The stories we tell ourselves
You've probably already read quite a bit about Hillary Clinton's stint on Jon Stewart. (You can watch it here.) I was intrigued by this comment:
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that's really why this book is something that I put my heart and soul into, because we can't practice diplomacy and define our foreign policy as leaders talking to leaders anymore because that's not the way the world works. Exactly as you said. People are empowered from the bottom up. And what I found when I became secretary of state is that so many people in the world, especially young people, they have no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis, fighting the Cold War and winning. That was just ancient history. They didn't know the sacrifices that we had made and the values that motivated us to do it.
My first reaction was hostility based upon the perception that she was saying we need to pat ourselves on the back about being exceptional more than we have been and then we'll live happily ever after. And frankly, if we wanted another round of Bushian proclamations about how "we're so good and they're so evil" I think we should probably just vote for Jeb and call it a day. But after watching it again, I realized that I might have been unfair. If what she was really getting at was a need to "find consensus" on the values that animate the Enlightenment spirit of our constitution and the Declaration of Independence, then I'm all for it. It would be the first time in our history that we were able to do it, but it's probably something worth doing.
We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let's get back to telling it to ourselves first and foremost and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world. That's what we should be standing for.
STEWART: Can we expect other countries to view us with such nuance when we so clearly don't view them with nuance and with that type of understanding?
CLINTON: that's a really good question, because...
STEWART: that's all the time we have.
CLINTON: Because we did a much better job telling the world who we were back in the Cold War. You know, it was a simpler job, to be fair. We had the Soviet Union. We had the United States. We had a big information effort. We sent talent, we sent all kinds of poets and novelists and rock stars. I remember when Vaclav Havel, the great dissident and the first president of the Czech Republic told me that Lou Reed had been his inspiration. American culture, American ideas permeated the world.
Wll, fast forward. That ended, and we kind of thought, okay, fine, end of history, democracy won. You know that story. And in fact, we withdrew from the information arena. And look at what happened initially with Ukraine. Russian media was much more effective in sort of telling a story: it wasn't true, but they kept repeating it over and over again. So I think we have to get back to a consensus in our own country about who we are and what we stand for, and then get out there and tell that story.
If she's talking about some sort of "greatest country the world has ever known" boosterism, then she's not going to get very far. It's been a long time since World War II and the idea that we were widely considered to be the Good Guys during the Cold War just is not the case. We may have been considered "the better guy" in that match up by many in the western world, sure. Others disagreed. But this country did a lot of shady stuff during that era that's still haunting us today and it wasn't all in the name of "freedom and democracy."
If Clinton wants to tell a better American story and have people to come to a consensus about who we are, she has to tell the story straight and then explain how we can best try to live up to our higher ideals in the future. Constantly telling ourselves a bunch of fairy tales about how great we are has painted us into a corner in which the worst elements of our leadership can rationalize any behavior --- including torture and indefinite detention in prison camps --- and nobody is willing to hold them accountable for it.
The funny thing is that the old idea that the monarch was infallible and ordained by God is exactly what the American revolutionaries were rebelling against. I'm going to guess they didn't anticipate that we would imbue our new country as a whole with the same nonsense.
Update: I see I'm not the only one who thought this was a bizarre statement.