National Interests

On Exceptionalism, Oaths, and the Romance of the Center


For this issue, we invited four public intellectuals to gather together and discuss our current state of affairs and a few of the larger political themes that animate them. The group included Anuradha Bhagwati, a Marine Corps veteran and author of Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience; New York Times columnist and CBS political analyst Jamelle Bouie; Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and associate professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of THICK: And Other Essays; and Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale and author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. The conversation took place over Zoom on July 30, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.


VQR: Americans find themselves in an unprecedented political crisis, one that includes speculation that the president might not accept the results of a free election he ends up losing. This seems to be part of a larger reckoning with the end of American exceptionalism. At the same time, there are other reckonings—with race, gender, inequity, for example—that force us to ask what was propping up this idea of exceptionalism to begin with. To what degree was it part of a self-reinforcing mythology? Are we better off without it shaping the narrative? 

Tressie McMillan Cottom: There is, of course, the mythology of American exceptionalism. But if you take the term itself at face value, exceptionalism doesn’t necessarily mean a good thing. I think the contradiction in exceptionalism has always been about whether or not you think it’s exceptionally good or exceptionally bad on its most basic terms, and that both of those things have been true. At any given point, we’re just looking at a different facet of the contradiction that is inherent in a democracy built on colonialism and slavery. We just keep shifting the facet of our understanding and seeing it from different slices of it. But the contradiction is never resolved, and I don’t think it can be resolved by keeping the social institutions that this contradiction built. I don’t know that we’re in a moment quite yet where those social institutions are crumbling. They’re definitely weakening. 

Social institutions are always more fragile than we like to think they are. They really are faith-based ideas as much as they are anything structural. But even given an understanding of how fragile our faith is in the social institutions that hold up this society—even given that, right now—I don’t know that it’s been quite so obvious how fragile these institutions are to so many people at one time in a very long time.

Now, I tend to be on the side that says that the institutions of a democracy built on slavery can only keep perpetuating that kind of extraction and violence, and that reimagining them is the ultimate positive end of that exceptionalism. It can, however, go the other way. I don’t know where we are right now. I don’t have any predictions for how it goes. Yes, we have what’s happening in politics (small p), but I also see people out doing politics in a very different way—and I can be quite hopeful about that. But I swing wildly back and forth between, at this point, total nihilism and then rampant, pragmatic hope. Like on a brief, four-day cycle.

Anuradha Bhagwati: I spent the first few decades of my life trying to belong to American society—as a daughter of immigrants from India, a father with dark skin. I didn’t realize I wasn’t white; somehow, we were all trying to assimilate without even realizing what we were doing. I grew up in New York City, which is supposed to be some sort of progressive bastion, and it wasn’t so. And now, post-2016, I find myself trying to extract from all of that work I did to belong and assimilate. As I talk to friends and relatives around the world, I feel lost. I wasn’t American in the first place, which is often how I felt—you know, I wasn’t a real Marine, I wasn’t Marine enough, I wasn’t white enough, I was constantly trying to fit into the structures I was navigating and constantly told that I didn’t belong. So now it’s fascinating to be reading about countries closing their borders to the United States during this pandemic—quite justifiably—but also a country like Ghana opening itself to Black Americans, as if they know the US isn’t capable of fixing its own race problem. It’s just fascinating. I have been blamed for the election of Donald Trump overseas, and I’ve tried to explain why the United States is the way it is—as many of us have understood it to be this way, maybe in different forms. But the rest of the planet doesn’t always know what’s going on here, doesn’t understand the history of the United States as Tressie laid it out. So, you know, it’s a reckoning. It’s a reckoning for all of us.

Jason Stanley: I’m the child of two Holocaust survivors, and I was not raised with American exceptionalism. I was raised with: Get your passport, know when to get out. So that’s just the ethic with which I was raised, which adds a bit of anxiety to this moment when Americans are not welcome in other countries. My mother worked in Manhattan Criminal Court through the Central Park Five case as a court stenographer, and to some extent she had the mindset that Baldwin so aptly described in his essay: “Negroes are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-white.” She recognized, via the court system, what faced Black Americans, and was always clear about that with her children. But she also, to some extent, felt very fortunate to be in a country where her ethnic group was not in the position she witnessed with Black Americans every day in the courtroom.

My wife and I have thought about leaving, but what we face here in the United States is also a worldwide phenomenon. Three of the world’s four largest democracies are run by far-right quasi-fascists. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who’s Trump’s protégé, calls for the popular overthrow, perhaps via the military, of congress and the courts. India, obviously, is much further down an authoritarian ethnonationalist road than we are. And most European countries have far-right xenophobic parties, including, horrifyingly, Germany—with AfD. 

