What’s So Great About Us

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline?

It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those in need, while maintaining a political stability, a standard of living, and a love of country that are the envy of the world — all at the same time. To do all these things at once, America must indeed be unusual. Or even, as Alexis de Tocqueville said a century and a half ago, exceptional.

Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, in their Preface to Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.

Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation is the book that the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said all the presidential candidates had to read. “What is unique about America?” Patterson asked in the New York Times Book Review this summer. “What drives its vitality in economic, cultural and social affairs? Why is it so envied and reviled in the rest of the world? Why are its politics so peculiar? Why is it so culturally fraught?”

There are giant gaps in this big book, it turns out, starting with the Iraq War as an expression of how Americans think and act outside the neighborhood. Editors James Q. Wilson and Peter H. Schuck decided to duck foreign policy altogether. It’s an odd omission especially because the unilateralism inside George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” is so clearly an extension of an “exceptionalist” premise — that old alliances, United Nations rules, even Geneva Conventions do not restrain the United States of America.

The mood of the book tends toward the celebratory. Most of the score of contributing scholars seem to agree we’re more unlike the rest of the world than like it, and better off for the difference. But counter-indications are also spelled out — on the matter of inequality and upward mobility, for example — and some gravely worrisome trends. A rising tide lifts all yachts in our economy today. “The evidence for increased inequality since the 1970s is overwhelming,” write Gary Burtless and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “The top of the distribution is pulling away from average and below-average earners, and until the early 1990s there was evidence that the bottom was falling further behind the middle of the distribution.” The gift of upward mobility in the U.S. is bestowed mainly on immigrants, the day they get here. “People born in the U.S. do not enjoy exceptional opportunities for upward mobility compared with people born in other rich countries.”

In our conversation, panjandrum James Q. Wilson voices the dismay of his generation at the corruption and commercialization of American culture for export — which in another day meant gems like Walt Whitman, Jerome Kern and Gene Kelly. In our own era it’s a long way from Louis Armstrong to the knock-offs, far and wide, of “American Idol.” This is a subject we take up next with the insatiably curious and critical Martha Bayles, a contributor to Understanding America.

Related Content

  • hurley

    A strange interview with John Q. Public. Chris sounded like a radical at the Rotary Club, reminding me of a wonderful comment somewhere online likening the donkey and elephant shows to the Summer of Love vs. The Night of the Living Dead. Glad Chris stood his ground, politely, as ever.

    Wilson’s decision, along with that of his co-editor, to omit any discussion of American foreign policy in a book about what it purports to be about seems to me to sink the venture from the start. What could be more relevant in the wake of recent events in Georgia, with Russia pointing to the US role in Kosovo as precedent, etc. Nowhere is American exceptionalism more pronounced than in it’s attitude to other countries and its embrace of Empire. It’s tautological: you can’t draw, much less make, an exception, in a void. Exceptional in comparison to what? Perhaps the thrust is that we are exceptional to ourselves, but that only points up an already dangerous cultural narcissism.

    I haven’t read the book, but from what I take from the interview, an interesting antidote might be Giorgio Agamben’s State of the Exception.

    On a lighter note, check this out:


    #2 my favorite.

  • Honest question: was there any type of irony involved in wording this episode’s title?

    As an ethnographer, a non-nationalist, and a non-citizen of the U.S., I did have personal reactions to both the title and portions of the show. But I’m genuinely wondering about the title as, depending on how ironic it’s interpreted to be, it sounds radically disconnected with both this specific episode’s content and the usual tone of ROS.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Perhaps it is germane within this context of willful, intentional foreign policy amnesia that I offer the following thoughts after the RNC: I find it strange, strange in a cruel way, that Senator McCain’s POW experience does not invite a discussion about the context and viewpoints of the Vietnam war. It is likely that what I am suggestion is using a particular set of events from the past as a vehicle to achieve some wisdom about the present and future. However, I would like to suggest that the exercise of learning from one’s mistakes in an effort to avoid repeating those types of mistakes is not comprehensive enough. It is my opinion that without a deeper and wider understanding of this particular conflict, that we cannot understand a core piece to the message of Senator McCain, and others who experienced this conflict. Paradoxically I feel strongly that the message that Senator McCain carries within him and expresses in earnest language is not understood well by this message carrier. His actions betray a lack of understanding and wisdom. Though I am uncertain whether I believe Senator McCain is merely exploiting his personal history for gain, I do feel it borders closely to the obscene to use any war as a political prop. Others can decide, and probably will decide that Senator McCain, like Senator Kerry, have used their Vietnam war experience as a cynical means of political gain. I can certainly understand that POV. However, this is not the only reading of their monologue. Oddly enough, I feel a discussion about the current post 9/11 context unhelpful in understanding the Vietnam conflict. For me, it is beyond the scope of my understanding to use the present context with regard to the U.S. as a framework for understanding the this particular past. Thus, this is not a pretext to a critique of the post 9/11 foreign policy. Hence, my personal willful amnesia.

