Jonah Goldberg has rushed to the defense of American exceptionalism. He points out that scholars have used the phrase to describe the distinctive origins of the United States, which is true and fairly irrelevant to the current debate.
It is irrelevant because the people advocating on behalf of American exceptionalism in contemporary debates don’t limit its meaning to the recognition of America’s distinctive origins, constitution, and values. They also routinely lie about Obama’s views about American exceptionalism, so it is a bit rich to say that Kinsley and Beinart are hurting Obama’s cause by attacking the purveyors of these lies. Quite clearly, the advocates’ understanding of American exceptionalism is that America is vastly superior to all other nations in terms of economic opportunity, dynamism, and freedom. If Goldberg wants to describe that conceit as “an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia or ignorance,” I will not disagree.
Goldberg manages to write an entire column on this without addressing or even acknowledging the Rubio claims that Beinart was attacking. If he did this, he might notice that Rubio’s claims are empirically false and not worth defending. This is typical of the point-scoring sort of argument that many conservatives make these days. If someone from the “other side” attacks “one of us” for making a genuinely stupid mistake, loyalty to “the team” dictates that we bring up a tangential or irrelevant issue to distract attention from the fact that “our” guy said something that was flat-out wrong. Thus, if Rubio engages in embarrassing nationalist hyperbole, Goldberg will rally to his side with a few scholarly references to show that his embarrassing hyperbole has the backing of learned men. The trouble is that the references do not support or validate Rubio’s claim, but merely underscore how detached Rubio’s rah-rah Americanism is from any serious study of American history. Indeed, Goldberg has effectively proved that American exceptionalism as historians mean it is not what we have been debating. What we are debating instead is the nationalist distortion of the concept into a cause for arrogant boasting, which is basically the point Kinsley and Beinart were making.
Instead of being embarrassed for Rubio, Goldberg is indignant that Beinart and Kinsley are pointing out the hyperbole Goldberg carefully ignores. As Goldberg says, he’s “with Rubio,” and that’s all there is to it.