Posts Tagged ‘American exceptionalism’

October 18th, 2011

American exceptionalism redux

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I find Kahn’s book as a whole less coherent than some others have. One issue I want to raise is the specter of American exceptionalism that haunts the book. Haunts, actually, may be too mild a word, since Kahn enthusiastically embraces the exceptional nature of American politics and law, and does so in absolutist terms (perhaps this is just the unfortunate sign of the legal mind at work, as is also the case in Schmitt).

July 11th, 2011

The geopolitical imperative?

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Ritualistic evocations of “America” . . . and the deep-seated sense that somehow the United States is sacrosanct space—war, by definition, taking place elsewhere—are ways of being toward the world that mask an overwhelming desire, sometimes ferocious, to avoid all sacrifices: professionalized (class-based) military, ridiculously low taxes (especially for high earners), lax popular engagement, minimal obligations, a dislike for central authority bordering on hatred. The “exception” was extended into the 1950s by means of the Cold War (which was in fact the intention), but the last time the sacrifice was generally accepted was indeed the last: Vietnam. From then on, the geopolitical imperative has looked different. Accepting the globalism of the U.S. in one form or another is one thing; sacrificing for it is an altogether different one. Sovereignty, the right to decide on the exception, has thus typically resided in the geopolitical imperative, and it has been experienced on the outside. Few foreigners make any mistake about the importance of U.S. geopolitics and the “right” that it seems to embody.

April 18th, 2011

De-provincializing Oprah

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In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton holds up a lustrous mirror to the polymorphously perverse dynamics of boom and bust, surplus and lack, and redemptive optimism and paranoid anxiety that characterize America (and much of the world) at the turn of the twenty-first century…. [Her] insight into the intense and extensive contemporary intra-activity of materiality and spirituality is a powerful explanatory tool. For example, it helps explain the explosive growth of global Neo-Pentecostal networks and cultures, which operate through mass media and popular culture to spread a gospel of health and wealth based on the notion that spiritual salvation, economic success, and physical well-being are mutually implicative.

November 8th, 2010

A strong moral argument: A conversation with Andrew Bacevich

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Author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism, and, most recently, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, Andrew Bacevich is a celebrated veteran as well as a fierce and indefatigable critic of American militarism and imperial policies. A self-described “Catholic conservative” and an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr., Bacevich is a social critic of note as much for his independence of thought as for his insistence on grounding his public remarks with a clear sense of moral principles and purpose.

October 14th, 2010

God in America? Really?

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I write having seen the first installment of God in America, a three-part series produced by PBS that showed some promise. While there is much still to come, I can report that it is not as bad as it might have been. (Is anything?) But it is also much, much worse than it has any good reason to be.

The most egregious problem—and it is really no surprise given the rather large role played by Stephen Prothero in the commentary—is the astonishing insularity. To put it bluntly, America is presented as an exception, once again. More specifically, the more nuanced argument one gets, largely from Prothero, is: America is an exceptional case, religiously speaking, because Americans believed (and still do believe) that they have an exceptional relationship with God.

April 16th, 2010

Sovereignty and sacrifice in American politics

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In The Utopian, Yale Law professor Paul W. Kahn argues that the discourse and imaginary of secular political theory fail to grasp the deep and abiding theological—specifically, sacrificial—dimensions of U.S. politics and the American political imagination.

March 22nd, 2010

The extra-territorial establishment of religion

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There is an embarrassing giddiness in the religious studies world today. With our new mantra in hand—the new “salience” of religion—we, both scholars of religion and other self-appointed spokespersons for religion, feel licensed to instruct the world on the importance of religion. We are suddenly relevant again. Or so we think.

If there is an opportunity for religious studies today, and my own view is increasingly that this is an opportunity more for listening than for speaking, the Chicago Report suggests the likelihood that this opportunity will be misunderstood and misused. Religion today is an immensely complex phenomenon. And there are many who speak in its name. It is far from clear that there is any sense in which generalizing about religion is useful as a political matter—or, for that matter, that the United States government should be spearheading a new reformation.

February 5th, 2010

All used up

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There is a question that has been haunting me about our times and our collective condition, specifically in regard to American imperial decline: namely, how do we effectively mourn the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism? My short answer is that our age of catastrophes—the catastrophic being one of the primary markers of the exhaustion of the myth of American exceptionalism—is in need of poetic responses and, in particular, what William James might call a poetic temperament.

June 23rd, 2009

Toward a universalist exceptionalism

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American exceptionalism has been dealt a body-blow. I want to suggest, however, that the variant of exceptionalism that was upset by the Bush era was only a vertical model, and that a horizontal image has not only survived, but is flourishing—perhaps, in fact, finding ultimate expression in the personage of Barack Obama as the official representation of the body politic. Traditionally, there have been two distinct, coexistent images of American exceptionalism—one vertical, and one horizontal. The vertical model envisions America as the pinnacle of a global hierarchy, the privileged “city upon a hill” over an otherwise flat or downward-sloping world. The horizontal model pictures America as being, instead, a consummation, the “melting pot” where the peoples of the world meet, intermingle, and are ennobled by virtue of constituting collective humanity within morally important national borders. In the first picture, America is separate from the world of nations, and in the second, America has subsumed the world of peoples. […]

June 22nd, 2009

Obama and the end of exceptionalism

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Presidents are compelled to use the language of exceptionalism in two important ways. If our presidents are to be believed, we are always doing something New and something Great. We have had, in the past eighty years, the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, the New Nixon, Morning in America, A Thousand Points of Light, a New Covenant, a Bridge to Tomorrow, and Compassionate Conservatism, and now we have a New Foundation. These slogans are made to do a lot of work, in that they suggest another word that became the brand of the Obama campaign last year: change.

June 10th, 2009

Liberty and liberty together

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A nation is not an indifferent condition for the happiness and social relatedness of its citizens, but serves as a kind of habitus for them, shaping and being shaped by discourse and practice. The following reflections propose that two key elements of the American project form rudimentary aspects of the national imaginary, the collective resource for the conception and practice of nationhood. These are exceptionalism and civil religion. The two are deeply interwoven. I propose to define them and to parse their relationship in the American case. To begin with a familiar claim: at the heart of the American project is the bracing promise of starting anew and the conviction that doing so is possible, that citizens are able to clean the slate of old debts, bad ideas, and the burden of inherited injustices. It would be nice if matters were that simple, but of course they are not.

January 12th, 2009

This is our moment, this is our time

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For a long time after November 4, I found it hard to believe that Barack Obama had actually been elected President of the United States. Even as his inauguration approaches I still find it a remarkable moment in our history.

November 7th, 2008

An internationalist president

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In the Muslim world, as in Europe and much of the world, Obama is welcomed as an internationalist president.