In a piece for the Ideas section of Time.com, former Newsweek managing editor and current Random House executive editor Jon Meacham took a stab at explaining American exceptionalism -- a phrase conservatives have repeatedly invoked to attack President Obama. "Are Americans really exceptional?" Meacham asked. He wrote:
In rough political terms, the Republican presidential field argues that America is a place set apart, a nation with a divinely ordained mission to lead the world. A corollary to the case as it is being put in the 2012 cycle is that President Obama does not believe this. George H.W. Bush leveled the same charge against Michael Dukakis in 1988, claiming that Dukakis thought of the United States as just another country on the roll of the United Nations. The argument is well-suited to reassure voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world.
We are going to be hearing more about this notion of exceptionalism, possibly far beyond Iowa and New Hampshire and into the general election. So let's be clear about the history -- and the uses and abuses -- of the vision of America as an instrument of God's will on earth.
This sense that we are the new Israel, a chosen people, is among the most ancient and most potent of American ideas. It has informed our finest hours and some of our worst. It has given us the confidence to project our power in defense of the weak and of the innocent and the persecuted. It has sometimes fed a sense of hubris and moral self-certainty.
Meacham goes on to claim that "[w]e are exceptional not because of who we are but because of what we do and how we put the ideals of human dignity, individual freedom, and liberty under law into action. Those ideas are rooted in part in our religious traditions; it is ahistorical to deny that faith played a critical role in the development of American freedom."
Since Obama's 2009 remarks addressing whether he subscribed to the "school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world," conservatives have mischaracterized his comments to push the argument that he has "a lack of faith in American exceptionalism." While Meacham noted that this is indeed a Republican construct we will "be hearing more about" during the 2012 election, he made no effort to explore what Obama himself has said about America's role in the world -- only writing that the rhetoric of exceptionalism "reassures" those "voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world."
When you think of America's deepest and most respectful religious thinkers, do you think of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin? On Faith co-moderators Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham seem to.
On Faith is the Washington Post microsite dedicated to discussions of religion. Creators Quinn & Meacham have explained:
[I]n a time of extremism -- for extremism is to the 21st century what totalitarianism was to the 20th -- how can people engage in a conversation about faith and its implications in a way that sheds light rather than generates heat? At The Washington Post and Newsweek, we believe the first step is conversation-intelligent, informed, eclectic, respectful conversation-among specialists and generalists who devote a good part of their lives to understanding and delineating religion's influence on the life of the world. The point of our new online religion feature is to provide a forum for such sane and spirited talk, drawing on a remarkable panel of distinguished figures from the academy, the faith traditions, and journalism.
In practice, however, On Faith frequently promotes bigots like Cal Thomas and Bill Donohue and Tony Perkins and James Dobson. Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham have yet to explain how promoting a ranting, hateful lunatic like Bill Donohue "sheds light." Nor have they explained why they promote anti-Muslim writings by Cal Thomas that closely resemble the Islamophobia Quinn denounces in others.
But On Faith's troubling tendency to reward some of the most virulently hateful figures in American public life by passing them off as "intelligent" and "respectful" and "distinguished" leaders is not the only way in which it seems to diverge from its stated goals.
So far this year, On Faith has featured 35 discussions, each kicked off with a brief introduction. Only 11 of those 35 discussions were framed around the views of a specific person or group -- and five of those 11 discussions were been built around the deep thoughts of noted spiritual leaders Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck:
August 30: "In the wake of his weekend rally, Glenn Beck kept up the drumbeat of criticism about President Obama's religion, calling it a 'perversion' and saying that America 'isn't recognizing his version of Christianity,' which Beck characterized as 'liberation theology.' … Why is there so much attention on Obama's religion? Does it matter what religion the president is?"
July 19: "The New York City community board endorsed the Cordoba House, a community center and mosque planned for construction near Ground Zero. Significant opposition has emerged against the project. Sarah Palin even weighed in this weekend, tweeting, 'Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.' Should there be a mosque near Ground Zero?"
May 17: "Sarah Palin pleased fans and angered foes with her speech to the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, calling herself a 'frontier feminist' and saying, 'choosing life may not be the easiest path, but it's always the right path . . . God sees a way where we cannot, and He doesn't make mistakes.' … Can you be a feminist and oppose abortion in all circumstances? Can you be a person of faith and support abortion in some circumstances?"