I remember when I was thinking of moving to Canada in 2016, how a friend said to me, “But there’s no Black Americans. Who’s going to protect you?” So at least there’s a history of fighting this here—there’s a long history. So, in a way, I feel like, well, where are you going to go? And here there’s a long history of fighting the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy. There are powerful anti-fascist forces here, ones that don’t exist in many countries. 

Jamelle Bouie: The interesting thing to me about this moment is that it does seem so pregnant with possibility on both ends. That, as Tressie said, the underlying dynamics and structures of American life are so plain for people to see—and not just the people who historically have had a better sense of who they are, but a larger number of people than ever before, because that’s very much the case—it feels as if there’s a path to constructing something that is more in keeping with what Americans tell themselves their ideals are.

On the other hand, that goes both ways, right? If one conception of American democracy is this very expansive and capacious vision of self-government, another is and has been a very exclusive, restrictive, almost oligarchical vision of who can participate and who the country is for. And in the same way that people on the more capacious side are seeing the ways in which our structures don’t really allow for realizing that kind of democracy, people on the other side seem to have grown committed to doing the kind of violence that needs to be done to ensure that their vision of “democracy” holds out. 

People make lots of analogies to the Civil War, usually making some point about polarization or whatnot. But the interesting thing about the Civil War, if we’re going to use it as a historical analogy, isn’t that we’re on some path to it, but that the Civil War was one of those moments, too, where the country was at a pivot point and everyone recognized that the institutions that make it up had been rubbed raw. That if you wanted democracy of the expansive sort, the Constitution didn’t really allow it, and if you wanted slave-ocracy, the Constitution didn’t allow for that either. Something had to give, something had to change. And I think that’s where we are: Everyone recognizes that something has to change. And the paths can be progressive and ameliorative, or nightmarish.

Stanley: One thing that’s tricky about “something has to change” are the massive structural problems that we face here, such as with our massive prison, police, and military structures. How do we navigate and balance this sort of horror that we’ve constructed with the Trump moment—it’s a very confusing time. There was actually a measure of bipartisan hope on some of these issues, when Trump signed the First Step Act in December 2018—in fact, it looked like Trump was going to use that to run against Biden. And I have to ask: What are the prospects for revising our deep-seated problems—where people live, where people go to school, the prison system—with Joe Biden?

Cottom: When Jamelle talks about this change, the portentousness of both sides of the spectrum, I’m reminded that there are plenty of people in the middle of the two poles. And that’s what gets you Joe Biden. Standing at the precipice on either side of the two poles of what is possible—you know, there are people who run into voids and people who regress to the mean, and the mean, no matter what it is, can feel like change if you are fearful enough of what’s been promised. I feel like the test of this next election is maybe less about whether Trump gets elected or not, but how many people are willing to accept Biden winning as the end of all of the conflict. That, to me, is the actual judgment and test of this moment. I want to wake up and see who is then still talking about Black Lives Matter, who is then still talking about the prison-industrial complex, who is then still talking about a police state—because it will still be one. The election won’t change that so much one way or the other, but it will say something about our commitment to what we’ve understood the problems to be, and how much important work is happening on the ground.

To the extent that people in our position can be involved in these things—nobody wants us out on the streets, and that’s fine, nobody wants me, I get it. But I occasionally do these public-education sort of things where people do want some understanding about something specific like policy or how education works, and they’ll call you in. And the amount of public-democratic education happening on the ground, in the streets, is very exciting to me. I do think it’s the kind of thing that is a bulwark against waking up the next day and deciding a retreat to the center is actually a win for progress, when it is actually the exact opposite (and the other side, by the way, never thinks that; it just tends to be those on the center-left who believe that). But I do think the kind of education I’ve seen people doing—mostly because they have the time now, and the space to do it—

Stanley: America without sports!

Cottom: Yeah, in a weird way, the pandemic may end up saving parts of the damn democracy! It got rid of all of the opiates, right? So if you can’t shop and you can’t watch sports, what are you left to do? Participate in public life! And in a very strange way, that is what we are seeing happen as a response to the very pandemic that was supposed to close us off and keep us secluded. But I’ve seen that public education and I’m somewhat hopeful about, you know—I’m going to get all Freire-ian— the pedagogy of the oppressed, a different type of freedom of knowledge, the production that can happen and that has to happen. What I think has happened in these political-theater revolutions in the past is that there wasn’t that groundswell of democratic education. Without it, revolutions just tend to be theater. So to see this on the ground, all of this outshoot—not to say this happens overnight, that we owe all of this to Ferguson, or we owe it to Occupy; this has been a fifteen-year campaign that we’re starting to see the fruits of—but that’s relatively exciting to me in a very cautious way, because I know how fragile those moments can be. But at least I think we’re seeing that energy, which is going to be necessary to pull us back from the romance of the center, which I think is what the Biden democratic thing is offering us right now.

