The best word to characterise the Republican Party’s approach to our nation’s problems during the course of their national convention is probably “denial”. And not just the climate change variety. And their favourite word? It’s “special”. Applied to themselves, of course.
There was the denial of basic points of logic, perhaps at its most worrying in Paul Ryan’s speech which has been called out for its inaccuracies and misrepresentations by columnists from media sources around the political spectrum. The Party’s “ideas man” filled his slot with a seemingly never-ending stream of platitudes. I understand that both parties’ conventions are often devised as emotional exhibitionalism, but Ryan’s performance was particularly abysmal given that he seeks to present himself as a man of “substance”.
We were able to see Clint Eastwood make a fool of himself in a rambling monologue in which he erected a set of straw men in a chair beside him and pretended that they were President Obama. There was probably a clever and honest way to pull this kind of stunt off, but Eastwood didn’t find it, and came across as more than a bit barmy.
Then we had the pathetic spectre of Condoleeza Rice, who served the most destructive administration in recent history, trying to call out Obama on foreign policy. The Bush administration launched a knee-jerk attack on Afghanistan, the ramifications of which remain with us today. Then, under pressure from neoconservative fanatics in his cabinet, President Bush lied to the public in aid of taking us to war against a non-existent threat in Iraq. The Republican Party browbeat opponents of that war into submission by questioning their patriotism. The result of these two wars was the widespread alienation of our allies, the exacerbation of the threat from terrorism by creating it where it never existed before, the aggrandisement of executive power and extrajudicial power in the military, the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens where not hundreds of thousands of civilians in the countries we invaded, a profound loss of trust in our civic institutions, and the widespread and uncensured use of torture by our military and intelligence services. Hardly a record to be proud of.
Some suggest that Rice should be given a free pass here, because she was a member of the more “moderate” cadre in the cabinet, but the sad fact remains that if she had any doubts, she hid them well. If she had second thoughts about the existence of those Weapons of Mass Destructions, or about the long-term benefits—to our country, as opposed to Blackwater and Haliburton, that is—that would accrue to us as a result of launching an immoral, misconceived, bloody war, she swallowed them. She was clearly a woman torn between her loyalties to the public interest and the nation she was meant to serve and those loyalties to the President who appointed her. Rice’s decision was a dishonour to her and a discredit to the culture of the Bush Administration. And like the other members of that administration, she was steadfast in refusing to learn anything from the events which led to 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq.
On the final night of the convention, viewers were addressed by GOP wunderkind, Marco Rubio. Calling it 15 minutes of fluff would be charitable. I missed the first five minutes or so, and thought that perhaps all of Rubio’s thoughts were crammed into the first 300 seconds (but let’s face it, this convention confiscates not only your guns, but also your common sense at the door), so I went back and read the thing. In a convention characterised by self-congratulatory pap, Rubio’s speech was one big pat on the shoulder to every insecure jingoist out there. The central message was that “we’re special”. He said this again and again. It was like a mantra, substituted for thought or action.
Rubio told us that we’re a “blessed people”, that “Almighty God is the source of all we have” and that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all”. So in one thoughtless breath he erased over two hundred years of the labour that built our institutions, or infrastructure, and our values, to say nothing of the work undertaken by mortal men to write a series of foundational documents, and constructed a view of American-ness that excludes anyone who doesn’t ascribe to his religious views.
Rubio continued: we’re “special because we’ve always understood the scriptural admonition that ‘for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required’”. Hang on, that sounds like the kind of basic fairness—maybe even a semi-socialistic sentiment—that the Republican Party is decrying.
But if this noxious combination of hypocrisy and wallowing in worthiness wasn’t enough, Rubio then plunged into unadulterated nationalistic garbage. “We’re special”, he went on (boy, do they love that word), “because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, come true here”. In a display of mental xenophobia perhaps all the more offensive because of the way in which he trades on his status as a child of migrants, Rubio expressed his fear of “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America”. The nominee himself prattled along in the same vein, citing our “uniquely American” optimism, our “special kinship with the future”, and other groundless strands of exceptionalist thought.
Mitt Romney rambled about “that unique blend of optimism, humility, and the utter confidence that, when the world needs something to do that, you need an American”. The crowd ate this up, but people around the world laugh at us for this arrogance, this complacence, this sense that the world orbits around our so-called “Heartland” in an era when global dynamics are so obviously in such flux. We’re seen as so many suckers for lapping up the notion that only Americans have “strength and power and goodness”, that we’re the only country in which people “help each other out in different ways”, and for meeting adversity or criticism with the mindless chant “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”, which make our political rallies look like something out of a ‘30s newsreel.
I know a lot of Europeans who visit the United States to study, in humanistic and social scientific fields, for business and engineering, the natural, applied, and formal sciences. Most of them don’t want to stay and work here. Our universities (including those which are publicly funded) are widely recognised as being the best in the world, but that’s where the envy ends. Europeans are often shocked by the poverty they see here, uncomfortable at the economic inequality which characterises divides both within cities and between suburban and rural areas. They are appalled by the lack of collective investment in the collective good. They are surprised by the deteriorating quality of our infrastructure and dismayed both at the poor quality of life here and that people do not demand better.
And people from the rising nations of Asia and Latin America are astonished at how little a country with solid institutions and such incredible resources chooses to do with what it has at its disposal. They are bewildered at our failure to invest in energy technologies which are seen in the rest of the world as necessities. The United States is increasingly neither a model for building a humane and democratic society, nor for constructing an innovative and futuristic society. And it’s no wonder, if our interaction with the “rest of the world” is characterised by a sense that we have nothing to learn, that our achievements stem from divine favour rather than critical thought and determined collective action. Life is not better here than anywhere else, and we won’t change for the better until we temper our propensity for undeserved self-praise with a greater capacity for self-criticism.