A Review of the First Page of "To Save America"

During the promotion of Newt Gingrich's latest book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular Socialist Machine", the former Speaker of the House defended his position when confronted by Chris Wallace with a quote from his book:

"The secular socialist machine [President Obama's Administration] represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.
-- Gingrich "To Save America"

Though Mr. Gingrich has carefully parsed his words speaking of threats and not equivalences, the emotional impact of putting a freely elected and legitimate American President Administration in the same sentence as Nazi and Soviet is still repulsive, hyperbole, and red meat for radical conservative right.

OK - So there are a lot of voices in this wilderness. Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck are spouting similar non-sense everyday. However they do so from a contrived cadence much as a comedian uses in telling jokes but instead of a punchline they artfully develop straw men and set them on fire for effect, the hallmark of seasoned propagandists.  

Mr. Gingrich on the other hand has placed considerable intellectual thought into his transformation from a self described historian scholar to propagandist.  His assertions have to be challenged with more than sneers, snarks, and raise eyes.  His arguments have to be completely demolished, for unlike the others he actually proposes "solutions" based upon these lies.

OK - I can see the raised eyes now.  You are aghast that I would even consider reading the book much less thrusting it upon my fellow Kossacks. Before you race to the end to write your little snark, hear me out for a moment.  No I did not buy the book, that's what libraries are for and in this day samples from Amazon.  Second I was not planning to write a review.  In fact, reading the first couple of pages so enraged me that I was utterly repulsed.

But then I thought there ought to be a way of breaking down the arguments critically. Use my primate brain rather than my reptilian brain.  Make no mistake, that is exactly what propaganda does, speaks to the reptilian non-rational, emotional, fearful, jingoistic, bigoted them-against-us part of our mental being.  Gingrich's book does exactly that using patriotic subtext with selective historic antidotes to pretend to be rational and intellectually based.

Who We Are

In the first sentence of the first chapter, Gingrich is equating our current time to the days before the Civil War.

For the first time since the Civil War, we as Americans have to ask the most fundamental question possible: "Who are we?" - Ibid, Chapter 1, paragraph 1

Hold on a moment! Who was asking this question back then?  The northern whites? They probably knew how they felt about slavery.  The black slaves? They probably knew who they were and undoubtedly knew they wanted to be something else.  Maybe the southern white plantation gentry?  Nope - they were pretty sure what they wanted and any doubts and internal soul searching came latter.  The small white southern farmers? Nah, they were too busy struggling to keep one notch above the negro slaves. So what is the evidence that people before the Civil War asked this question, and that this was the last time this question was asked?

That boring historical stuff - like creditable citations, original primary sources, scholarly attribution, etc - would interfere with the flow of the narrative.  So don't expect a scholarly presentation where one can check references and verify assertions.  Just sit back and allow the narrative to flow and wash over your reptilian brain. Trust the Newt - you will come out in a good place at the end.

Actually, we are questioning who we are now.  To me, the election of Barack Obama was a watershed point were we are making a transition in our national identity over what it has been for the last 30 years of conservative rule even the last two centuries of mostly non-reflective rule. Will we return to our selfish materialistic lives or take another path, one where we work together to solve our problems?  Of course, to the conservative right, working together is verboten and will be labeled socialist, since the ideal is individualism which means easier to isolate and exploit. If we are going to solve any of the critical problems facing us, we will need to work together for change.

I am sure there are many that do not take delight or relief from this development nor that it has taken place within a period of such crisis, uncertainty, and fear.  Clearly this is the audience that Newt is trying to reach and recruit.

Radical Left-Wing Elite

Moving on to the next paragraph.  Can't write good propaganda without a vaguely defined frightening threat with a face on it.  Later in Chapter 2, Newt will develop his uber boogie - the Obama Secular Socialist Machine - presumably because many in the administration come from the infamous Chicago machine - as opposed to Cheney's (take your pick) American Enterprise Institute, Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition of America, Backwell'sLeadership Institute, astro turfing Americans for Prosperity, Carl Rove's  political action groups and of course Fox News and Newsmax, all right-wing propaganda and political action machines out of the 800 right-wing machines chugging along throughout the country.

