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On American Narcissism
So easily impassioned and 'tribal,' Arabs seemed hopeless. What could we possibly learn from them?
I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the word “exceptionalism.” It invites the reader to make their own judgments about whether a particular kind of distinctiveness is, on balance, good or bad. If, for example, Islam is exceptional in how it plays an outsized role in politics, then the follow-up question becomes an interesting one: how do you feel about that fact?
For many Muslims (and even Christians), Islam’s strangeness is precisely what they like about Islam—that it hasn’t, yet, accepted its own defeat at the hands of the secular nation-state. It hasn’t made itself subservient to liberalism, at least not yet. For others, however, Islam’s vigor is likely to be a bug rather than feature, an obstacle in the long march towards progress.
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Something similar can be said for American exceptionalism: It’s often in the eye of the beholder. The fact that we are (or think we are) distinctive can be weaponized for both progressive and conservative ends.
I think it’s fair to say that I’m an exceptionalist, but there’s a form of exceptionalism that I don’t love or appreciate—and that’s the kind that makes America into an object of self-projection: that because we are the center of the world, we come to understand events abroad in light of our own obsessions. The most obvious example of this relates to race. If you think America remains a uniquely racist country because of white supremacy, then you’re likely to disregard or dismiss non-American racism—say Arab racism towards darker-skinned Arabs—as somehow less than the real thing, because whites aren’t the ones instigating it.
Blindspots are a problem, especially now. If the political stakes at home are higher or at least more deeply felt, then we would be well-served to look at other regions suffering from existential politics and try to understand them on their own terms. Instead, we confine ourselves to a simple vocabulary when it comes to both time and place. Why do all of our analogies seem to come from continental Europe, circa 1933 to 1945? ? Presumably, other things of import have happened since, and in other places.
The psychology of American exceptionalism is embraced by both liberals and conservatives in equal parts. While the two sides may differ about what makes America uniquely good or bad, what they share is a rejection of the idea that there are meaningful lessons to be drawn from other countries to understand what is happening in the United States.
And then the kicker. “This sense of incomparability with America,” Hussain writes, “goes doubly for countries that are poorer or culturally foreign.”
And then there’s World War II, which featured a clear, compelling story of good versus evil (except, I suppose for Stalin). I suspect that part of it, too, is that when we think of democratic breakdown, we can imagine it happening the way it did in Germany. They don’t look too different from “us” and they already had some experience with democracy (although, it is worth noting the Weimar Germany was still very much in its democratic infancy). In contrast, Arabs seems rather “tribal,” with all their religious passions and what not, prone to unreason and political excess. Of course, I don’t think that, but I suspect a lot of people believe some version of this, even if they wouldn’t characterize it in quite that way.
Oddly enough, one of them was Barack Obama. In my research for The Problem of Democracy, I interviewed senior officials who were in the room with Obama during key decisions. I wanted to know how they interpreted what seemed to me to be Obama’s disillusionment with a people, a culture, and perhaps even a religion—one that remained exceptional in a way Obama probably wouldn’t have appreciated. One senior aide described it this way:
Look at the way [Obama] talks about America, that we can perfect this model, which means that, at least in our context, he is an optimist, given everything else. But when he looked at the Middle East, this notion of tribalism was probably the overriding perception he had of the region. And he was saying, I'm going to give you guys running room to see if you can change it. But it became pretty clear in his mind, we couldn't.
It was hopeless, or so it seemed. In Obama’s defense, I know quite a few Egyptians who would readily agree with such an assessment. Arabs weren’t ready for democracy. In fact, I suspect it’s Arabs themselves who believe this most. Their dictators—and the millions who back them, despite everything—certainly do. Among my secular Egyptian relatives and friends, there are few notions that evinced as much outrage as the mere possibility that ordinary Egyptians would be able to vote for their representatives. God forbid. Is chaos what we wanted? What if democracy required increasing one’s tolerance for chaos—would it be worth it?
As Murtaza Hussain reminds us, the Arab revolts “provided an incredible real-world test case of how human societies are likely to operate given particular environmental conditions.”
At the heart of the tragedy of what happened is how the perception of threat was dialed up endlessly by political entrepreneurs but also by well-meaning individuals who I have no doubt sincerely believed that the end would be near —if the other party won in free and fair elections. Too much was at stake, but how much is too much in a democracy? That, it so happens, is a very personal question. And each of us should think very carefully about how we might answer it.