A couple of weeks ago, in the Overtime section of Real Time with Bill Maher, a viewer posed a question wondering how foreigners viewed "American Exceptionalism." When Bill read the question, Kim Campbell, ex-Canadian PM, smugly quipped, "Pretty dimly."
That remark niggled me more than just a little bit, not because it was uttered by a foreigner who chose to live in the United States, rather than her own country, but because her cute and clever reply and the ensuing discussion made obvious the fact that no one on the panel - and apparently not even Bill Maher - understood the real meaning of the phrase.
Rather than speaking of "American Exceptionalism" as de Tocqueville described the experience, they applied the purely Palinesque definition of the phrase - in other words, the "dumbass definition."
Well, why am I even surprised? I've spent the past thirty years, not only watching America and Americans devolve into a nation of dumbasses, fed on a supersized diet of instant gratification, with brains stultified to the point that critical thinking is an unfamiliar process being relegated to the evermore distant past, I've had to watch the UK and Europe bingefeast on an orgy of celebrity worship, reality television and trivial tat tarted up as bling.
In the ancient past - well, in the 1970s, that brilliant decade when college enrollment soared to dizzying heights, thanks to the social justice programs of Lyndon Johnson's era - when I was reading Alexis de Tocqueville in French for literary purposes and re-reading him in English as part of a history course, I was given to understand that "American Exceptionalism" derived from the fact that our country had a beginning unlike no other before it or since.
We were a nation founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty. That a fair few people in the country at the time of its founding were neither free nor equal was an oxymoron our fabled Founding Fathers pondered for a bit, but put aside in the contemporary necessity of founding a country. Black males, slave or free, were the equivalent of three-fifths of a white man. If you were a female, black or white, forget it. You didn't count. You answered to your nearest male relative or your master. If you were a black woman and misbehaved, you could be sold or beaten or both; if you were a white woman and misbehaved, you could be beaten or committed or both. And from the very beginning, it was obvious that the Founding Fathers, men who, in Europe, would have found themselves amongst the highest echelon of aristocracy, intended that only the elite should rule - white men over a certain age, owning a certain amount of land or collateral and educated to the highest level.
Not many people know that - well, certainly not many Tea Partiers. People like their revered Founding Fathers would be denigrated as elitists by the Tea Party today.
When de Tocqueville spoke about "American Exceptionalism" in the early part of the 19th Century, when suffrage had just been extended to all white men over the age of twenty-one and people were beginning to push their brand of civilisation Westward, he spoke about the coalescence of a nation of people from various ethnic backgrounds and religions, come together under a tent labelled "Liberty" and functioning as one.
More than just a Sputnik moment, for de Tocqueville, who'd come from a nation of homogenous people, all of whom spoke a language influenced by none other than Latin, all practicants of the same religion and viewing anyone of a different denomination as heretical, a nation whose social life was strictly bounded by class, convention and privaleges derived from a heriditary ruler, this was really e pluribus unum in the flesh.
Social mobility was such that a man really could be born in a log cabin, into a family of illiterates, and ascend to the highest office in the land, by will of the people and not by birthright.
This was real American Exceptionalism, that out of many, could come one that functioned as a nation based on Constitutional rule and not religion, geographic or demographic type. It made us different from the rest of the civilised world. Not better. Different.
Lately, however, at least during the past three years, American Exceptionalism has been misinterpreted to mean we, as a nation, are better than any other nation in the world. Our people are better. They're smarter, they're stronger, and because of this, we're owed, if not respect, then at least obeisance, as Americans, as the propagators of freedom and democracy, Yankee-style.
This deliberate misniterpretation of American Exceptionalism is a particular pet hate of mine, especially when it's used by people who should know better or by people who do know better, but use the incorrect interpretation to further their own agenda.
So rather than bask in the fact that she''d scored a petty point against Americans in their own country with a subtle put-down, Kim Campbell should have enlightened us by reminding everyone that American Exceptionalism means we differ from other countries in our origins, alone, and not by our superiority. And Bill Maher should have reminded people that each country in the world is exceptional in that it celebrates, good and bad, its own unique history. This is what the President addressed when he spoke of American Exceptionalism as opposed to British or French or Russian Exceptionalism, not any sense of superiority, but a sense of individual difference as nations based on their common history shared. It was a call to embrace and envelope immigrants into a nation's culture, making them and their heritage a part of a shared history as well.
For de Tocqueville, the single defining element of American Exceptionalism was the sense of being included, whereas anything out of the ordinary in the Old World was to be excluded and avoided - and shunted over to the New World, if at all possible.
And now, with the news that Arianna Huffington, that "doyenne of the Left" has sold The Huffington Post to AOL for a neat $315 million dollars and a position as CEO Queen Regnant of an internet empire, we have no less than Chris Matthews lauding her as the embodiment of the American Dream fulfilled, when an immigrant can decamp to our shores and in a lifetime reach the top of the heap.
But how many immigrants arrive in this country, travelling First Class (on Concorde at the time), buy a condo on New York's Upper West Side, join a gym frequented by Baba Wawa and ingratiate herself into a friendship with the same, then mosey on out to California, effect to be befriended by the Gettys, who introduced her to the ubiquitous billionaire oilman husband (who happened to be gay)?
Just your average immigrant tale. America's the land of the rich and the grifting and anyone blatantly shameless enough to promote their own brand.
Arianna's Old World decadence. She's the courtesan who passed herself from man to man along the way, each one successively wealthier and more powerful, each offering her a leg up for a leg over, leaving her other leg free to kick them to the curb when it suits her to inch up the ladder on her back. But at the end of the day, the ultimate media whore has become the ultimate corporate whore; and after all, "courtesan" is just a euphemism for a woman who sells herself to the highest bidder for her own advancement.
To laud such a person's achievements as the ultimate immigrant's dream is irresponsible.
Since August, she's been photographed in a bear hug with Newt Gingrich whilst on vacation in Amalfi and nestling into Darrell Issa's corporate shoulder during a weekend in Las Vegas. Does this sound like something a "doyenne of the Left" would do? Besides, she's now walking back the idea of The Huffington Post as the Progressives' Bible, instead saying she's interested more in a centrist approach to politics.
I guess the President made the centre sexy in his State of the Union address, except that he managed successfully to tug the centre more to the Left, where it belongs. Arianna's "centre" is the Overton Window facing Right, where she's always been more comfortable, in the land of titled Eurotrash slurping martinis at cocktail parties and watching the sun set over Lalaland, talking of stocks, bonds and corporate mergers and counting money doffed in offshore accounts and derived from tax cuts.
Pardon my cynicism and disbelief that anyone could believe someone who voted for George Bush twice could wake up on the morning after his re-election and declare herself firmly in the Progressive mold, but maybe Arianna's return to her neocon roots is a blessing in disguise for the Left who supported her.
Maybe with Madame, will go the pejorative idea of elitism that she represents in the eyes of those people whom the real Republican Party have conned into voting against their interests all the time. Maybe Arianna can return the Republican Party to the confines of the boardrooms instead of the barn rooms, and maybe then, the Democratic Party can remember its role as the defender of the working class and the working poor.
Then maybe we'll see some true, Progressive change in the implementation of social justice programs.