But the narrative cannot proceed without a boggy man so for the moment "radical left-wing elite" will have to do.  What this means in code will be discussed in a separate post, when I review the second page of the book.  Later we will find out, that this group is also secular, meaning God-less. Gingrich will attempt to use this to further strike fear in the God-fearing.

Whatever this group is, Obama is its face.  President Barack Obama, an intelligent, well spoken, considerate of all points of view, reverent as well as patriotic, moderate in speech and demeanor, kind and conciliatory, at times heart thumping inspirational and most times pedantic speaking in complete sentences, always cool and ever handsome with a family so beautiful and cute that one's eyes weep. This man is the face of the evil threat.  How can that be?  There has to be some subtext or other reason that I am not privy too!  (Keep in mind that fundamentalist end of world theology is so utterly twisted that such a person of remarkable character can be considered the Anti-Christ, but I am sure there is more. You think?)

So what is the fundamental source of this evil and the disruption to the American way of life?

Most of us know who we are. We know that America is an exceptional country with unique genius for combining freedom and order, strength and compassion, religious faith and religious tolerance. But today we have given power in Washington and in state capitols nationwide to a radical left-wing elite that does not believe in American exceptionalism.

-- Ibid, Chapter 1, paragraph 3

That's it?  Oh and an unattributed quote from Barack Obama that he does not believe in American Exceptionalism, even though the quote says he does:

I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism"
-- Barack Obama allegedly to a Financial Times reporter (emphasis mine).

I suppose Gingrich is upset that Obama felt the need to qualify his exceptionalism.

So if I can show that this statement is false in its alleged implications [Obama does not believe in American exceptionalism] and that the basic premise [radical left-wing elite does not believe in American exceptionalism] is equally not true then since this is the foundation for all that follows, everything else falls apart and we can go home. OK?

American Exceptionalism: Gingrich Interpretation and Conservative Right

Let's have Newt take first stab at defining what he believes is exceptional.

To put it plainly, America is facing an existential threat - and it comes from a movement that fundamentally rejects the traditional American conception of who we are.

  1. No longer, in the Left's view, are we the Americans of the frontier, the sturdy, independent farmers;

  2. No longer are we America the capitalist colossus serving as the arsenal of democracy;

  3. No longer are we the America that believes our liberty is an unalienable right that comes from God.

-- Ibid, Chapter 1, paragraph 3 (emphasis and diagramming mine).

[Yes I realize that I am showing some contempt by referring to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives for the United States of America by his first name.  At least I am not referring to him as the Newt. Well maybe once. Maybe I should do a poll?]

So we are looking at here is "the traditional American conception" of exceptionalism. But why these three?  Don't they seem an odd choice? The first comes right out of Fredrick Jackson Turner and his Frontier Thesis that the American character had been shaped by the frontier. He proposed it at a time, 1893, when the last frontiers were closing and he wondered what would happen when expansion stopped. It seems that would be a time when Americans would be asking "Who are we?".  Just saying.

But why farmers? My family on my mother's side were farmers in Ohio. I would spend summers on a farm as kid. Yep sturdy hardworking but when were we last defined as a nation of farmers (18th Century) and how can this be relevant today in the age of AIG and BP; Halliburton and Blackwater, Apple and Google?  When was the last time we where the arsenal of democracy? World War II? Oh yes, we do provide weapons as an export but it's not necessarily to protect democracy, at least not the way we did in World War II. But note the dig to the secularist in the third exception - "comes from God".  Oh, that's gotta hurt.

The oddness of these choices makes sense if one considers the three major pillars of the coalition that makes up American Conservatism and include the Libertarians that are a major factor in the Tea Party movement:
Fiscal ConservativesCapitalist ColossusUnfettered Free Marketsnot really free and seldom competitive but are highly subsidized by the government starting with farmers
Neo ConservativesArsenal of DemocracyBush Doctrinefree to preemptively attack anywhere and justify war at anytime
Social ConservativeGod Given LibertyChristian Moralizationfree to take liberty from other groups including woman, gays, Muslims, and illegal aliens or any looking like them justified by moral outrage.
LibertariansSturdy IndividualLocalismfree to discriminate and exclude with return to tribalism.