    So, since Senator McCain, like Senator Kerry in 2004, insists upon opening this door, let me suggest there are many viewpoints of the experience of the Vietnam war. We should not forget their service. Both Senator McCain and Senator Kerry have used Vietnam as backdrop, an overt undercurrent, with regard to their campaigns. The differences between the two Senator’s presidential campaigns with respect to Vietnam are largely superficial and negligible. Neither invite discussion of the larger context than their individual campaign. Nor do political assassins such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

    The contributions of these senators, like all those involved, were one minor factor in a larger, much more important matter: a country engaged in brutal, hostile rapport with itself and a foreign collective, which many believed in the U.S., we now know wrongly, to be an imminent threat of great urgency. At the time, not only were policy makers motives questioned, but those who carried out those policies were considered to be dubious examples of agents of blind obedience. This has resurfaced in the call: Country First and Support the Troops. For anyone with a spiritual or moral or ethical center, this is to create a dilemma for choosing what to serve; a false choice in the case of the Vietnam conflict. This is why the troops in some instances were regarded with disdain or indifference, as were the civilian and military planners. And like all chasms, those who were part of the anti-war/pro-peace movement were regarded with disdain and indifference manifest in such scenes as Kent State and the Oakland Protest rally where Hells Angels applied brutal force to protestors. Both state and non-state agents were used to surpress dissent. Though calls for troop support persist within the current context, this dilemma has not yet been reconciled. The explosive nature of the dilemma has not manifested itself for one reason: there has been no draft. Thus, from a contemporary daily grind perspective, the Vietnam war is over. Except, like all wars, it’s carried within the citizens who choose to reflect upon the behaviors and sacrifices of those who served in various capacities within the context of those causes. This is why it comes up in political monologue. A monologue which does not invite discussion. This is a serious problem in my estimation.

    This absence of dialog about the Vietnam conflict is a form of suppression, which for me is akin to a collective cruelty. And this cruelty is quite akin to torture, but obviously of a very different type, for no physical harm is involved. The harm is emotional and intellectual, an anxiety not a fear. This turn away from the larger context of Vietnam makes language the enemy in its suppression. The logic of torture, like most obscene cruelty, is not seeking truth found in information through the vehicle of human expression, but finally to render ‘the other’ mute. The other has no means of expression available that can be shared with ones tormentors simply because the other is unreliable a priori. Even expressions of pain, misery and hurt cannot be trusted. This leads to a fairly serious question: can we honor Senator McCain and Senator Kerry, yet ask larger questions and seek answers, even if those questions and answers call into question the nature of their service? My gut tells me no, and this is why it reeks of the insidiousness of torture. The questions and answers provided by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth close off discussion for their agenda is not understanding, but engineering public opinion for political gain, as is other advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org. They serve an agenda, not understanding of the larger and necessary context.

    This is expressed in polemics. The polemics in this country have become the polemics of mutual suppression heard in the deafening roars from various quarters. In its wake, victimization becomes the de facto means of appeal; victimization created by the other. The appeals are merely to ones fellow travelers. The other becomes unnecessary. Language becomes unreliable because it becomes private. The final logic, only achieved in the most nihilistic expressions of the polemic is that all other beyond the self are unreliable. The threat is made manifest in polemics. Only the threat becomes reliable and worthy of trust. Anxiety slides into fear and expressions of fear. Tim McVeigh is an example.

    Senator McCain, as did Senator Kerry, brings up his war experience. It is to create context and content for understanding his character, as well as, convince us he is worthy of our vote. That is fairly ordinary in that it is an appeal to respect, admire, and revere his character, and by implication his judgment. But there are many viewpoints and feelings about the Vietnam war experienced in this country. And though it is a requirement to reconcile ourselves with our past, lest we tear ourselves to pieces in unresolved conflict, we cannot reconcile ourselves with our past by offering up sentimental, heartfelt tributes for those who endured terrible, often irreparable damage. Though I claim to not be able to fully understand the current context with any reliable measure, it seems fairly plausible to suggest at this time that Iraq is a demonstration that no lesson and wisdom has been instilled into collective soul of the U.S. other than the lessons of political and military propaganda. But for me, in matters regarding war, the glass is not just half-empty, the glass has been demolished by agents and advocates of violence and conflict.

