Smile Politely

A cacophony of fools

Rashard Mendenhall needed a mulligan to explain his discomfort. It’s not that he likes Osama bin Laden. But he knew, when he saw crowds chanting USA! USA!, that something was amiss.

Chanting crowds express no big ideas. Some don’t know why they’re chanting. They lack the sophistication to explain their visceral impulses.The same may be true of those repulsed by wild-eyed nationalism.

I was uneasy, too. But I know the reason.

Those people shouting USA! USA! are only Americans by default, by accident of birth. They would be chanting for their country in Tehran. If deprived of something national to chant about, they’d chant about something regional, usually a soccer team.

My team wins! My team wins!

The instinct to rivalry goes way back. “Me against my brother; my brother and me against my cousin; Me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger.”

Today’s accidental Americans perpetuate that old Arabic slogan. How ironic.

           Definitely not Americans                                             Possibly an American

To be an American is to be a republican. Governance is intellectual, based on ideas and rule of law. The opposite is monarchy, government based on blood succession. Monarchy derives from brute force.

This distinction is known as “American exceptionalism.” We are the exception. We were founded on ideas, rather than bloody battle.

Our English overlords refused to accept our independence until we beat them in bloody battle, because that’s what they understand.

American leaders tend to study law, history, and political science. English royals, from William the Conqueror to William the Balding, are all military men.

The modern crop of populist Republicans often cited “American exceptionalism” in 2010, the same way they said “whack a mole” a lot in 2006, and “mollycoddling” in 2008. But these Republicans are not republicans.

The phrase was merely trendy. They didn’t know what it means.

References to a “shining city on a hill” and “divine providence” conjure images of spired castles, and the hand of god. In this usage of the phrase, the root of exceptionalism is hazy, ineffable.

To cite god as our benefactor — rather than the framers — reeks of monarchy. Is anything more unAmerican than the divine right of kings?

Hazy sourcing may feel acceptable if your entire existence is based on faith, rather than reasoning, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

Besides, the Jesus story features a fine bit of Americanism: Non-republicans might think “turn the other cheek” promotes nonresistance. A good republican knows what it really means. “You might be stronger than I am, but I’m not backing down and I’m not going away.”


Americans are born in every country. Some never make it to America, but that’s okay. Their minds and voices are needed elsewhere.

We should encourage them.

That’s why shouting USA! USA! is an inherently bad idea. It doesn’t explicitly proclaim our unwavering dedication to ideas over despotism. It doesn’t declare “republicans everywhere, you are one of us.”

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