Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"In no other country on Earth"

For the record, I liked the Obama speech. I thought it was well written, well executed, and most importantly, incredibly effective. For that matter, I agree with John from Dymaxion World about the headshaking nature of the entire situation.

And yet there was one little passage that made me want to go down there and knock some sense into both Obama and his speechwriters him:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
I'm no fan of patriotic rhetoric in general, but this particular flavour of it always makes me want to retch. The ignorance in it is astonishing. The kind of story Obama is talking about is no more and no less unique than the story of any mixed-race individual in any immigrant nation. There are plenty of Canadians with variants on this story, plenty of Australians, plenty of New Zealanders. Cut the historical timeline down a bit, and these days, there are even Germans, Belgians, French with it. The U.S. just isn't all that special in this regard, sorry. And you know what? That's okay. You don't have to be the "best little country in the whole wide world" in order to produce great leaders with compelling personal stories.

So yes, great speech. Wonderful achievement. But please, I'm begging you, put a lid on the over-the-top exceptionalism. You're embarrassing those of us who actually know something about the world beyond the borders of the United States.

[Update: Apparently, he wrote the speech himself. Oh good, only one person to knock some sense into, then!]


Anonymous said...

cut him some slack, he is American after all. What can you expect ;)

Anonymous said...

...besides, if Obama becomes President, we'll still need something by which to make fun of Americans about (something that will become alot harder once Bush is out of the Whitehouse).

Anonymous said...

This was what I posted in Taylor Owen's blog. I think that you have been away from the US for too long. My comment is as follows and as expected Obama wrote it himself, you as he wrote Dreams of My Father and the Audacity of Hope.

"In fact, I find Obama’s religious exuberance is something that makes him even more authentic. After all, the US is a very religious society and it is no surprise that the Obamas and the Huckabees do have great appeal. North of the border, we define authenticity not by faith but in how much one contributes to making society a fairer place."

Maybe living in Leftmonton for too long has changed your way of thinking. Like the continental Europeanists, we here prefer to take a post-structuralist perspective towards things. So yes Obama sounds a bit too much like Tony Blair in my books. But he is running for US President and not the next leader of Canada's United Left ;)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm not sure what that comment has to do with my post. My criticism has nothing at all to do with religion, or religious exuberance.

janfromthebruce said...

And what of this post-structuralist rhetoric, Mushroom. Obama was talking about the intertwining of race, class, and gender, and thus in the process doing consciousness raising, by providing a critical structural analysis.
He was not in anyway going to relativeness, and there is no right or left. In fact, he was quite explicit that the right is all about dividing the most, while he was all about social and economic justice for the many.

Unknown said...

Re exceptionalism, for Obama's purposes, it doesn't matter if it's true. Americans have been told it is true, they believe that it's true, exceptionalism is part of their identity, so the candidate of hope has to reinforce that.

I didn't listen to the speech, I'm only going on your post. The whole thing makes me retch, so I have to avoid it.

Ben (The Tiger in Exile) said...

Oh, Obama's already got the cosmopolitan internationalist vote locked up. :p

Anonymous said...


This is Taylor's response to my comment:

"agreed on all counts. and what a contrast to Clinton. She has many positive attributes, but authentic is not of them"

My comment was based on the definition of the word "authenticity". I was suggesting in my comment that Americans define "authenticity" differently from other countries in the world.

How you want to reconcile "authenticity" to "exceptionalism" is up to you. Note the quotations in this comment. This is based on my interest in discourse analysis, something that may be a bit over the top in a blog about politics.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


You seem to be trying to have a completely different conversation here than the one I'm trying to have. You can email me if you want to talk about authenticity and discourse analysis, but the one I want to have in my blog right now has to do with the specific content of my post.

Adam Snider said...

Yeah, that particular part of the speech struck me as a little bit ignorant and over-the-top as well, especially as I sat and watched it from my desk in Canada.

Anonymous said...

I cringed over the very same comment.

I assumed that he didn't make the comment out of ignorance - he's well educated and lived outside the US -
but instead used it to pander to feelings of American exceptionalism.

I don't think this is as simple as pounding some sense into him, because I believe he already knows better, but chooses that language anyway.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I wouldn't assume that, actually. I'm thinking of an American journalist friend of mine who once made the completely insane comment that the U.S. had way, way more immigrants than Canada. She had also lived outside of the U.S. (in Israel), but it simply didn't matter. The whole exceptionalist ideology is fed to us with our mothers' milk, and there's no reason to assume he would be immune to it.

Mike said...

Yes IP I noticed that too. It was a very good speech, but I was turned off right at the beginning with that 'only in America' nonsense...I suppose that's why I don't think its a great speech (certainly no on the 'I Have a Dream' league). If that kind of American exceptionalism and factual errors can leak in, then it diminished the honesty behind it.

Anonymous said...


I'm thinking of an American journalist friend of mine who once made the completely insane comment that the U.S. had way, way more immigrants than Canada.

In sheer numbers, your journalist friend is right. In 2006, there were more than 37 million immigrants living in the US; a number that dwarfs our entire population.

Of course, based on percentage of the population, Canada is regarded as the world leader in immigration, accepting 6.5 people per 1000, compared to the US's 4.4 people per 1000. So yes, speaking on a per capita basis, she's wrong.

In other words, I'm not sure she is suffering from blind American exceptionalism so much as picking the most flattering way to look at the issue. Just as we are, by preferring different metrics. (Unless, of course, you pointed out the per capita discrepancy and she refused to acknowledge it.)

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying that I still think Obama knew what he was doing.

Ben (The Tiger in Exile) said...

Isn't Australia ahead of Canada on a migrant per capita basis?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Could be!

Tyrone said...

It is very hard to imagine a person of colour becoming a national party leader (or even a serious candidate thereto) in Canada.

Despite all the pieties about multiculturalism, Canadians are at heart more racist than Americans, in my experience.