One of the distinguishing features of Gorge Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, was the minimization and distortion of language. So bondage and tyranny were called “liberation”, blatant propaganda was spread by the “Ministry of Truth”, War was waged by the “Ministry for Peace” and reason was called “thoughtcrime” etc.
A similar thing is happening today from the far right. It started with Sarah Palin and her sneering portraiture of Obama as a “community organizer”, or her description of end-of-life-counseling as “death panels”. The Tea Party, of course took this on and now words have simply ceased to have meaning. They have been debased and rendered hideous. It’s like the difference when the word “love” is used by the Dalai Lama say, or by Dracula as he seduces his victim. Same word, not the same meaning.
I was reminded of this horrible phenomenon as I read Shelby Steele’s column in the Wall Street Journal today. He was brandishing the phrase American Exceptionalism in a way the radical right in this country has usurped it, to mean “We cannot be judged or do anything wrong because we are exceptional. We must make everyone in the world bend to our will and are so exceptional that we need never reflect on the complexities of a changing world or the limits to our own power. We must go forth with blazing guns, telling the world to take their UN, or NATO or Old Europe, or World Court or even Science and what-not and shove it. It is our manifest destiny to lead, enshrined in us by God himself, and we need merely say this to become the shiny beacon that we say we are.”
To the far right ideologues American Exceptionalism (a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830’s when he saw our incredible democracy) now means a kind of macho – real America is a hamburger-eating, gold-chain-wearing man with balls. It doesn’t wear sweaters or eat quiche or indulge in reflection, or ever admit any wrong. As in Orwell’s 1984 the uplifting connotation of the word Exceptionalism has been turned on its head by the radical right and converted to narcissism, jingoism, cultural insensitivity, mediocrity and knee-jerk contempt for new ideas.
Here is an excerpt from Shelby Steele’s op-ed:
Mr. Obama did not explicitly run on an anti-exceptionalism platform. Yet once he was elected it became clear that his idea of how and where to apply presidential power was shaped precisely by this brand of liberalism. There was his devotion to big government, his passion for redistribution, and his scolding and scapegoating of Wall Street—as if his mandate was somehow to overcome, or at least subdue, American capitalism itself. And he has launched an assault on America’s bedrock exceptionalism of military, economic and cultural pre-eminence?
This then is how to bash Obama – he’s for Big Government, for redistribution and anti-business and Wall Street. He’s destroying the military and our cultural pre-eminence. Really. No proof needed, it’s self-evident. He’s doing all this because Shelby and his ilk say so.
So here’s a dictionary to decipher some of the code words in here. The idea is that Obama is an anti-exceptionalist liberal (presumably a redundant phrase because one means the other).
Big Government: Democrats. They want a government for all the people and for public welfare – socialist stuff like healthcare, unemployment bennies, child nutrition and the like! We can’t afford that. Too many wars going on.
Individualism: The Law of the Jungle. If you don’t make it it’s your own ineptitude and laziness. Quit whining. A true American sleeps with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged under his pillow – wards off nightmares from not having a job.
Passion for Redistribution: Inability to see American Greed for what it is – a sign of American capitalist pre-eminence. True Obama has only lowered taxes so far but heck, his passion is to soak the rich. America now has the most lop-sided income distribution in the developed world, but so what? We are exceptional and Obama doesn’t understand.
Regulation and Scapegoating of Free Enterprise: Free people don’t heed no stinking badges. Rules hinder America and its bedrock pre-eminence. The current economic debacle is not the fault of too few rules or the private sector – Obama stop bashing business. American Exceptionalism guarantees that we will prosper if we could just get the government out of the way. Obama can never understand this because he is, well, you know, different. If he was one of us he would gut silly rules protecting ordinary people or the environment as if we were somehow not exceptional.
Cultural Relativism: God gave us absolute truth. Obey and no whining. Don’t need Obama’s triangulation of the absolute: tolerance of homosexuality, birth control. Family values are not negotiable. What got us here: submission to the husband and belief in creation and a day of judgment. God said nothing about curbing guns, cleaning the rivers, or paying unemployment benefits.
And why did such exceptional people elect Obama. Mr. Steele has an explanation:
Clearly Americans were looking for a new kind of exceptionalism in him (a black president would show America to have achieved near perfect social mobility).
Americans wanted to prove to themselves that they were exceptional by letting a colored guy become prez. Very similar to why God created sin. So that he could have man freely select righteousness having seen that sin leads to no good.