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Barack Obama’s re-election has opened a divide on the American Left.  For many of us, this president represents an epic shift toward a more diverse, tolerant and liberal America - an affirmation of our country’s better nature.

While we don’t deny our nation’s severe problems, extreme inequality and historical contradictions, we’re celebrating - even gloating in - our triumph over our political opponents and look with great pleasure at the prospect of further marginalizing the republican right.

At the same time, we’re being warned by progressive “thought leaders” that we shouldn’t get carried away, that the U.S. is deeply flawed and a destructive global force.

This position was persuasively argued in a recent piece by Glenn Greenwald, who took us to task for buying into notions of American Greatness and “Exceptionalism":

It's certainly true that Americans are justifiably proud of certain nationalistic attributes: class mobility, ethnic diversity, religious freedom, large immigrant populations, life-improving technological discoveries, a commitment to some basic liberties such as free speech and press, historical progress in correcting some of its worst crimes. But all of those virtues are found in equal if not, at this point, greater quantity in numerous other countries. Add to that mix America's shameful attributes - its historic crimes of land theft, genocide, slavery and racism, its sprawling penal state, the company it keeps on certain human rights abuses, the aggressive attack on Iraq, the creation of a worldwide torture regime, its pervasive support for the world's worst tyrannies - and it becomes not just untenable, but laughable, to lavish it with that title.
I agree - in part - with Greenwald and others that American Exceptionalism has been horrifically abused as pretext for immoral policies.  And I recognize that right wing demagogues distort American Exceptionalism to create a populist, conservative, “constitutionalist” mythology to defend all forms of free enterprise and exploitation.

But I also reject the Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky view of a sinister and menacing U.S.  I've settled on a more benign position about my country, one which enables me to proudly identify as an American and participate in patriotic rituals like Pledging Allegiance (although I still refuse to sing "God Bless America").

My interpretation of modern history has certainly evolved since my "New Left" days of 40 years ago:

Post World War II America did indeed engage in much dirty business, but this nation had a pivotal role in containing and defeating communism, a system which was antithetical to any notion of just society, individual freedom and human rights.  The worst abuses and – yes – atrocities of the cold war (CIA coups in Guatemala, Iran and Chile and even the debacle in Vietnam) do not negate the essential role of the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment in extinguishing the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence.

And - as you would expect - my view of America in this post-post-World War II era confers on our military and national security apparatus a legitimate role in combating the barbaric and murderous strains among Islamic extremists.   Therefore, when I concede my general willingness to support the president’s drone attacks, I’m putting my faith in Obama as the personification of the good America facing up to the real dangers in this troubled and tragic world.

I prefer to offer an expansive, inclusive and progressive version of American Exceptionism which celebrates the struggle for social justice, collective action, civil rights and more.

I admit that at this stage in my life, a positive and hopeful belief system about my country's future is personally gratifying and restorative.  And I concede that my “feel good” nationalism may be partly a way to soothe a lifetime of political suffering.

Likewise, I wonder if some of  America’s harshest critics from the left are imposing their own unconscious pain on the rest of us?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kvetchnrelease

    Lou Siegel is a Labor educator and consultant, working with Los Angeles unions in communications, public policy and fundraising

    by laborlou on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 05:42:25 AM PST

  •  What's wrong with God Bless America? Also, angry (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WakeUpNeo

    groups abound on both sides. I think to be happy, which is probably the goal of most everyone, one needs to avoid being a causality of the turmoil roiling the planet. Not saying one shouldn't be an activist, just have a perspective that doesn't result in the anger I see in some many critics of the USA.

    "If the past sits in judgment on the present, the future will be lost." Winston Churchill

    by Kvetchnrelease on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 06:08:50 AM PST

  •  I will always err on the side of policy and not (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raboof, PhilK, zinger99, koNko, PhilJD

    personality. If that makes me a critic of the left for doing things I would not tolerate by the right, then so be it. Drone warfare and the never ending war on terror will last longer than this Democratic President, then what? All of a sudden people who gave support to this administration will turn into hypocrites by slamming future administrations for doing what they once supported?  I predict a huge upswing in the amount of pretzel logic employed by those on the left if the right ever regains the White House.

    "A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves." Edward R. Murrow

    by temptxan on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 06:40:29 AM PST

  •  I wonder how much better America could (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    zinger99, koNko

    have been if our forebears had paid attention to the deficiencies of our national government. Our forebears always responded, heroically, to the nation's call. They were willing to lay down their lives in order to preserve an America that did not exist. They swallowed the whole thing, hook-line-and-sinker. But when they gave up their lives and parts of their bodies to preserve that nation, that nation did not return the favor. But nothing I have said is news.

