Column, Generation Y

Into the vacuum

On Aug. 31, at the American Legion’s national convention in Cincinnati, Hillary Clinton gave a 35-minute speech that I wish I could quote in its entirety.
Its subject was the strictly magical doctrine of “American exceptionalism”—a concept that, rather than merely celebrating our nation’s uniqueness, attributes to the United States an inherent righteousness upon which our actual history and behavior have no bearing, exalting us above all other peoples and excepting us not only from the judgments of our inferiors, whose wishes we’re therefore fully free to ignore, but also from reason itself. Within the prism of American exceptionalism, the United States is not required to do right; instead, whatever the United States has done becomes right because the United States has done it.
It’s a term whose existence in our national lexicon should embarrass all of us, but it undeniably comes in handy when politicians want to win our support for unnecessary foreign wars, as one of the key tenets of American exceptionalism is that it’s America’s destiny to lead the rest of the world to peace and prosperity. If the rest of the world asks us to please stop, this only confirms our smug self-conception: it’s fitting that nobody else can comprehend the benevolence of our bombs and guns—we are the exceptional ones, after all. The others aren’t.
Hillary Clinton has lately been doubling down on her patriotism, emphasizing that the United States is, as it stands, the world’s greatest nation, no matter what Donald Trump says of its shortcomings. In Cincinnati, she took things a step further.
“If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way,” she said, “it is this: the United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. … And it’s not just that we have the greatest military or that our economy is larger than any on Earth. It’s also the strength of our values, the strength of the American people. … And part of what makes America an exceptional nation is that we are also an indispensable nation. In fact, we are the indispensable nation.”
Her emphasis, in that last sentence, was on the word “the” (as opposed to “an”)—meaning that we are the one and only indispensable nation, from which we must logically conclude that all other nations are dispensable.
“When we say America is exceptional,” Clinton continued, “it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values. Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.”
Clinton’s attempt to differentiate American exceptionalism from blind nationalistic self-love and to depict it instead as an impartial, soundly reasoned view of our place in the world is transparently dishonest, but what is more worrying is the second half of the paragraph, which advances American imperialism as a necessity and designates the larger world as a “vacuum” that, without America’s insistent (presumably militaristic) guidance, would flounder like a lost child.
The audience for speeches of this kind lives inside a collective hallucination, in which, even during the Iraq War, the United States was a “global force for freedom, justice, and human dignity,” and it’s only our occasional hesitation to intervene in foreign conflicts that “causes chaos” overseas. It is the task of the warmongers who serve our vast military-industrial complex to promote this hallucination.
Clinton’s “liberal” supporters will argue that she didn’t really mean much of what she said on Aug. 31, when she (furthermore) blithely accused the soldiers of every nation but ours of a willingness to commit heinous war crimes and pledged to support our bloated defense budget—they’ll argue that the speech was merely a sensible ploy to win the votes of moderate Republicans who are put off by Trump’s unpatriotic attitudes. They will say that, in her heart, Hillary is a compassionate peace-lover—even as both her record and her words suggest otherwise.
I may never know what’s in Hillary Clinton’s heart. But if I manage to give her the benefit of the doubt, I still question the wisdom of her strategy. Her pivot to the center may win her a few old-timer votes in 2016, but by putting forth a watered-down, morally compromised pseudo-progressive like Clinton as its candidate, the Democratic Party isn’t investing in a generation of young people who might actually want to engage with American politics if they believed that the Democrats stood for something other than venal, hawkish neoliberalism.
Our leaders must realize that their job is not only to work pragmatically within existing conditions—the more important task is to inspire people, to create a sense of possibility, and ultimately to move the country forward so that more substantive change can occur. Yes, Hillary’s centrism will defeat Trump’s lunacy—a Pyrrhic victory for the Left, after which we can surely expect a tepid turnout for the 2018 midterms, ensuring years more of Congressional gridlock.
Clinton’s speech in Cincinnati presented itself as a response to Donald Trump’s unusual rejection of American exceptionalism. “I don’t like the term,” said Trump earlier. “Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. ‘We’re exceptional; you’re not’ … I think you’re insulting the world.” Here is where Hillary Clinton’s political realism has led her: a place where she is unambiguously wrong, and Donald Trump (!) is unambiguously right.

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