Let's overlook that these can be interpreted as variations of Manifest Destiny, an aggressive variation of American exceptionalism justifying taking actions based solely on our "virtue as a people".  Hmm - seems familiar, right? You get the sinking feeling nothing has changed - the same deal these factions made in the 70's gets returned without reflection or evaluation. As though the devastating collapse we have come through these last 3 years has no meaning and that the premises of their beliefs are not responsible. None the less, there is something that tickles the cockles of each faction, so they can turn off their thinkers and allow the narrative continue to wash over them. Newt has got their beat.

The third and fourth columns represent the conservative ideal and progressive concern with each of these political philosophies when invigorated by their exceptions. Obviously this is a poison pill that no self-respecting Radical Left-wing Elitist is going to accept.  Equally obvious this explains Obama's response to the Financial Times aka Fiscal Conservative reporter.  But then this is only the traditional view that resonates with "real Americans" as espoused during the 19th Century starting with President James Polk.

American exceptionalism: Common Interpretation and Progressive Left

The traditional is not necessarily the common interpretation of what makes America exceptional. The one that scholars are attempting to put together to explain America's uniqueness. The traditional is anchored in the past and is not necessarily how even our progenitors viewed themselves as Americans.  The common interpretation attempts to identify the aspects of the American character that remains a constant at least as an ideal throughout history including our current time in history.   Clearly, the President has called upon us at this time of economic crisis and external threats to "arise to our better history".

It is relevant to understand what does make America exceptional and as Obama has several times explained "a Union continually being made more perfect".  The reason is important to all of us. We have to understand why we participate at all in society not only to fight and die for it; but also to organize to better our environment; stuff envelopes, make phone calls, and knock on doors to promote a candidate we believe in; contribute our hard earn money and scarce time to a cause; or simply help our neighbors in need.  One might believe these are natural impulses of an engaged citizenry, but our natural state really is to be selfish and work for our own best interest.

What makes us move beyond ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, often requiring sacrifice of our own self interest - at times our very lives? For Americans this is especially critical since we are not bound nor primarily motivated by family, tribal, racial, ethnic, ancestral, or even religious loyalties. In addition, we must learn to relish diversity. So what gets most Americans out of the house each day at least subconsciously to do any service for their follow countryman?

The basis most commonly cited for American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and its people differ from other nations, at least on a historical basis, as an association of people who came from numerous places throughout the world but who hold a common bond in standing for certain self-evident truths, like freedom, inalienable natural and human rights, democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, civil liberty, civic virtue, the common good, fair play, private property, and Constitutional government.
-- American Exceptionalism: Common Interpretations Wikipedia

This provides a rather organic view of what makes America exceptional and allows for a spectrum of political views to interpret and emphasize different features of our character.  For example, Glen Beck for some reason obsesses on republicanism. However these features should be taken as whole and not a Chinese menu: democracy and republicanism, liberty and civil virtues, rule of law and fair play, etc.

The progressive view is that we accept that we are a diverse society and that the freedoms, rights and opportunities must extend to all in that society.  Where a conservative might interpret freedom as the right to discriminate and exclude others, maybe even have a gun to shot some, the progressive advocates freedom from discrimination and from intrusion by society in our private lives and public identities. We expect rule of law  to provide equal protection of minorities from the mob majority especially when they are not so silent.

A civil virtue is tolerance, and civil liberty is the right to vote and freedom to have open discourse of ideas without propaganda or intimidation. The common theme is inclusion and extension of inalienable rights to all and as the President has stated - "perfect our union to include those who in the past were excluded".

These I propose are some of the progressive ideals that define American exceptionalism.  So Newt's primary thesis is completely wrong - the progressive left does indeed believe that America is exceptional but also believes that America can better manifest its ideals and attract others through our example rather than our bluster.  