    As a point of contrast of lessons learned, I suggest the status quo, ad hoc pacifism found in contemporary Germany. Imperfect as all countries must be for they are made up of human beings, yet it is a reasonable argument to suggest that Germany has largely learned from its past mistakes of using collective violence against the other as a means of conduct; a conduct in service to exploit its population in seeking remedies for wrongs, both fictional and non-fictional, perpetrated upon it by the other. This is not to dismiss both pre and post 1945 violence in Germany, and its own internal violent and suppressive machinations, it is simply to serve as an example of incremental behavioral change at the level of collective efforts and energies. Germany’s war machine up to the present has been largely dismantled with regard to its pre-1945 self. And it has been embraced by the population in most measures, with some exceptions. What I surmise as the important lesson here is that the external means which brought about this change are not as important in the long run than the internal means. It is the internal means, a change of outlook, mind, I suggest spirit, that creates sustainable, long term change. And I would think this change is a change which channels latent forces, those reservoirs of decency that already exist. This is not to denigrate the service of those who brought this change about, nor the role played by external forces in shielding Germany from conflict. It is merely to suggest what is necessary for long, sustainable non-violent behavior must come largely from within. The history of Tibet can provide another example. But, enough of that digression.

    It would be a major contribution to us, if Senator McCain’s personal story could or would invite a discussion about the larger meaning and understanding of this conflict. And though I personally and unable to understand the present, I think it reasonable for others to use his story, and expand this dialog to others who endured the Vietnam conflict, and apply those lessons and wisdoms to the conflicts of the present, and how best to deal with those conflicts which will surely arise in the future. I am pessimistic about this possibility among the general public, though I suspect there have been and continue to be efforts among opaque organizations the require continual improvement, such as, the military, and civilian security groups.

    But perhaps I’m giving to much to my personal, cynical leanings, for all things held sway both by and within the human imagination there is the potential for tangible outcomes that transcend chronic modes of conduct. The profusion of state and small group terror and violence show no signs of abating in any qualitative or quantitative measures. The human heart and human mind are involved. And those ‘organs’ once weaponized have difficulty in recovering their equilibrium. Peace, as the body in repose, is the most natural equilibrium for all beings, collective or individual. The effort required for peace is nearly zero, the effort required for war, terror, and collective violence is asymptotic. Vietnam is a demonstration of this simple anecdote.

    Has this been a polemic? Probably. A small whimper among the deafening roar. I suspect the worst kind of clap trap. But if it is, then it is a failure in decency, intentional decency. The the old phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” would suggest this is a naive outlook, but I have always thought this phrase cleverly incorrect. My turn of this phrase goes as follows: The path to sustainable wisdom is paved with authentic good will and a willingness to share ones good will. The walk upon this path is the willingness to hold council with others and learn both of one’s mistakes and the wisdom of others. The hellish path is paved with an obedience to cynicism.

  • park

    It’s amazing how an intelligent man can oversimplify incredibly complex and profound moments in history. His claim that America attacked Iraq because of it’s “simple belief in freedom” sounds like a line bullhorned by some quota hungry military recruiter ambushing an isolated teenager in some shopping mall parking lot in Depressed Town, America.

    I began listening to the episode unfamiliar with Mr Wilson and his work, eager and curious, with a vague suspicion that I would be the future owner of his book, but after hearing some of the conclusions he’s drawn about this American experience we share, I find myself doubting his judgement. I’m now more inclined to keep my money in my pocket and swing by the library for a closer look at what may be just another collection of jingoistic essays.

  • park

    Mr Wilson seems to want to give America credit for ultimately granting African Americans civil rights 100 years after the end of slavery rather than placing the credit where it so obviously belongs–with African Americans and their allies. America made this concession only after 10+ years of acute civil disobedience. Were it not for the perpetual threat of domestic uprising and the potential threat of insurrection I doubt that the custodians of America would have made the, by in large, pragmatic choice of granting it’s own citizens civil rights. It was after all LBJ who signed the Civil Rights Act, and history has shown that he was no real friend of the Negro. If Black people had never fought and died for civil rights, then America would never have granted them. And the struggle was far from over in 1965.

    Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and their peers, however useless they may seem to Mr Wilson, have, with their imperfect and determined humanity, maintained mainstream awareness of Black identity, ascendency and struggle and have helped deliver the present reality in which it is possible for Mr Wilson to praise Barack Obama for succeeding because of “who he is”, as if the ‘he’ referred to isn’t still a black man navigating, however deftly, the unpredictable waters of racialized America.

    With regard to civil rights and, by extension, the possibility of as full a life as this society allows, America was improved in a profound and remarkable way by people who, in effect, weren’t allowed to be fully American. In a peculiar way Black people only began immigrating to America in 1965.

  • In Japan, there is a form of narcissistic genre of discourse called “nihonjinron”, in English: theorizing on what it is to be Japanese. Most of it compares Japanese society and culture with the US or European countries with the purpose of showing how Japan is unique (or exceptional) in the world. It’s a pseudo-scholastic exercise that uses reasoning to try and mask what is a basic sociopsychological need to find something essential (such as foundation stories, ethnic identity) that can bind one’s in-group and provide identity and a greater sense of self-worth. What is critical to this genre is the simplification and reification of lived cultural history, which if looked at with open eyes is actually a much more complex and messy affair, that begins with great violence.

    This show was a good example of that genre, but with an American flavour. America-jinron! It oozed with talk of and a nostalgia for the true, the exceptional America–the America without a brutal foreign policy, without a history of racism, without great inequity, even without today’s pop-culture.

    Why doesn’t Wilson just honestly come out and say HE needs America to be great and forgo all the babble.

    Why must Chris keep seeking show after show his national identity. He keeps mentioning jazz, baseball and some parts of the US Constitution. Good enough, isn’t it?

  • druthers

    I was astounded to hear Mr. Wilson profess his belief, it sounded like a profession of faith, that we invaded Iraq to spread freedom and democracy, using as support for this belief the fact that we could have had access to Iraqi oil in any case. Just so, access was not what was wanted; it was control and extension of American power through use of oil reserves.

    It difficult to imagine that Mr. Wilson does not see, or did not see, the shifting propaganda slogans, WMDs, dreadful dictator (fabricated by us) to our ardent desire to “free” the Iraqi people and establish a democracy for them. That the gullible American people were taken in by such gimmicks that were repeated incessently on radio and TV for months with the help of illuminated Evangelicals

    to whip up the war spirit is less surprising than to see a scholar like Mr. Wilson ready to espouse these naive memes. Does he truly think, and I say think, Cheney is interested in freedom and democracy?

    To then declare that the Iraquis are much better off now after the hundreds of thousands dead and the millions of displaced persons, seems somewhat presumtuous; the Iraquis do not seem to have come to this conclusion, if they have been consulted at all. However, in this we certainly are not an exception among empires that all considered their rule a gift, see the British and the “white man’s burden.”

    In “Nineveh and Its Remains, Henry Austin Layard describes the multiple complex societies that he encountered in the region under Turkish domination in that early time and where ever since occupying forces rarely withdraw unscathed.

  • potter

    I had the feeling that James Wilson’s exceptionalism in this discussion was not the same as Chris’s. It felt like a disconnect. Wilson I believe was talking about what makes us somewhat different as a country from the others, ie qualities. I think Chris was talking about an unwritten but understood doctrine of sorts that has formed the basis of our actions on the leadership level, sort of a feeling of being (perhaps in a religious sense) chosen people who are not subject to everyone else’s norms of behavior. Wilson and Chris end up agreeing about the Constitution, jazz and baseball- as our gifts to the world. .

    But this interpretation of exceptionalism ( Wilson’s) does not express the deep disillusionment ( and even shame) that many feel more than ever now from having been taken to war by our leaders when we did not absolutely have to go to war. This week that feeling is heightened seeing that good section of this country (visible at the Republican convention) supports this form of exceptionalism.

    I just don’t know how anyone can say, at this stage, that going to Iraq in the way that we did was right.

    I have heard soldiers say they are fighting for freedom but it always sounds to me like a mantra they have been taught, a form of brainwashing. What do they mean by that? I never heard that discussion.

    We have before us now two very different presidential candidates. ( Nader is saying they are the same). And still it might very well be a very close race.

    To OCP- that was too long for me though I think you had some good thoughts there. I will try to read it again but would be obliged, if you read this to write the nitty gritty of it.

    Hurley- I thank you for the Youtube link- it was wonderful and I found 2 others there as well that lifted me ( below linked). I had been haunting Comedy Central for Stewart and Colbert to lift my spirits this AM and they did well, but these homey-type ones really made me laugh. This is who we are!