While the romance of the center might pose the risk of inaction, what’s happening far from the middle—the highly motivated edges of the spectrum where the passion for change is greatest—can be alarming. There seems to be a kind of deep fracturing. There’s enough of it on the left that true cohesion seems increasingly difficult—you have, at best, begrudging consensus. And on the right there is a strange disarray—not just because of never-Trumpers, but in how far-right factions are going at each other, sometimes literally. Add to that the fact that far-right agitators have hijacked Black Lives Matter marches as a way to provoke police violence, and it all starts to become a hall of mirrors. It all starts to stir up a very real sense of chaos, a Balkanized America, which is a pretty unsettling feeling.

Bouie: Like Tressie, I tend to think that the problem is much more that this anti-Trump coalition—or whatever you want to call it—fractures not because of differing visions of the good but differing visions of what’s necessary to move forward from this moment in time. When you think just in terms of day-to-day politics, the anti-Trump coalition is very, very broad. It consists of a huge number of people, an easy majority of the country—depending on how you measure it, something close to fifty-five, fifty-six percent of the entire country. So it’s not as if there’s fracturing in that sense. But because that coalition is so broad, and precisely because, as Tressie said, of what’s happening on the ground—that people are not just engaged in trying to remove the current president but really engaged in trying to rethink the structure of American society, reconceive of how we live life together in a democracy—that’s where the fracturing is going to happen if and when Trump loses and leaves office. If and when that happens, that’s going to be the point at which the divisions really manifest themselves.

Jason’s comment about our duty to be here for change calls to mind how it can be patriotic to disagree with the direction of your country. Yet this seems to be such a trigger point for fundamental disagreement under this administration. There’s both a groundswell of support for this idea and an equally passionate backlash: Love it or leave it. And all of this is happening in the context of COVID-19, which is arguably part of what has prompted it. We see institutions breaking down in greater ways—the public-education system, for example, the exposure of just how many students rely on school for meals, how internet access was a much bigger deal than we thought when it comes to students accessing content. The pandemic has really put so many of these things into sharp relief. So it’s interesting to see how the idea of being a patriot changes in a society that needs to be reformed from the inside—especially when we’re fighting people who think they’re patriots with a capital P in a different way.

Stanley: The debate about the 1619 Project is really interesting here—the freak-out, I should say, the complete mass freak-out about it.

Cottom: Tom Cotton is trying to ban it in the state of Arkansas! I will never get over the conservative capacity to be insulted. They start with the affront and then they find the insult. It is stunning to me. 

I don’t know if patriotism means anything to me or not. I’ll have to think about that for a minute. I think that’s about being in this very particular location in the country. I feel like we are the country but we are never of this country. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt any particular—no, I’ll take that back. I was patriotic one time. One time I was patriotic. On September 12, I was patriotic as hell. “Oh, is this what white people feel like all the time?” I remember distinctly saying this. I was like, “Oh, if this is what they’re talking about, we’re never going to get them to give this up. This is all-consuming!” It lasted for about a day and a half. I got over it fairly quickly.

Is patriotism a privilege?

Bhagwati: I think it’s often a myth. In my travels around the world, as people find out I served in American uniform and maybe don’t look or talk the way they expect most people who wear the uniform to look or talk, quietly they’ll say, “Why is it that Americans are so in love with their military?” And this is in countries that have huge military presences! But the relationship of the average person in the dominant culture in the United States to the military, or to law enforcement, or to any of these federal agencies, any of the uniformed agencies, is very bizarre. You don’t quite see the same relationship around the world. Perhaps in some countries, maybe in Israel. But there’s something different going on here. It’s like entirely different historical narratives, ideological narratives, about what America means. If you ask somebody, “What does that blue uniform represent to you?” it could inspire complete fear or complete confidence. It’s an amazing thing that we could hold all of this together in this country.

