Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Trump Demands Patriotic Classrooms

Trump's education agenda is, well, terse. Eleven words, two items. And the second of the two is "Teach American Exceptionalism."

Monday, Trump expanded on that idea, saying that the nation needs to install "patriotic education" in schools. It's his plan for quelling rebellion in cities and countering "lies" about US racism (i.e. the "lie" that it exists). Gotta counter that "left-wing indoctrination" that all those indoctrinaty teachers are up to all the time (in between, you know, collecting lunch money and checking masks and updating web-based assignment materials).

As reported by Politico, here's the Trumpian solution to all our problems:

Children must be taught that America is “an exceptional, free and just nation, worth defending, preserving and protecting,” he said.

“The only path to unity is to rebuild a shared national identity focused on common American values and virtues of which we have plenty,” he said. “This includes restoring patriotic education in our nation's schools, where they are trying to change everything that we have learned.”

"To change everything we've learned" signals that in the spectrum of Trumpian policy ideas, we are in that folder labeled "Grampaw Hates This New-Fangled Thing."

What is American Exceptionalism, Anyway? 

I put a subheading here so that you can skip this history lesson portion of this post if you wish.

I'll also note that "American exceptionalism" is one of those phrases that ignores that "America" is two continents, North and South, containing a large number of nations other than the United States. It is just like American exceptionalism to assume that we are so much more special that we can just appropriate the name of the continent for just our nation.

That is the basic meaning of American exceptionalism-- that the US is special/better, inherently better, stronger, and more moral because of our special background and our special history and our special values, and that gives us a certain authority, moral and otherwise, in the world.

The roots of the idea run deep. The Puritans considered themselves to be God's chosen people, and they wanted to establish a "city on a hill." It fit nicely with the Puritan's problematic dichotomy-- everyone's a sinner and nobody deserves to go to heaven, but on the other hand, I'm one of God's chosen people so that kind of makes me better than you and gives me the right to tell you how to live."

Many authorities credit de Toqueville with the origin of the idea, and Joseph Stalin (yes, that Stalin) with the actual phrase, apparently in response to US communists who
insisted that this country was an exception to the way communist rules usually played out.

American exceptionalism, in general use, is just vague enough to be adaptable. It's nationalism wearing a cool Halloween mask, We're special (better) because of how we're founded, and we're special (better) because of our form of government, and we're special (better) because our history is a tale of virtue triumphing again and again, and our very special (better) nature means that we are born to be a world power, a major leader, and a shining example to al other countries.

Yes, But, Trump?

The very slogan "Make America Great Again" runs counter to American exceptionalism, because exceptionalism is premised on the idea that we are great, always great, burned-into-our-dna great. So we couldn't be un-great and in need of re-greatification. The pitch seems to be that evil lefty Democrat radicals have somehow diluted our greatness with their bad behavior and, particularly, their repeated insistence that we are racist and inequitable, and they've brought in a bunch of Those (not white) People to further spread that evil propaganda, and Those (not white) People who are not really part of our heritage are also putting a cramp in our greatitude.

Is it possible to find lots of lefty rhetoric to back up the notion that the left hates this country? Yes, certainly. Does all of this smell suspiciously like a retreaded version of the 1960s arguments around slogans like "My country, right or wrong"? You know--back in the days when Trump was using his bone spur to avoid putting his life on the line for this great and exceptional nation.

The problem with that argument has always been the lack of any room for nuance or complexity. Has the US grown and prospered in ways that are unique to some special US genius? Of course not. Are there plenty of things to be proud of anyway? Absolutely. Are the areas for vast improvement? Without a doubt. But the American exceptionalist view is that the country is perfect, the best in the world (though "best" remains a fuzzy term), and to so much as suggest that we might be #2 or #7 is considered anti-American. Or worse yet, detrimental to Trump's re-election chances.

So, teachers. 

So calls like Trump's are for teachers to stop bringing up all those Bad Things. Teach the right values, the right history. You're allowed to bring up bad things in our past as long as you explain how we exceptionally fixed the problem ("We used to have slavery, but then we fought the war and that was never a problem again ever"). Teachers are commanded to foircibly yank us back to the fifties when there were no problems because straight white guys got to decide everything and everyone who wasn't a straight white guy just stayed in their proper place.

There are plenty of things to love about this country-- the way we set out a batch of principles and have spent centuries trying to live up to them, the tricky balance of a three-headed republic, our cultural ability to absorb and synthesize, our opportunities to advance (even if they've been shrinking). And we could really, really, really use some civics education, because too many people have too small a grasp of the wheels and levers of our government.

But none of that means we should embark on some sort of North Korean style "education" initiative to forcibly embed some jingoistic version of blind nationalism into each and every young brain. Among our exceptional American values is the idea that demanding unquestioning obedience and idealization of the state is a Bad Thing. We should preserve that value. Patriotism, like any other kind of love, is meaningless when forced and stupid when it's blind.

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