  • dudedaddyj

    Chris! You are better than this show.

    The key with Ronald Reagan fellow James Q. was early on with the lax way he tossed ‘welfare state’ around. Which “welfare state?’ the one that subsidizes the oil industry? I think your fellow of Ronald Reagan was probably instead referring to “welfare queens.”

    Bah! Please next time you feature such shills; adquately profile their biographies: File this bloviating James Q under Ronald Reagan fellow, Commentary contributor and Pepperdine stooge.

  • potter

    I forgot to mention that Wilson says that he prefers to measure those who have less by the amount they spend. But this does not account for their indebtedness. 10% of people who hold mortgages are delinquent or are in foreclosure.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    potter: Thank you for even trying. What a ramble! I’ll try to refine my thinking (I am being too generous with myself, because it is feeling and emotions that are at work here) and distill this into something. Maybe I should use one of those word-cloud things floating around the internet. I can be gasbag for sure.

    Immediate cursory distillation, but still to windy: Senators Kerry 2004 and McCain 2008 have used, and I expect Senator McCain will continue to use, a war service story as a means to promote a candidacy. This is anathema to public service for it glorifies sacrifice and service on the alter of cynical political careerism. It makes war service a posture for future gain. However, the potential for cruelty here is not the use of service as a promotional tool. The issue here is that the means of inserting this into the political campaign does not invite a discussion about the larger context of their service in any full measure. Collective editorial fiat will dictate this.

    There are many who are still alive who have been wounded by this conflict with feelings of guilt and betrayal, an inability to cope with daily life, and a plethora of other emotions and behaviors for which no words can describe. The paradox of this is that I believe both Senators would understand this and would willingly respond to a dialog around this conflict. The culprit is more insidious, hence the dredging up of torture as both metaphor and agent on my part. Tormentor and victim have become one and the same in this case. Tortures last logic is to mute the other.

    I mean to offend no one here or anywhere for that matter, but after thinking about this matter for a while, it is my opinion that these campaigns have used war service as a Personal Resurrection Story (I cannot imagine I am alone in this conclusion). Which would be reasonable if not hagiographic except for the fact that Resurrection Stories, especially for patriotic embellishment, do not accommodate a variety of view points upon the very context from which they flow from. They tend towards the hermetic. It certainly tends towards the obscure and co-opted within a public political context. Hence, a collective mute response is observed after the ritual homage of admiration and reverence for the protagonist/candidate.

    This is what I find troubling, both in the wake of the RNC 2008 and my latent thoughts about the DNC 2004. If my charges seem sever or unfounded or woefully out of step with current culture, one needs to consider that many living personal histories are entangled deeply in this conflict, and many still harbor intense opinions as to the wisdom of this conflict and those who planned it and those who carried it out. I would guess, Senators McCain and Kerry both understand this for they have both lived it and have commented upon this very condition.

    These campaigns have dredged this conflict up, but only for monologue brand recognition potential. This is to inflict further wounds of the cruelest kind.

    I believe, perhaps unwisely, that these thoughts offer a germane example to a thread which attempts to contend with the exceptional nature of the U.S. for which there is a willful and intentional avoidance of the historical record of U.S. conflict and violence.

  • jnathaniel

    I echo Park, above. I listened, not believing that any thinking person could take a survey of U.S. soldiers about their tour(s) in Iraq as evidence of their objective belief about the spirit of their mission. Some social scientists simply fail to consider that human belief is, at times, a function of circumstantial necessity. Of course they’re protecting “America’s Freedom,” by fighting the enemies in Iraq. The more interesting question is whether we would have them think otherwise.

    Even beyond that rather blind assertion, Mr. Wilson sounded more like the disgruntled next door neighbor, aching for all those “kids” to get out of his rose garden. Perhaps we could all be so kind as to remember the infamous juxtaposition of the concepts “smoking gun” and “mushroom” cloud as we reflect on Mr. Wilson’s comment as to the President’s “noble” motives for getting us all tangled up in this Texas sized waste of lives, money, and world political capital.

    Chris- I commend you for graciously disagreeing with your guest on this one. I’m not sure I remember a one on one tussle of this sort having occurred in previous shows. But in the end you both came around the bend together- jazz, baseball, and a happy ending.

  • potter

    Thanks OCP- have not read your revision yet but I have to add to my above point. The other problem with assessing “better off” “worse off” by spending, or spending alone, is that it does not tell the whole story. How hard and long do people have to work to make ends meet? Can a parent afford stay home to raise children for instance? Can they, are they, saving for college?