Patriotic to me, right now—I’ve wrestled quite a bit with what it means to serve in military uniform when American troops are on the streets of our cities facing down protesters. What does it mean when it’s very clear that systemic misogyny and rape culture exist in the US military? When somebody like Vanessa Guillén, a twenty-year-old soldier, can be bludgeoned to death and buried and disappeared for two months on a military base—

Cottom: Where they’re supposed to be able to track you all the time—

Bhagwati: Exactly. So what does that mean, then, if the majority of troops, leaders, generals, politicians are just okay with that, with a young brown woman in this country being bludgeoned to death and disappeared while wearing an American uniform. So I think about that when I think about the word patriotism. It’s an overused word, just like the word hero is, but certainly the folks who are trying to transform these institutions are much more patriotic than the folks who are supporting the way these institutions operate, I think.

Stanley: I feel pressure to take a contrarian stand because that’s what we do in philosophy. And also, a lot of the fascist backlash I get takes the form of, “Oh, the rats got sent from Germany over to America and now they’re destroying us here.” So let me be patriotic for a moment, or at least occupy that space.

I lived in Germany for a few years in high school and college. I grew up with a German-Jewish father, who emphasized our German identity, which is very German-Jewish (my Polish-Jewish mother doesn’t make similar remarks about Poland). But living in Germany, I faced a lot of incredulity about my family narrative. In the 1980s, few people in Germany looked like me—there were hardly any Jewish people—and I was repeatedly asked, “Where are you from?” Naturally, I would respond, “America.” And they’d say, “No, where are you really from?” And then I’d reply, “Germany.” This response was always met with bewilderment. 

I make too many analogies between my experiences in Germany and what it might be like to be Black in America, which I can only imagine from the people I know. But I definitely felt “other” there. And I’ve thought about going to Europe—and many of my European friends have returned to Europe—but my children are Jewish and African American. And they would feel at least as othered in Germany as here. Of course, when I live in Europe and come back, it’s a shock because of the poverty, the utter dysfunction, and the brutality of capitalism that we have here. But racism is something that’s hard to escape, as are the attendant feelings of not-belonging and exclusion. The truth is that all the members of my family have a history here and roots here. It’s hard to make up for that.

Perhaps the distinction is between patriotism as a two-way versus a one-way street. It might well be a difference between those who see patriotism as a relationship moving in one direction, that of obedience or devotion, versus a kind of relationship that is defined by service and commitment but also certain expectations. In that way, citizenship could be understood as a back-and-forth. Such a dynamic might arguably be more patriotic because there is this commitment to country, this investment in institutions and communities, but also an expectation that the state and its institutions reciprocate. 

Bhagwati: My thinking about this has evolved over the years. When I think about the word country, which is one that is used quite a lot when you’re in uniform, I was clear what it meant to me in uniform. It was all about a belief in ideology back then. It justified my existence as a Marine. But now, acknowledging the realities of history and US foreign policy and the horrors the US perpetuates on people of color both here and abroad, I’m no longer mesmerized by this word. Right now I’m more concerned with community than country. I don’t feel in my blood country the way I do community. My community, then, would be New York City—the MTA workers, the healthcare workers, the janitors keeping everything open, the restaurant workers. And this is true across the country. When I’m in the South, I find that community. I find people really looking out for their neighbors.

I’ve thought a lot about rites of passage in the United States for young people, what that has looked like over the years, and if we truly have a rite of passage for American youth. I’ve thought about national service. I think about things like bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras and what connects a girl or a boy, a young woman or a man, to a larger community. I never had that as an American kid. I was still caught in this white-supremacist assimilation pattern. So the military was my rite of passage, but it was a very odd one because I had no obvious connection to the military—racially, ethnically, family-wise. 

You know, people often try to depoliticize the military, like it’s above and beyond politics. And I never thought that was right. I could never put myself above and beyond that. As a queer brown woman in the military, I was always othered. I always saw how people were hurt who did not fit the norm, who did not look like a typical patriot. And this was true both in terms of wearing the uniform or being a local member of a population that we were occupying. 

So when the commander in chief is so ideologically bent one way or the other, the military becomes politicized. And all of a sudden, yes, you are on the streets of wherever it is—Portland or Ferguson, for example—and then it becomes a question of, Am I doing the right thing in wearing this uniform? I think it’s something that very few people ask of service members. It is something we ask of our law enforcement, increasingly. Like, Why would you join the police? But we don’t necessarily ask that of service members, although they arguably have so much more capacity to harm just in terms of the impact of overseas deployments and the weapons at their disposal. I also think a lot about why that might be, that there’s a difference in the way we scrutinize the behavior of police officers versus service members. It’s true that there’s a pipeline, particularly for kids of color joining the military. (It’s not quite the same in law enforcement for a bunch of reasons.) But what is it like for a brown person to face off against another brown person overseas? Whether that’s a Black or brown American person facing off against a poor villager from Afghanistan or Iraq. What sort of assimilation has to be done in that soldier’s life, when you look the same as the person you are shooting, knowing you both are getting the short end of the stick in your own countries? To be able to pull that trigger effectively when you might have more in common with your so-called enemy than with your fellow white soldiers is a real mindfuck that higher-ups don’t ever want you to unpack. There’s no way else to put it. I wish that more of us had to do that kind of soul-searching before putting on any uniform.

