E.L. Doctorow has written an overwrought satirical piece for the New York Times and Will Wilkinson isn’t having any of it:
Mr Doctorow’s not very clever conceit is that because America has failed to avoid all those things he finds especially wretched, it has been rendered “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world”. That is to say, America’s undoing is a direct consequence of the country having failed to successfully oppose what the author opposes.
Indeed, Doctorow’s primer for the pursuit of “unexceptionalism” seems to be an arbitrary list of things the author doesn’t like, with blame handily pinned–well, he’s not especially precise, but it’s clearly primarily conservatives of some ilk. It begins with the Supreme Court and the handy visage of George W. Bush, but after that it turns to–who knows.
Truly, it’s hard to tell what Doctorow makes of the last few years of policy formation, because he doesn’t say, and lumps in policy that has taken place under Obama and his former congressional majority with things achived by Republicans. The point, as I take it, is that Doctorow does not see this as a partisan issue so much as an expression of a worrying trajectory for the country; it’s unfortunate, in that case, that he is so imprecise with his complaints.
He laments that college educations have become unaffordable, that immigrants are treated as criminals, that we have suspended progressive taxation (even I, crazy leftist that I am, readily acknowledge that this is certainly not true), and a litany of other ills. Many of these issues are unrelated, are old problems that far predate Bush (college tuition has been rising for decades), and nowhere does he tell us if every problem he lists is a necessary condition for unexceptionalism, or if some smaller smorgasboard of them would prove sufficient. It is every bit as bad as Wilkinson charges.
Wilkinson is too eager to dismiss the most fundamental claim, however, that the United States is “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world”. In rejecting Doctorow’s puffed up mendacious drama Wilkinson suggests that:
Despite America’s many egregious failings, it is rather harder to distinguish it from the rich, democratic, gentle or vigorous countries of the world. If America has become a plutocratic, jackbooted, war criminal, the correct conclusion to draw is that America makes plutocracy, jackboots and war crime look surprisingly decent.
This is where I differ. It’s certainly true that the United States is readily distinguishable from say, Eritrea or Equatorial Guinea, but that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly hard to draw distinctions between the States and a country like Canada.
The United States may have free elections and comparatively lesser censorship than the “catatonic countries” of the world, but it also has a history of offering considerable military support to “brutal” and “catatonic” regimes, has an express policy of not giving a shit about national soveriegnty, maintains the right to assasinate whoever it would like, imprison and torture whoever it would like, and is spending more and more on surveilling its own population.
That doesn’t sound like Canada–or Sweden, or any one of a number of other “rich, democratic, gentle, or vigorous” nations to me.
If you were to ask me which is worse: a nation whose government broadly oppresses the populace, kills and starves and abuses its own people, or one that is complicit with and supports regimes that do that, unobtrusively gathers massive amounts of data about its population, aggressively and punitively targets government whistleblowers, and is broadly expanding the military’s power to unilaterally take action without oversight–I’d say they both sound pretty bad.