    I see so many grandmothers with babies in the supermarket.

    The woman who delivers my paper has two babies (twins) and an 8 year old. She gets up awfully early each day to do her route while her husband watches the kid before he goes to work.

  • potter

    OCP- I think I understand what you are saying. This is not necessarily your point but maybe what I am adding to it- or maybe it is your point. War experience was/is used in both instances Kerry and McCain as evidence of character building and love of country. But there was no deeper or wider examination of the war and whether unquestioned unexamined service is really about love of country. The war was a given. Kerry was against the Viet Nam War towards the end. McCain I don’t know how he felt. I suspect he may feel that we should have been given a chance to “win” which is why he talks so much about winning in Iraq. Bill Clinton had to assure the country about his protest of that war. Bush and Cheney were able to evade service for selfish reasons and it did not keep them from office. I believe Bush feels that we were not allowed to win the Viet Nam War. So as to the lessons learned from it- I don’t think we are, those who lived through it, in agreement about it still. This is part of, or part of the kind of thinking, that divides us. We are very divided.

    So while I felt that it was very insightful ( for me) that James Wilson made the point that we do not have a unified government at any time, that there is a struggle for supremacy and this is exceptional. ( I don’t know if it is unique), this is what the founders in their wisdom gave us, this ongoing struggle.

    Still in the end it’s about the results. At the moment I along with most of the country believe we have been going in the wrong direction. I do not know if our Constitution is working for us anymore, or our government, certainly not in matters of war.

  • potter

    I believe that McCain has been deeply affected by his war experience, traumatized and distorted or bent by it. This is as worrisome to me as his age and Sarah Palin. We should be talking about this- if that is what you are getting at OCP. Also I think it is very true that those who are so deeply entangled in this current experience have view that are so bent. I think I understand your point.

    Also see this:

    McCain and the Forrestal

  • Hi Potter!

    Another point about assessing better or worse off. Wilson mentioned improved productivity in the US economy as a sign that there is no need to be worried. What he didn’t say is that by standard measurements, productivity increases if revenues go up with the same or less number of employees. This says nothing about those same employees working longer hours for the same pay. Talk about worse off!

    Also, I wonder why you feel SHAME about the war. Did you support it? I can understand a feeling of “god, not again” hopelessness, but why shame?

    Also, why do you think Chris feels such a need to prove that America IS exceptional (a hopeless endeavour). As a highly travelled, experienced and read person, why can’t he get beyond the pull of national pride? (I’d love to hear Chris’ own answer to this question).

  • olivercranglesparrot

    For some reason my comments are not posting. What gives Chris. I have been eighty sixed? If this posts, I guess not, which will make this situation even stranger.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Weird. I pulled out an html link that I was going to share. Perhaps this is the problem? Here goes …

    potter, thank you for the gifts of clarity and insight and willingness to share. I read your comments and you’ve boiled it down quite beautifully. The link you provided is a real gift to me. This really illuminates a crux to a larger problem:

    “McCain often says that he understands how hellish war is, and he said that again last night. Yet while he talks, once in a while, about the Forrestal tragedy, he never mentions his reaction to it. ”

    The psychological fragmentation is fairly apparent to me. This occurs across the culture. Thus begins a game of bargaining where the stronger urges and impulses hold sway. I’ll probably have more to say about this latter.

  • potter

    Thanks OCP – glad I am able to contribute to your insight… and get it.

    Sidewalker- when I say shame- I mean that living here in the USA, I am undeniably responsible for what has happened, what my country does no matter what I support or don’t support. I did not support going to war. I imagine that many of those who did support it, still do and cling to their views about the war having to do with protecting this country. This really saddens me.

    I was in Spain in the Fall of 06 for a filming of something that my husband was doing for work and we were so warmly embraced. But one woman came up to me and shook her finger at me and asked how we could have elected Bush TWICE! All I could say was that I was sorry-I did not vote for him. This is what I mean. I was ashamed nevertheless.

  • Potter, sorry to go on about this, but since you never supported the war and have been a vocal opponent of it, I still can’t understand why you would feel shame, which is a feeling used to regulate social behaviour. Given your experience in Spain, it would seem that you are ashamed because global society deems US behaviour unacceptable and you feel you must in some measure take responsibility for that behaviour as an American. Is this because you voted for people who voted to back the invasion? Should all Americans feel shame?

    I also wonder if the feeling of shame is not just the flip-side of a national pride that can easily be manipulated by those in power to get approval for their actions.

