WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 26: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the beginning of a new conference with members of the coronavirus task force, including Vice President Mike Pence in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump updated the American people about what his administration’s ‘whole of government’ response to the global coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
By Michael J. Cozzillio and Krista J. Cozzillio
Recently, television host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough gave a passionate and almost persuasive soliloquy about American exceptionalism. He correctly extolled the country’s virtues in the areas of science, medicine, literature and the law, among others.
Unfortunately, he omitted references to transportation, health care, environment, human rights, immigration, gun control, many sports, and other areas of potential distinction where our exaggerated sense of progress and success have been dwarfed by countries whose populations and resources we outnumber exponentially.
Scaborough candidly explained that this pride in America must be qualified by the woeful absence of leadership that we have endured since 2017. He did not hesitate to add that his lofty view of America is subject to extreme scrutiny given the overwhelming “but” that President Donald Trump presents.
The point here is that if the qualifying “but” is significant enough it diminishes the virtues that presume to justify the “exceptionalism” distinction.
To be honest, we share Scaborough’s love of — and admiration for — America. We also concur with the idea that our country’s well-deserved reputation has been sullied by the self-indulgent, incompetent, selectively misanthropic occupant of the White House.Where we take issue is the degree to which the terms exceptionalism and Trumpism can co-exist.
In our view, it epitomizes dramatically a zero-sum game.
The notion of “American Exceptionalism” has a long and storied history debated for generations. It basically breaks down into three definitional concepts, each one distinct unto itself but unquestionably entwined with the others.
The first posits that the American experience is one that is unique and inherently differs from other nations of the world because at its inception its “founding” purpose was to give all people the chance to express themselves and their beliefs without fear of retribution – offering diversity in its purest form.
This description leads to its second incarnation, the American pursuit of freedom and equality among people and nations, and its desire to offer that dream to the world at large.
The third and final definition is perhaps the most simplistic, and sadly the most troublesome – the belief that “exceptionalism” is equated with “superiority.” Believing that we as Americans are superior to all others has led this country into too many indefensible situations. Frankly our better natures are exposed as truly exceptional only when we strive for overall “excellence.”
Whatever combination of descriptions is employed, it is undeniable that exceptionalism, while not requiring perfection, will not tolerate significant flaws. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So long as a nation is devoid of domestic vision and international respect, can it ever claim to be exceptional in the truest sense of the term?
For example, is it not oxymoronic to say that an award winning police department is “exceptional” but that it does have the country’s worst record in terms of brutality? When minorities are slaughtered in our streets without sufficient retribution, can a sovereign whose calling card is equality boast that it is exceptional?
Ponder the law school that spends all of its scholarship money on 60 percent of the incoming class yet basically is devoid of any admission standards on the bottom 40 percent.
This self-appointed paragon of legal education dominates inter-school competitions in every respect. However, its bar passage rate is one of the lowest in the country. Exceptional? Not by conventional academic criteria. Can a man who cooks, cleans, does laundry, remembers all important events in his marriage, and refrains from gambling or drinking to excess, be deemed an exceptional husband if he is only unfaithful to his wife occasionally?
No country is without shortcomings, but let’s not get too carried away with our own accomplishments, as wonderful as they are. Perhaps the foregoing points should underscore our reluctance to get ahead of our skates when it comes to American exceptionalism.
We would challenge anyone to claim another nation is “superior” or has reached a higher level of overall achievement in a mere 200-year span.
But, are we exceptional?
The author Pearl S. Buck wrote that the true test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members. Starving children, the homeless slumbering on grates, quality health care still an emerging concept, and most recently barbaric law enforcement techniques seemingly reserved for people of color, abound. If we do not confront these problems our legitimate pride will smell like jingoistic braggadocio.
Finally, please spare us the tired refrain “If you don’t like this country, get out.” Loving America does not demand ignoring its deficiencies. Misguided patriotism is often the “last refuge of a scoundrel.” The dilution of excellence and a willingness not only to accept mediocrity and “near misses,” but to diminish their significance to an asterisk, is unacceptable.
Of greater importance, it is misleading and often dangerous.
So long as Trump is president, this wonderful land will only be exceptional in its willingness to indulge a tyrant and forgive sins that threaten to condemn its all-too-mortal soul.
This nation’s greatness cannot and should not be questioned. But, any claim of exceptionalism will not survive four more years of inept governance, indifferent to America’s shortcomings.
Michael J. Cozzillio is a former member of the faculty at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law as well as Widener Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg. Krista J. Cozzillio is a graduate of Vassar College and Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. She is a former law school administrator and area piano instructor. Their work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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