Streetwise Professor

July 4, 2010

The Last, Best Hope on Earth?

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 9:42 am

Harry Jaffa argues that Lincoln was different from his political peers in that he believed the Declaration of Independence, rather than the Constitution, to be the seminal document of the American Founding.  Lincoln believed, and fervently so, that the Declaration literally meant what it said: that all men are created equal.  He further believed that it was his solemn duty as a statesman to ensure that the nation realized that ideal.

Obama has been compared to Lincoln, largely on the basis of some superficial similarities.  (Very superficial.  Like: “tall guys from Illinois.”)  But it is clear on the substance, and on the belief in the truth and relevance of the Declaration, that the comparison is decidedly inapt.  Indeed, laughable.  Lincoln’s commitment to the Declaration, and the belief that the United States was indeed the “last, best hope of earth” was fervent, undeniable, and repeatedly expressed.  Lincoln did believe that America was exceptional, and that it although it was flawed, it embodied an ideal that was an example for all of humanity.

In contrast, Obama’s views on those propositions are, at best, ambivalent.  As Charles Kessler of the Claremont Review of Books writes:

The second new element in President Obama’s liberalism is even more striking than its postmodernism. It is how uncomfortable he is with American exceptionalism—and thus with America itself. President Obama considers this country deeply flawed from its very beginnings. He means not simply that slavery and other kinds of fundamental injustice existed, which everyone would admit. He means that the Declaration of Independence, when it said that all men are created equal, did not mean to include blacks or anyone else who is not a property-holding, white, European male—an argument put forward infamously by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision, and one that was powerfully refuted by Abraham Lincoln.

In short, President Obama agrees with his former minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, much more than he let on as a presidential candidate. Read closely, his famous speech on that subject in March 2008 doesn’t hide his conclusion that Wright was correct—that America is a racist and ungodly country (hence, not “God Bless America,” but “God Damn America!”). Obama agrees with Wright that in its origin, and for most of its history, America was racist, sexist, and in various ways vicious. Wright’s mistake, Obama said, was underestimating America’s capacity for change—a change strikingly illustrated by Obama’s own advances and his later election. For Obama, Wright’s mistake turned on not what America was, but what America could become—especially after the growth of liberalism in our politics in the course of the 20th century. It was only liberalism that finally made America into a decent country, whereas for most of its history it was detestable.

Unlike most Americans, President Obama still bristles at any suggestion that our nation is better or even luckier than other nations. To be blunt, he despises the notion that Americans consider themselves special among the peoples of the world. This strikes him as the worst sort of ignorance and ethnocentrism, which is why it was so difficult for him to decide to wear an American flag lapel pin when he started running for president, even though he knew it was political suicide to refuse wearing it.

As President Obama hinted in his Berlin speech during the campaign, he really thinks of himself as a multiculturalist, as a citizen of the world, first, and only incidentally as an American. To put it differently, he regards patriotism as morally and intellectually inferior to cosmopolitanism. And, of course, he is never so much a citizen of the world as when defending the world’s environment against mankind’s depredations, and perhaps especially America’s depredations. In general, the emotionalist defense of the earth—think of Al Gore—is now a vital part of the liberalism of our day. It’s a kind of substitute for earlier liberals’ belief in progress. Although his own election—and secondarily liberalism’s achievements over the past century or so—help to redeem America in his view, Obama remains, in many ways, profoundly disconnected from his own land.

This is a very different state of mind and character from that of Franklin Roosevelt, who was the kind of progressive who thought that America was precisely the vanguard of moral progress in the world. This was the way Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and every great liberal captain before Obama thought about his country—as a profoundly moral force in the world, leading the nations of the world toward a better and more moral end point. Obama doesn’t think that way, and therefore his mantle as an American popular leader—despite his flights of oratorical prowess—doesn’t quite fit him in the way that FDR’s fit him. One can see this in the tinges of irony that creep into Obama’s rhetoric now and then—the sense that even he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying; and he knows that but hopes that you don’t.