  • potter

    Sidewalker. Shame is something I felt when I was outside of this country. When I am outside of this country, or posting on a forum that is international, to others I represent this country as one American, a part of a democracy. That means to the rest of the world I had something to do with how this country behaves. So when the woman shook her finger at me, I could feel she cared, beyond her front door, about matters in the world today. She was very emotional about Bush and had someone in front of her to hold accountable. Although I did not not vote Republican and felt just the way she did-I did feel shame for us and apologized. We set ourselves up as an example don’t we? Or we used to. I think that is over.

    I believe in Japan where you live- shame is an important emotion used to regulate social behavior. To some much lesser extent it is here too but the question is to what effect?

    The use of patriotism to achieve and hold onto and abuse power is old and we are no exception ( speaking of exceptionalism) despite our Constitution.

    When we vote in this republic, we vote for who we think will be on the right side of issues especially when it comes to war. Kerry misjudged Bush and Cheney. He should have known better before he voted. Kennedy of course knew better. In certain situations this does not absolve me though.

    By the way I think the end of McCain’s speech (quoted below) to the roaring cheering crowd at the Republican convention was totally chilling. It had patriotic appeal but in the form of warring,being special, and with God. This was after the night when surrogates belittled Obama’s community service and still are. This after war protesters were intimidated and arrested in St. Paul:

    If you find faults with our country, make it a better one. If you’re disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our armed forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed. Our country will be the better, and you will be the happier. Because nothing brings greater happiness in life than to serve a cause greater than yourself.

    I’m going to fight for my cause every day as your president. I’m going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I’m an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight with me.

    Fight for what’s right for our country.

    Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.

    Fight for our children’s future.

    Fight for justice and opportunity for all.

    Stand up to defend our country from its enemies.

    Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.

    Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.

    Thank you, and God bless you.

  • Thanks for your explanation Potter, but I still don’t track you. I just can’t see why you have to feel shame. Do you feel shame for the Vietnam War and for slavery?

    Maybe it’s that I’ve lived 20 years away that I feel not attachment to the nation-state. Of course I have attachments to my family and friends and fond memories. But I feel no need to defend or apologize for the actions of the nation-state.

    It is one of the strangest things to me, this feeling of patriotism, as the love of a way of life or place that one thinks is the best in the world, especially when it is at the scale of the country. In the case of the US, there are many places and ways of life within, so how can one talk about a patriotism for America. Also, the way of life changes over time, so which America would one be a patriot to? Furthermore, there are so many places and ways of life that probably if experienced, one could fall in love with. That has happened with me in Tokyo. But I don’t think it is the best place in the world, so I can not call myself a Tokyo patriot.

    Do you really believe what all the politicians have to say, that the US is the greatest country (gag!). If so, can you explain to me in what way?

  • jazzman

    Potter & Sidewalker: I also am ashamed of the collective behavior of our nation vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Whether or not we agree with the choices our leaders make, the majority has elected them to represent ALL of us. We vote for those whose agenda we reckon will align most closely with our own and many (mostly in my case) times against those whose perceived agenda is contrary to our beliefs. I was dismayed to hear Mr. Wilson advocate for the “people” to decide the wages of criminality and capital punishment instead of the “elites” which is precisely why Hamilton pushed for the representative republic we have. The “best and brightest” (elites) whom we elect are supposed to buck the populism and emotional fervor when it is contrary to their (hopefully) considered ideal and the ideals represented by the great experiment that is constitutionally enshrined Government of the People, by the People

    Mr. Wilson believes that the invasion of Iraq was justified by noble intent which was to improve the Iraqi citizen’s lot by deposing a brutal dictator and to bring freedom and our sense of democracy to that (artificial) country (an afterthought when WsMD were not discovered.) He is willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and over 4 thousand American service personnel not to mention the maiming of 30 thousand troops and untold civilians. He is fine with the sacrifices and disruptions on the homefront to support the war that most believed would not occur. All in the name of an abstract we call FREEDOM.

    There is no real difference between that mode of thinking and any subjugator’s methodology. It is the consequentialism philosophy which states THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS. We (whomever) believe that we have the Truth and our way is superior to yours because it is True and we will do whatever it takes to impose our will on you – we will kill you until you capitulate even if our citizens (not the leaders) have to die beating you into submission, we believe so strongly in our idea that nothing else matters.