Bouie: I’m a military brat. Both my parents were in the Navy for twenty-plus years, and I more or less grew up on bases. So I have a lot of exposure to that side of the military. But interestingly, I did not grow up in what you might imagine to be a kind of typically patriotic household. We didn’t fly an American flag. There wasn’t traditional patriotic iconography in the house. I think my parents understood their service to their country as reflecting a commitment to their particular communities, and a commitment to the best ideals of the country, but not necessarily a commitment to the country as it existed in its static form, and I think my view of patriotism is somewhat similar. 

First of all, I’m not necessarily sure how useful the word even is, because it can be defined so many ways. I like to think of what our commitments to democracy are. What does it mean to live in a democratic society? What does that mean for our responsibilities and commitments? And I think those relate very much to using our capabilities and our abilities as best as possible to help realize the flourishing of everyone around us. Is that patriotic? I don’t know.

Stanley: That’s the philosophically correct answer: Patriotism is a disposition toward the country’s founding ideals, which in our case are democratic ideals. It’s a disposition to be faithful to them. That’s what Nikole Hannah-Jones is tapping into when she’s saying Black Americans are the most patriotic of American groups—they’ve been fighting for those democratic ideals, and are the community that has done the most to realize them. 

But again, there is also this element of home—don’t we all have this intense connection to the particular historiographies of our families? Both my parents are refugees who came on boats past the Statue of Liberty. Both took me on the Staten Island Ferry in an attempt to share that moment with me, in the refracted and mythical sort of way in which refugees from war have of speaking of their arrivals in their new home. Both have powerful narratives of the before time and the after time. 

While my father-in-law is Kenyan, my mother-in-law is African American. Her family was part of the Great Migration—from Virginia ultimately to Boston. We have these huge family reunions where we revisit this history, and as the child of refugees it’s kind of awe-inspiring to see the length and rootedness of my wife’s family in this land. However brutal it has been, it’s also very moving, these complicated relationships to the country. There’s just this complexity to this shared project—echoing, in Anuradha’s words, its historical weight—that anchors children of immigrants and refugees and descendants of enslaved Americans and many others to the same (admittedly stolen) land. I suppose I do believe in the resulting human project, and it’s partly because of the myriad attachments all my family members have to this land.

Bhagwati: You know, when my parents came here in the fifties and sixties—also on boats, a long trip—they came from really humble working-class roots in India. I always think about that citizenship oath, which is still very moving when I see a video—even today, in this climate. What that might mean to each individual. It certainly meant a lot to my parents. They consider themselves very American. My mother, she’s eighty-eight, a certified elder, but she’ll protest if you suggest that she’s more Indian than American. It’s very endearing. And I’ve always pushed back. When I was growing up, I learned American history, probably a history that my parents didn’t learn as deeply in India. And I would say things like, “Yeah, but this country is based on slavery and genocide. Don’t you guys get it?” And when we lived in the Boston area, there were riots in Boston, and I really wanted to hear more about all this from my parents, but they were really in a different place. And as Black Lives Matter became such a big part of 2020, I realized how different my upbringing and sense of idealism is than my parents’ was in India. 

All of which is to say that my upbringing has been uniquely American. We have never achieved what these documents say this country is all about. It is forcing me to revisit my parents’ upbringing and examine caste and class and colorism and race overseas in a South Asian or Asian context. Which is such an honor, right? Because my family was never involved in that kind of serious inquiry and reflection about their own culture and all the -isms in it. So now I and other younger South Asians are doing that work in our own traditional families and communities the way white Americans who care about Black Lives Matter are doing in theirs—you know, What does it really mean to be an ally? What does America really mean? What does it really mean to become American? And, for those of us who are immigrants, should we be considering things with a different lens when we take that sacred oath? 

Share —
Published: September 8, 2020

Agata Nowicka is an illustrator and comics artist, designer of posters and book covers. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, TIME, and the New York Times and featured in Taschen’s Illustration Now!, American Illustration, and Communication Arts.