss of self-confidence. The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost the self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.” For Murray, this means that the elite largely works hard, earns money, stays married, and raises obedient children, but they won’t stand up and say that such a lifestyle is better than the lifestyle of the poor working class, where white males increasingly don’t work, women raise children out of wedlock, and the miserable cycle of poverty persists. The nonjudgmentalism of the elite, Murray suggests, “looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping the good stuff to itself.”
An excellent account of the hollow core of the new elite is William Deresiewicz’s new book Excellent Sheep. “Education,” Deresiewicz writes, “is the way that a society articulates its values.” If that is so, we can look to elite education to understand the virtues the elite values. At our most elite universities, he argues with good grounds, we teach students to fear failure. “The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.” This is true in our universities, but also in our extracurricular lives, where the impossible demand for security and comfortable living threatens to transform the American dream, that “Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them.” Primed for success and terrified of falling out of the elite lottery, the elite are taught to value above all the fact of being in the elite.
And yet, too many of these young people who go to elite schools deny their elite status. They dress down, embrace the counter culture, and imagine themselves middle class. They adopt a reliably liberal posture and identify themselves on the side of the common man. Posing as allies of the poor and downtrodden, they avoid actually owning their responsibility as members of the elite, the responsibility to articulate virtues and live virtuously in a way that influences and serves as a model for the country at large.
Murray prefers not to speak about values, but virtues. He identifies four founding American virtues: Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religiosity. And he worries that both the wealthy elite and the poor underclass are abandoning those virtues. We should judge as unseemly CEOs like Ken Lewis who drove Bank of America to insolvency, was never fired, and then finally resigned with a $125 million golden parachute, on top of the many millions he took home while bankrupting his company during the boom years. But we should also judge as unseemly the extraordinary retreat of white working age males from the work force. Murray cites compelling evidence—I’ll admit to not having verified it—that while some of the unemployed white males are industrious and looking for jobs, the “average [white] jobless man” is “less industrious than they had been twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago.” For Murray, there is a double retreat from adult responsibility going on. Working class white men are abdicating their responsibilities to work and elite white men are refusing their responsibility to judge them and act as leaders who would articulate the virtues for a successful and thriving society.
The question Murray raises is simple: Are there American virtues that make America America? Teaching Murray’s book at Bard College elicited an outpouring of sentiment on both sides of this question and showed students to be truly animated with the question of what, if anything, America does and should mean. It is an essential question today, and will be the topic of the upcoming Arendt Center Conference on Oct. 9-10 at Bard College where Murray will be one of the featured speakers. Murray’s book is your weekend read.