    He also deplores the excesses of personal freedom and maintains that it leads to depravity and immorality, overt sexual impropriety, trashy films and shallow pop songs instead of the entertainment gravitas of Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin (1 who married 4 times and the other who glorified intoxication) and decries the “banging on guitars” of modern music. He sounds like a curmudgeon who rails against those disrespectful whippersnappers. He hates us for our freedom (maybe al-Qaeda could find a role for him.)

    The thing that makes us great and America the exception in this world and also its greatest promise is its codification of abstract ideals. The idea that a disparate populace could with a minimal set of universal (to the founders, flawed as they were personally) principles could govern themselves, peacefully transfer governmental power and settle disputes equitably by agreed upon rules, is one that has for better or worse enabled a unique model for the world to witness and if they choose, emulate.

    So Sidewalker One is patriotic not to the physical country or cultures, it the love of the “Ideal America” which one relates to on a psychic level even though it may appear jingoistic it is to the idea from which these United States was created.

    As Bill Clinton said at the Democratic Convention: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

    Peace to ALL,


  • potter

    Sidewalker: It is one of the strangest things to me, this feeling of patriotism, as the love of a way of life or place that one thinks is the best in the world, especially when it is at the scale of the country. In the case of the US, there are many places and ways of life within, so how can one talk about a patriotism for America.

    Jazzman :I also am ashamed of the collective behavior of our nation vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Whether or not we agree with the choices our leaders make, the majority has elected them to represent ALL of us.

    When this country began it was a a lot smaller, simpler, less multi-cultural, less noisy, less divided, probably less confused as well.

    The founders were not who we would today have as leaders. People like them just don’t make it through.

    I think that the foundations/ principles that we were given at the outset, though they still seem extraordinary are both practically and philosophically barely holding us up well enough today. We are asking an awful lot of the Constitution and laws to keep us going on towards those ideals when it seems that too many have found ways to take advantage for selfish and purely partisan/ideological ends\ in order to prevail over the rest. This extends now to our foreign relations.This need to impose ourselves was not the original spirit of this country or it’s laws. If those that are to carry these ideas forward do not even understand this then the ideals we had and lost, or are losing, will live on elsewhere and better in other lands.

    What I am ashamed of, and Jazzman puts it well too, is that we present ourselves and act as though we have arrived at what we set out to be and, from that dreamland, claim to have exceptional rights attached. In fact we are hardly there at all, And even if we were there should we be behaving in this way? Are we more losing the sense of who we set out to be (collectively and by example) altogether? Were we were ever supposed to arrive? Were we not just to strive? All that would mean some humility at least. Ironically, GWBush used that word when he ran in 2000. He used the word “humble”.

  • gizmologix


    The more I listened to Wilson talk the angrier I got. I’ll sum up his book:

    2+2=5 (Because I say so)

    War is Peace

    Slavery is Freedom

    Greed is Good (by Gordon Gekko)

  • gizmologix

    In essence Wilson’s book is similar to Woodrow Wilson’s ideas of “freedom” and regardless of how one achieves it. It’s idealistic and abstract.

    I’d suggest Wilson pick-up a M-16 and stand post while his buddies get blown up by a IDE. Then, on the next patrol take out his anger on a couple of Iraqi teenagers “just for the hell of it.” Or engage in nighttime raids on suspected “terrorist” families while fighting his own conscience. Or take in his own hands the order from up-on-high to “kill, on-sight, anyone out after curfew.” Which he may enjoy for a while (taking out his anger). But will surely come back from Iraq without his soul (as are many soldiers experiencing).

    With the backdrop of the horrors of this war…I find it interesting that Wilson sites examples of soldiers saying that they are “fighting for freedom” and he has no problem with this ideal. Contexts is important. Soldiers should not be fighting for an abstract freedom abroad. They should be fighting to defend the US Constitution and against all enemies, foreign and DOMESTIC. Which includes the special interest groups that sent them there.

  • jazzman


    Sometimes 2+2 does =5

    2 dBm + 2 dBm = 5 dBm (Because it does)

  • Tom

    This was an awful interview. The only bad interview I’ve ever heard on this show. I couldn’t help but wondering; since Chris’s disdain for this guest and his project were so palpable, why even bother having him on the show? A real low point was when Wilson responded to a question regarding the Iraq War and Chris told him how he would have responded to the question, had he been asked. Well, Chris, nobody is interviewing you right now. When they do, you can say what you wish to say – but until then, Wilson has the floor by your invitation. We are all intelligent enough to form our own decisions on the merits of his arguments without you grunting scornfully in the mic every time he answers a question.
    An atypical misstep in an otherwise great series of programs.