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Loving America, Flaws and All

All the shouting about American exceptionalism is ironic.

Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good article for Slate responding to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s recent attack on President Obama’s patriotism, making the point that Mr. Obama, while clearly patriotic, does talk about America a bit differently than his predecessors.

But I’m not sure that Mr. Bouie has the whole story. In his article, he attributes Mr. Obama’s relatively chastened version of American exceptionalism to his personal identity – that as a black American he is more in touch with the areas of ambivalence in our history.

That may well be true. But there are many Americans who love their country in pretty much the way the president does – seeing it as special, often an enormous force for good in the world, but also fallible, and with some stains on its record. I’m one of them. So you don’t have to be black to see things that way.

What’s more, there have always been American patriots who were able to acknowledge flaws in the country that they loved. For example, there’s the guy who described one of our foreign wars as “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”

That was Ulysses S. Grant – the Civil War general and American president who longtime readers know is one of my heroes – writing about the Mexican-American War.

But now we (finally) have a president who is willing to say such things while in the White House. Why?

Maybe it’s history: The Greatest Generation is fading away, and the most recent war in our memories is Iraq – a war waged on false pretenses, whose enduring images are not of brave men storming Omaha Beach, but of prisoners being tortured in Abu Ghraib. My sense is that Iraq has left a lasting shadow on our self-image; many people now realize that we, too, can do evil.

Maybe it’s just that we are becoming, despite everything, a more sophisticated country, a place where many people understand that you can be a patriot without always shouting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” — maybe even a country where people are starting to realize that the shouters are often less patriotic than the people they’re trying to shout down.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that we really are an exceptional country – a country that has played a special role in the world, that despite its flaws has always stood for some of humanity’s highest ideals. We are not, in other words, just about tribalism – which is what makes all the shouting about American exceptionalism so ironic, because it is, in fact, an attempt to tribalize our self-image.