Obama’s ambivalence is, in many ways, the perfect symbol of the dilemma of the contemporary liberal.

As people have become increasingly aware of this ambivalence, Obama’s popularity has plunged.  And there is a growing realization that “ambivalence” might actually understate the matter.  Obama’s associations of a lifetime, of whom the aforementioned Reverend Wright is just one, are anything but ambivalent in their views of America.  If they believe that America is exceptional, it is only because they believe that America is exceptionally malign, evil even.  There is a suspicion that political caginess leads Obama to conceal his true sympathies for these views.  The habitual apologies, the routine criticism of his country while abroad, the notable imbalance between criticism and praise of the country’s past and legacy, all contribute to a palpable fear that Obama is actually the anti-Lincoln.

This unease–to put it mildly–that many people have with Obama is much more visceral, and much more important, than disagreements about this health care policy or that, or the handling of the Gulf oil spill.  Indeed, for many people the significance of these things is not the policy specifics themselves, but what these policies reveal about Obama’s heartfelt beliefs about the nation and its meaning.  A fear that he does not share their beliefs about the country, its ethos, and its values.

I think this helps explain the tremendous anxiety in the country.  Yes, dreary economic news and the steady bubbling of oil from the Gulf contribute to that anxiety.  But it is more than that.  More basic.  An anxiety rooted in a fear that they are being governed by a foreigner.  Not a foreigner in the birther “he was born in [state country of choice here]” (non-)sense.  But a foreigner in the sense of someone alien to, or at the very least alienated from, their beliefs about America and what it means.

Divides over belief are much more intractable than divides over policies.  The latter are amenable to compromise, and can be influenced by facts and data.  The former, cannot.  Which means that the next two plus years will be as tumultuous politically as any period in recent American history.  Obama and his ilk are notable for their Europhilia, and we are on the brink of descending into a European-style political conflict that America has largely avoided in large part because of a shared belief in some fundamental tenets about the country’s political meaning and heritage that is typically lacking in Europe.  The fear that the president, and a large fraction of his political allies, do not share those beliefs will make the coming political conflicts and campaigns of a like not seen in this country in living memory.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Pray Always!. Pray Always! said: RT @LibertyLynx: The Last, Best Hope on Earth? Excellent post by Prof Craig Pirrong on Obama's fractured view of th … […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor » The Last, Best Hope on Earth? -- — July 4, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  2. Charles Kessler writes, “Unlike most Americans, President Obama still bristles at any suggestion that our nation is better or even luckier than other nations. To be blunt, he despises the notion that Americans consider themselves special among the peoples of the world. This strikes him as the worst sort of ignorance and ethnocentrism, which is why it was so difficult for him to decide to wear an American flag lapel pin when he started running for president, even though he knew it was political suicide to refuse wearing it….”

    America…. does Kessler mean that body of land north of Mexico and south of Canada (generally speaking) or does he mean America- the political concept. If it’s the former then Kessler is correct…. Obama doesn’t consider America to be better, luckier, or special. Obama does not believe that America, that land where people with Americans passports live, to be exceptional.

    Nor do I.

    Rather, Obama and the millions, like myself, who voted for him in 2008 believe that there is such a thing as the concept of America. This meta America, if you will, is defined by the Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. This meta America can take root in any country around the world. One does not need to carry a blue passport to consider oneself an “American.” This was the genius of Obama in 2007 and 2008. Obama was a representation of this meta America.

    However, in the days since Obama was elected he has spent his energy and political capital trying to win over those folks, like Kessler, who believe that America is a piece of land that needs to be protected and controlled. Ironically, the more successful these pseudo-Patriots become the quicker they kill that special and exceptional meta America. In the end, all of us simply end up inhabiting a country called America that is no better nor worse than any other country on our Earth.