I can fully understand that this would not be good news to Newt and his ilk but it better defines the struggle between a nation changing to 21st Century realities to Newt's returning to a Pastoral Protestant Christian Anglo Segregated society of the 19th Century and had its last golden days in the 50's marred only by Communist paranoia and hysteria.

One would think that a world view that is so exemplary, so exceptional would not be threatened by Communism, or Socialism, or even much less Radical Islamic Terrorist. But no, to conservatives the enemy has to be named and vilified at all times. It must arise to put down the "Secular Socialist Machine" and continually put its imprint of fear on world politick. Even when the "socialist" threat is early 90s moderate Republican-ist and only begins to address over 100 years of struggle for "fair play" in health care.

American exceptionalism: Obama's Interpretation

To leave no doubt that Gingrich's Thesis is totally bankrupt and that everything else in the book fails as result, let me simply review Obama's interpretation, which in some cases parallels even Gingrich's view to a point.

The following quotes are from Barack Obama's Inaugural Speech. There have been hundreds of speeches that express Obama's view and vision of America.  But this was heard by many people and witnessed by millions of "radical left-wing elite" Americans that stood out in the cold on that January day on the Nation's Mall.


No longer [in the Left's view] are we America the capitalist colossus serving as the arsenal of democracy;


In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Note in Obama's interpretation the people take precedence over corporations (aka colossus) in Gingrich's case and that the people make more than weapons, they build prosperity and freedom.  Can it be that we have more freedoms now than when the nation began?  It makes one think.  Gingrich view? Not so much. What with "colossus" and "arsenal", it seems more Pinky and the Brain.


No longer, in the Left's view, are we the Americans of the frontier, the sturdy, independent farmers;


For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.
For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

In Obama's interpretation he includes a larger more comprehensive cast of players on the American scene but does include the farmer as well as the factory worker that has toiled under brutal man-made conditions. Also  Obama references slavery, a topic missing in Gingrich's view, something the founding fathers did not address and latter we had to expunge from our "traditional" American character.


No longer [in the Left's view] are we the America that believes our liberty is an unalienable right that comes from God.


The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Note that idea of equality and freedom encompassing all is a distinctive progressive ideal contrasted against the Right's meritocracy - a meritocracy that has not rewarded merit nor provided mobility under Conservative stewardship.  During the period when productivity doubled, wages remained flat for all except the top executives.

In response to those that would identify the essence of the modern American character as centered in individual ambition and initiative, that was nicely exposed as vacuous in fizzicks recommended dairy contrasting Carly Fiorina's self serving with William Hewlett and David Packer's original ideals for American enterprise, Obama's response is


They saw America as bigger that the sum of our individual ambitions: greater that than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

So both the progressive left and President Barack Obama have a concept of American exceptionalism (with a lower case 'e'), however both repudiate Newt Gingrich and Conservative right's American Exceptionalism (with an upper case 'E'), which just another form of Manifest Destiny or belief that we can act solely and unilaterally based upon our virtue.

So this is the true battle-line between Conservative and Progressive. This is what riles Gingrich and his ilk - that we are being called upon to something greater than ourselves - develop civil virtues and promote civil liberties - come to the aid of each other just as those sturdy individual farmers came together to build a barn or help each other survive.

Differences are expected but the differences here are not sufficient for the demonizing and demagoguery of our President, who has expressed a vision that is well within the mainstream of American thought and experience.

Mr. Gingrich now proposes a new agenda with its own 10 points of action. He has proposals to address the problems we face now but never was addressed during 30 years of conservative rule: health care reform, energy independence, human induced climate change, security without sacrifice of civil liberties or human rights, real economic development and growth. He will address all these but first requires that we accept conservative premises that have already been shown to be bankrupt and never motivated the change necessary to even consider these issues over the last 30 years. Since Gingrich has stooped to propaganda and false assertions, his "solutions" must be excluded from the national discourse, for he would have us swallow a poison pill of lies and deceit.

quod erat demonstrandum

Originally posted to What Who Me on Mon Jun 14, 2010 at 03:52 PM PDT.

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