Friday, July 09, 2010

Obama's moral equivalence

Charles Krauthammer writes today playing off the story of Obama's new goal for NASA to make the Muslim world feel good about their scientific and math contributions. Krauthammer goes on to contrast the modesty that Obama displays about America's capabilities with his own immodesty about his personal greatness.
Apart from the psychobabble — farcically turning a space-faring enterprise into a self-esteem enhancer — what’s the sentiment behind this charge? Sure, America has put a man on the moon, led the information revolution, and won far more Nobel Prizes than any other nation — but, on the other hand, a thousand years ago al-Khwarizmi gave us algebra.

Bolden seems quite intent on driving home this message of achievement equivalence — lauding, for example, Russia’s contributions to the space station. Russia? In the 1990s, the Russian space program fell apart, leaving the United States to pick up the slack and the tab for the missing Russian contributions to get the space station built.

For good measure, Bolden added that the U.S. cannot get to Mars without international assistance. Beside the fact that this is not true, contrast this with the elan and self-confidence of President Kennedy’s pledge that America would land on the moon within a decade.

There was no finer expression of belief in American exceptionalism than Kennedy’s. Obama has a different take. As he said last year in Strasbourg, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Which of course means: If we’re all exceptional, no one is.

Take human rights: After Obama’s meeting with the president of Kazakhstan, Mike McFaul of the National Security Council reported that Obama actually explained to the leader of that thuggish kleptocracy that we too are working on perfecting our own democracy.

Nor is this the only example of an implied moral equivalence that diminishes and devalues America. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner reported that in discussions with China about human rights, the U.S. delegation brought up Arizona’s immigration law — “early and often.” As if there is the remotest connection between that and the persecution of dissidents, jailing of opponents, and suppression of religion routinely practiced by the Chinese dictatorship.

Nothing new here. In his major addresses, Obama’s modesty about his own country has been repeatedly on display as he has gratuitously and continuously confessed America’s alleged failings — from disrespecting foreigners to having lost its way morally after 9/11.

It’s fine to recognize the achievements of others and be non-chauvinistic about one’s country. But Obama’s modesty is curiously selective. When it comes to himself, modesty is in short supply.
Obama is a student of all the moral equivalence about the United States that schools have been pumping out for decades. They've gone from recognizing America's flaws to wallowing in those flaws and ignoring the elements of greatness that are also in our past. America is held up to some ideal country and then measured how we fell short instead of contrasting us to the other countries of our time and measuring the differences between us and the rest of the world. Instead of a "warts and all" approach to history; it's become a "warts only" presentation. One example, but I can think of dozens. When history books talk about Jacksonian democracy and how the vote was extended to all white men in the late 1820s and early 1830s, the focus has shifted to those who didn't get the vote - slaves, women, Native Americans. And that is definitely part of the story. But it is also part of the story that we were far ahead of European countries in removing property or wealth requirements for voting. France had done it during the Revolution, but then lost it until 1848. Instead of focusing only on the unfairness of those who were deprived the vote, coverage should include an equal focus of how big a change this was in world history. When it comes to the Cold War, the moral equivalence approach really kicks into high gear.

Having imbibed this moral equivalence in history all his life, it's no surprise that Obama would not even notice how he betrays his lack of admiration for his own country. In his eyes, America hadn't truly redeemed itself until it had the wisdom to elect him president. That's his big selling point for our country when he talks to foreign audiences. As Krauthammer notes,
Not surprising, perhaps, in a man whose major achievement before acceding to the presidency was writing two biographies — both about himself.

Obama is not the first president with a large streak of narcissism. But the others had equally expansive feelings about their country. Obama’s modesty about America would be more understandable if he treated himself with the same reserve. But it is odd to have a president so convinced of his own magnificence — yet not of his own country’s.