    Too bad that Obama didn’t understand the genius of his own message.

    Comment by Timmy — July 4, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  3. Timmy,
    Of course Kessler refers to America as both an idea and a place situated between Mexico and Canada. It is both.

    I lived outside the US most of my adult life and have not encountered a location where the ideals embodied in our founding documents took root as they have in the area between Mexico and Canada. To believe otherwise is in my view naive. To believe otherwise displays ignorance of (or disregard for) the widespread and deep seated hope throughout much of the world that one’s children might live in, and become citizens of, that very location between Canada and Mexico. This is true even in the case of parents working in state security organizations that officially view the US as the despised enemy. The world rightly knows the USA (for you-the area between Mexico and Canada) as both an idea and a place.

    What you refer to as meta America is better named Internationalism or post modern Pan-Europeanism and both are in my view bankrupt concepts. I just hope the genius of the founding fathers provides enough defense so that we may quietly outlast the attempted imposition your misnamed meta America on the unique (maybe you find this adjective more acceptable than exceptional) soil located somewhat in the middle of North America.

    I found no genius in the Obama message. At best the message was naive but more likely it was purposefully disingenuous to appeal to naivete. My wife and most of my friends are not Americans but I still find more genius in a different Chicago source, The Smashing Pumpkins-

    The world is a vampire, sent to drain
    Secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames

    This is the case because most of the world is not ruled by well functioning democracy controlled by citizens but rather elites. The elites are ruled in turn by their own narrow self interests. After November it will be more clear if the US will continue to adopt this same model.

    Comment by Paul — July 5, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

  4. I should have written-“I do find truth in a different Chicago source”

    Comment by Paul — July 5, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

  5. @Paul
    Oh yes, those scary elites (eeekk)… much better that we should be ruled by the Sarah Palins and Alvin Greenes (*see link at bottom) of the world.

    How do you define “elites.” Someone who is wealthy…. like Rush Limbaugh or Mitt Romney? Someone who inherited their wealth….. like Steve Forbes or Tucker Carlson? Someone who owes their success to a famous last name…. like Liz Cheney or George W. Bush? Someone who is “over educated”…… like Craig Pirrong or Newt Gingrich. What exactly is an elite in your book?

    A bit ironic, don’t ya think, for you to ascribe selfish motivations to a group that should be the least likely to be influenced by personal material gain. Wouldn’t those politicians who are the least well-off be more likely to be susceptible to graft and bribery?

    Excuse my naivete but what, exactly, makes America so exceptional? I’m not that religious so perhaps I missed that sermon where we learned it was by divine intervention that America was exempted from the rules that other nations must follow. Please enlighten me.


    Comment by Timmy — July 7, 2010 @ 12:40 am

  6. Timmy,
    Hmmm, let me think-I guess you caught me out. It sounds as though you are especially fortunate in that you can relinquish your US citizenship and establish citizenship where you are resident. Why have a foreign passport when it is so easy to just exchange one essentially equal citizenship for another?

    All the best dude-it is the right decision if you haven’t done it already. No more IRS-great stuff.

    Comment by Paul — July 7, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  7. @Timmy-Copping to “naivete” is laughable: “cluelessness” is a more accurate charge. And methinks that you set out an impossible task in your request for enlightenment. But, futile as the task may be, I’ll give it a go.

    Nobody–except you, maybe–thinks that “American Exceptionalism” means that the US is or was “exempted from the rules other nations must follow.” American Exceptionalism means that the United States was, and to a lesser degree is, exceptional when compared to other nations. Exceptional in its revolutionary founding premise. Exceptional in political and economic freedom. Exceptional in social mobility. Not perfect on any of these dimensions, but clearly exceptional.

    I happen to think that Russia is exceptional too, but in a very different way. De Toqueville makes the case for American and Russian exceptionalism very well. It’s worth a read if you’re truly looking for enlightenment.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 7, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

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