Monday, June 7, 2010

The View from Afar

My blog-related google news filter caught this article about American patriotism in the Irish Times. It's rather episodic and shallow in its analysis of an impossibly huge topic for a standard newspaper article to capture, but the patently shocked tone it takes in reporting its findings about American political culture is worth considering. The concept of American exceptionalism, taken so much for granted by most citizens of this nation, appears to be particularly foreign to the writer.

The implied thesis of the piece is that European nations have learned the historical lessons of their experiences with fascism, while the United States has not. This is a more interesting assertion than a crude survey of flag-related Americana, particularly since there is a great deal of difference between popular American patriotism and the right-wing nationalist movements of contemporary Europe. The intervening experience of the Cold War, during which the United States found it quite necessary with the rest of the West in shambles to assert itself as the hope of the world, weighs heavily in any answer. But I think it is safe to say that some of the more millennialist-mided among us have not thought long or hard about the similarities between the metaphysical relationship they see existing between nation and the divine and that of the fascist worldview.

Maybe there's a reciprocal exceptionalism at wok here, too. In my only experience attending a conference on foreign soil (in exotic Oxford, UK) I came to the rescue of my friend and fellow American historian Carl, who was arguing with a Danish student about what I thought was the American invasion of Iraq -- which we, of course, opposed as well. It turned out that Carl was defending the American military intervention in Afghanistan, on the grounds that the then-small American presence there was harming Afghan civilians. The European experience, I gathered, had demonstrated that no military adventure, no matter the purpose, was worth the blood of any innocent soul. Having grown up in a county that had lost scores of equally innocent civilians on September 11th, I found this moral relativism upsetting. I was proud my nation had deposed the Taliban and had wished the incompetence of the Bush Administration had not prevented our military might from unleashing more death upon such fanatics. Feeling this way did not make me a fascist or even particularly patriotic, nor did it force me to disregard the lessons of Hitler. It felt more like a defense of principles and ideals that were not exceptional to the American experience and that me and my dining partners from other Western European nations held so in common as to be unremarkable. They were principles and ideals that many Afghans likely ascribed to, too.

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