    The news would be if our generation were to break the pattern and liberate the People from the forces that control our government and work against the common good. Our forebears did not do it, but they did pass to us a chance to transform America into a nation we can all be proud of.

    Our forebears, the Founding Generation, the Emancipation Generation, the Greatest Generation, the Civil Rights Generation, and others all joined their hearts, hands, and brains and did many mighty things. There is one more mighty thing to be done. If not us, who? If not now, when?

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

    by hestal on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 07:24:42 AM PST

    •  Actually many didn't (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koNko

      From the beginning, there were always voices of resistance. The number of people shot, imprisoned, or forcibly deported for refusing to serve or calling loudly for peace during every war America has been involved in is astounding. And rarely something Americans today ever hear about.

      Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

      by moviemeister76 on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 08:45:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I've heard about almost all of my life. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        koNko

        It was in my American History books in high school and in college. I have seen television specials talking about it.

        I saw something about it almost daily on television news during the peak of the protests about the Vietnam War.

        I saw that the all-volunteer army was partly to find a way to keep stories about resisters off the news programs, and that helped Bush and Cheney push us into a terrible war.

        So, I think that your "astounding" adjective is "actually" astoundingly hyperbolic.

        Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

        by hestal on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 09:31:09 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Really? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          koNko

          You were taught about the people deported or imprisoned during WWI in high school? You were taught that, contrary to what is usually reported, the majority of Americans were very much against it in 1917, and a ton of progressive academics sold out their ideals by using their knowledge about propaganda to turn public opinion? You were taught about the people imprisoned during WWII? The people killed during the Civil War for refusing to fight?  

          I went to several schools and was never taught any of that. As for the Vietnam War, the way the resistance was taught has always been very skewed in high schools. I doubt most Americans born after the 1960s learning about MLK in school were ever assigned his speeches on Vietnam, and I would bet money that none were ever shown James Baldwin's speeches about it.

          Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

          by moviemeister76 on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 10:07:22 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  So, you are now calling me a liar? (0+ / 0-)

            You have no secret knowledge. All of your doubts are created in your own weird little mind.

            I don't doubt that you are a conspiracy nut.

            Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

            by hestal on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 10:49:53 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  LMAO (0+ / 0-)

              I think it's awesome that you lambast me for talking in absolutes and yet you seem to talk in nothing but.

              Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

              by moviemeister76 on Sun Feb 24, 2013 at 06:54:08 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  There's noting wrong with loving your country (0+ / 0-)

    For what it does well or aspires to.

    But it seems to me you have consigned some of the negative aspects of American Exceptionalism (and dare I use the term political and military hegemony?) to the distant past of the Cold War while justifying worse done in the present.

    I mean, seriously, do you honestly believe the CIA in South America was worse and more destructive than what it does today (albeit clean and tidy by remote control) or that Vietnam was somehow much worse than combined wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Maybe if you just count the American casualties and dismiss "the enemy" as if they are not human (as the MSN routinely does).

    And is there something less hegemonic than the philosophy underlying Obama's "Pivot to Asia" which seeks to reinforce American military dominance in the region and has extended the principle of "interest" established by the Monroe Doctrine from a regional to global sphere?

    And do you also suppose, on the positive side, that the US uniquely leads the world in standing for social and political justice?

    I'd suggest to you, it's possible to see what is good in the US and be proud of that without having to see the US as particularly "exceptional", which, honestly, is a form of arrogance the rest of the world finds a bit offensive and does the American image no good.

    Not to mention your characterization of Islamic people as barbaric (strange, since American bombs have killed far more Islamic people in the last decade than Islamic extremists killed Americans, by a very wide margin; and as if using drones to vaporize bad guys + collateral damage is civilized).

    You might dislike people such as Greenwald or Chomsky rudely pointing these things out, but when it's based on fact, perhaps you should consider whether this does make the US an exceptional country in other respects not worth beating a drum about.

    Like most countries, there are good and bad aspects to the American culture and it's impacts, so in that viewpoint I find it hard to call the US any more exceptional than numerous other countries, so wouldn't it be wiser to just say "my country is a good country" or "I love what's good abut my country" instead of setting yourself apart from the rest of humanity and putting yourself on a pedestal?

    Caveat : "The higher the monkey climbs ...."

    What about my Daughter's future?

    by koNko on Fri Feb 22, 2013 at 11:19:37 AM PST

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