Bonus Arthur Brooks-Bashing

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JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 7, 2010

Bonus Arthur Brooks-Bashing

If you haven't gotten enough of me dissecting AEI President Arthur Brooks's "The Battle," there's one more bit I didn't include in the review but is a telling window into his argumentative style. The over-arching argument of the book, remember, is that President Obama represents an alien, anti-capitalist viewpoint held by just 30% of Americans. Here is Brooks applying his thesis to foreign policy:

President Obama’s 2009 trips to Europe and the Middle East, for instance, have been characterized by some as nothing short of apology tours. He told an Egyptian audience that our “fear and anger” after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 “led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.”

The breakdown of Americans’ support of America’s actions, pro and con, is approximately 70 percent and 30 percent, respectively. A 2006 survey asked which statement people agreed with more: (a) America’s power is generally a force for good in the world; or (b) power generally does more harm than good when we act abroad. Sixty-four percent chose (a), whereas 32 percent chose (b). When President Obama apologizes for America, he is speaking directly to his base—the 30 percent coalition.

So, Brooks says that nearly two third of Americans consider American power "generally a force for good." But Obama argued that torture is "contrary to our traditions and ideals."

Brooks deems these two statements mutually exclusive. Of course, they're not. If you think that America is generally a malevolent force in the world, then you probably think Bush's torture regime was a continuation of traditional American practices. Obama's point was precisely that America is generally a force for good, and that exceptions to that pattern are precisely that -- exceptions.

Indeed, when Obama described his belief in American exceptionalism -- a passage Brooks and other conservatives have distorted to paint as a repudiation of American exceptionalism -- he specifically argued that the United States has had a positive role in the world:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

"And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

"And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

It's not clear whether Brooks is engaged in conscious distortion, or if he's really unable to grasp that believing America is "generally" a force for good is compatible with believing that America is capable of making mistakes.

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posted in: jonathan chait, america, arthur brooks

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