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American Exceptionalism vs. Nihilism and Doctrinaire Darwinism

Posted on May 12 2011 10:38 am
Seth Mandel is the former managing editor of four New Jersey-based newspapers, where he won awards for his coverage of the Middle East and Russia. He has appeared on Shalom TV's current affairs roundtable. He is currently based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SethAMandel
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Various corners of the American Left object to American Exceptionalism for their own reasons. I wrote about the phenomenon back in January, canvassing the reaction to a spate of conservative invocations of the concept:

When National Review published a cover story on the concept, The New Republic reacted with horror, advising that, as they understood it, the NR article’s premise “should disgust all historically informed citizens.” When Marco Rubio won his Florida Senate seat trumpeting American Exceptionalism, Peter Beinart ranted about such a “lunatic notion.” The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson got a chuckle out of Michael Kinsley’s Politico column titled “U.S. is not greatest country ever.” (Take that Senator Rubio.)

But this week in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen offered a different condemnation of Exceptionalism: that it is rooted in religious faith:

The huge role of religion in American politics is nothing new but always a matter for concern nonetheless. In the years preceding the Civil War, both sides of the slavery issue claimed the endorsement of God. The 1856 Republican convention concluded with a song that ended like this: “We’ve truth on our side/ We’ve God for our guide.” Within five years, Americans were slaughtering one another on the battlefield.

Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter.

I thought Cohen’s column came at an interesting time—the week Israel celebrated her independence. Israel and the United States are common targets of leftist theophobic nihilism because they are the two remaining Western center-right countries, and both believe their founding entailed some element of divine intervention. That doesn’t mean any of their political decisions are beyond consideration, however.

Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a look at the other side of the equation. We were recently treated to a perfect encapsulation of the opposite of adherence to faith-based principles. Blogging at ThinkProgress, a hub of popular leftist Web activism, Brad Johnson—no doubt “restoring science to its proper place”—explained why over 250 people in the South had died in a recent wave of tornadoes: they deserved it. The headline of the piece was: “Storms Kill Over 250 Americans In States Represented By Climate Pollution Deniers.”

Johnson wrote that the storms were quite obviously caused by the global warming that southerners had yet to buy into. Unfortunately for Johnson, actual scientists weighed in to say that this was very clearly not the case. But Johnson was expressing the closest thing the Left has to religion: doctrinaire Darwinism. Mother Earth was, according to Johnson, simply disposing of those unfit.

One of the reasons I love Chekhov’s story The Duel is because it offers the perfect exposition of liberalism taken to its two possible extremes: nihilism and Darwinism. The main character, Ivan Laevsky, follows only his own desires and will brook no judgment for it. This earns him the ire of the zoologist von Koren—such an uncompromising Darwinist that he believes Laevsky is a burden on society that must be removed:

“Laevsky is unquestionably harmful and as dangerous for society as the cholera microbe. Drowning him would be meritorious.”

Brad Johnson was smugly channeling his inner von Koren. And Cohen is merely dismissing that which claims a higher authority than his reason. Once you expel God from the public square, nothing is exceptional unless you make it so. Marty Peretz offered the Tel Aviv version of this on Israel’s Memorial Day:

All Israel was quiet, and most Israelis I believe were contemplating their past. Their present. Their future. Would the strong young man with long hair and a ringlet in his nose—the man who runs the fruit juice stand where Sheinkin meets Lord Melchett—have to go to war again? Will he survive? Or be crippled or maimed?

The shadow is over them, no doubt.

The background of their world is tense. The ultra-orthodox, who cannot enjoy life, aside. And the diminishing number of alienated leftist intellectuals who enjoy their alienation as a well-spring of their superiority … also aside. Plus one more aside: the right which thinks it has to fulfill both prophecy and geography.

In other words, everyone but those exactly like him. Only Peretz’s kind is exceptional. It should be noted that Peretz understands the threat posed by radical Islam, even as he is subjected to virtual excommunication from the leftist church for his dissent. But the answer to radical Islam is not mandated secularism. It surely isn’t nihilism and it absolutely isn’t doctrinaire Darwinism. The recognition of American Exceptionalism, on the other hand, is a solid foundation and a great first step.

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