One of the more ridiculous accusations being made by Republican Mitt Romney is that Barack Obama doesn’t believe that America is exceptional. “We have a president right now,” he says, “who thinks America is just another nation.”
I’m not entirely sure if this is a criticism about style (does he think that Obama doesn’t strut enough?) or a subtle nod to those Americans who think that Obama is not “one of us.” In either case, Charles Dickens has a character who postures in a similar way: Mr. John Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend.
Podsnap is a smug and condescending jingoistic millionaire who, “with his favorite right-arm flourish,” can “put the rest of Europe and the whole of Asia, Africa, and America nowhere.” I was reminded of Podsnap by a recent Slate article by Michael Lenson, who argues that we need Dickens to puncture our inflated sense of self-importance:
During those years [the mid-19th century], Britain grew more self-regarding and other-dominating, complacent, and imperial. The Podsnap of Our Mutual Friend is a skewering caricature of puffed-up national pride, British exceptionalism.
Levenson goes on to quote the following passage, where Podsnap “lords it over a ‘foreign’ guest at a dinner party”:
“We Englishman are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favored as This Country.”
“And ozer countries?—“ the foreign gentleman was beginning, when Mr. Podsnap put him right again.
“We do not say Ozer; we say Other; the letters are ‘T’ and ‘H;’ You say Tay and Aish, You Know; (still with clemency), The sound is ‘th’ – ‘th’!”
“And other countries,” said the foreign gentleman. “They do how?”
“They do, Sir,” returned Mr. Podsnap, gravely shaking his head; “they do—I am sorry to be obliged to say it—as they do.”
And now here’s Romney from a recent presidential debate:
We are a patriotic people, we place our hand to our heart [places his hand on his heart] during the playing of our national anthem. No other people on earth do that. And if we are led by a leader who draws on that patriotism, who tells the truth, who lives with integrity, and who knows how to lead, America will remain the hope of the world and the strongest nation on earth. I’ll do it!
Romney appears to be suggesting a return to the “Mission Accomplished” triumphalism of the George W. Bush presidency–an arrogance that made it easy for Arab dictators to turn their people’s attention away from domestic problems. Look at what has happened since Obama’s Cairo speech, which Romney falsely claims apologized for America. We’ve witnessed the Arab Spring, the rise of moderate Arabs, and an Arab coalition supporting the overthrow of Qaddafi and condemning the murderous dictatorship of Syria’s Assad. While Romney advocates (recklessly in my opinion) attacking Iran if it continues to work on a nuclear bomb, Obama is working hard to build up a coalition to enforce sanctions against the country.
America has regained some of the stature that it forfeited in the Bush days because we now have a president who is not a Podsnap.
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