Engaged as I have been (and continue to be) in studying numerical series—(that process began very innocently but rapidly became a kind of obsession)—I sat down yesterday to take a moment to look at the other screen. And there was John R. Bolton. He produces in me the twin reactions certain once prominent people do. First comes a wonder: I wonder what he’s been up to—immediately followed by the thought: No, no! Don’t tell me; I don’t want to know. John Bolton was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush late 2005 through most of 2006. He was addressing Iowa conservatives yesterday with an eye on a presidential run.
His opening words were an attack on President Obama as the first “post-American” president. He defined that tag as follows: “I didn’t say un-American, I didn’t say anti-American… [I said this] because he’s a citizen of the world. He doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism.” You didn’t see it? Here is a brief note about this speech on Politico. But this was not the first time Bolton had already said the same thing. He also said it at a Heritage Foundation do on May 18, 2010. Recycling speeches is parsimonious. The source for that is here from the Free Republic.
What Obama said was, to quote a Los Angeles Times story here—and Bolton repeated this as well—was “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Now I’d always thought that that phrase simply means that Americans have had a unique experience—and little else. People have traced it back to some laudatory comments by de Tocqueville. Startled by the spin Bolton was giving this phrase, something rather metaphysical and strongly reminiscent of the Biblical chosen people, I went looking this morning to discover what Wikipedia might have to say. There I learned that this notion took on a stronger sort of meaning, a balsamic meaning, as it were (in the sense that balsamic vinegar is a lot more vinegarish than vinegar) under George W. Bush’s administration, namely that the United States is, in a way, above international—and therefore collective human—law.
Now to think that my family is special—or that my children are—all right. That’s understandable. It is a kind of feeling of self-worth. It doesn’t mean much more than that. It is just an expression of élan. But what John Bolton was saying shocked me out of my numerical trance with the realization that our elites are, nowadays, really, really below the salt and beyond the pale. Or is it that our exceptionalism hasn’t quite cancelled original sin? Having said this, I will now seek solace again contemplating the square root of minus-one.