April 12: "Fox News commentator Glenn Beck claims that faith-based calls for 'social justice' are really ideological calls for 'forced redistribution of wealth . . . under the guise of charity and/or justice,' and that Christians should leave their churches if they preach or practice 'social justice.' … Who's right? How does the pursuit of justice fit into your faith? Is 'social justice' an ideology or a theology?"
January 11: "Media biased against Christians? Fox News analyst Brit Hume said 'widespread media bias against Christianity' was to blame for criticism of his suggestion that Tiger Woods should embrace Christianity to find redemption. 'Instead of urging that Tiger Woods turn to Christianity, if I had said what he needed to do was to strengthen his Buddhist commitment or turn to Hinduism, I don't think anybody would have said a word,' Hume told Christianity Today. 'It's Christ and Christianity that get people stirred up.' Sarah Palin and other conservative Christians have made similar claims. Is there widespread media bias against Christianity? Against evangelicals such as Hume and Palin? Against public figures who speak openly and directly about their faith? Against people who believe as you do?"
It probably goes without saying, but On Faith has not similarly framed discussions around the views of progressive political and media figures. In fact, nobody else's views have been the impetus for as many On Faith discussions as Palin's or Beck's. For reasons that defy imagination, the Washington Post's On Faith site treats Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as the nation's leading religious thinkers -- and nobody else is even close.
Is the Washington Post's "On Faith" microsite (billed as "A Conversation on Religion and Politics with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn") trying to be a one-stop shopping source for all your religious intolerance needs? Or is it just happening that way by chance?
The site's current lead story is a splashy "Discussion" titled "Should religions intermarry?" (Sample response: "Is this a trend we should encourage? Not if you are committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.")
Then there's a "discussion" about a community center & mosque planned for construction near Ground Zero in Manhattan -- the introduction to which cites exactly one person: noted religious scholar Sarah Palin. Perhaps that's appropriate, given that many of the On Faith contributors took a Palin-esque approach to the question.
This one took the improbable position that there is some sort of pro-Islam bias in America, as a result of which "fundamentalists are given a pass."
And Cal Thomas took the rather odd position that America's religious tolerance should be no greater than Saudi Arabia's:
A mosque near Ground Zero is not about tolerance, but triumphalism. It isn't about honoring the dead, but celebrating their deaths. Recall those who danced in the streets in Muslim lands on 9/11. That is reality. Refusing to speak the truth about their goals is self-delusion. If tolerance and understanding are the objectives of this and other mosques that have been built, or are under construction, or planned, ask yourself why Muslim nations do not allow the construction of synagogues and churches in their countries. Shouldn't tolerance and understanding cut both ways?
Thomas concludes that the real purpose of the Cordoba House is to establish a "beachhead" from which to "launch new terror attacks":
Don't we know why our enemies desire a beachhead in America? They wish to launch new terror attacks and forcibly convert Americans to their way of thinking and believing. What will we gain by allowing this to happen?
Accusing those who want to build a cultural center of wanting to "launch new terror attacks" isn't exactly my idea of "a fruitful, intriguing, and above all constructive conversation" -- but it seems to be Sally Quinn's, Jon Meacham's, and, worst of all, The Washington Post's.
On Faith, the Washington Post religion web site edited by Sally Quinn and Newsweek's Jon Meacham, currently features guest post by Media Research Center president Brent Bozell, writing on behalf of something calling itself "Citizens Against Religious Bigotry." Bozell and his ostensibly-anti-bigotry buddies are upset about some animated show Comedy Central may or may not produce and may or may not air.
What's striking about the Post's decision to grant Bozell and "Citizens Against Religious Bigotry" this forum is not the substance of their criticism of Comedy Central, but the fact that the coalition is made up of some of the most irredeemable bigots you'll ever encounter.
Take, for example, Catholic League president Bill Donohue. Donohue is a rabid anti-gay bigot with a long history of highly questionable commentary about religions he does not practice. He has said, for example, that "[p]eople don't trust the Muslims when it comes to liberty" and that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular." Donohue has also demonstrated selective outrage when it comes to the religious bigotry of others, defending conservative writer Jerome Corsi's attacks on the Catholic Church and conservative actor Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rants. (Donohue has previously been granted a guest post at On Faith.)
Or Tony Perkins, another anti-gay bigot who is a member of the "Citizens Against Religious Bigotry." Perkins has said "the soil of the Islamic faith just does not work with democracy" and has spoken to the Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a hate group that "oppose[s] all efforts to mix the races of mankind … and to force the integration of the races."
Or Michael Medved, another member of the "Citizens Against Religious Bigotry." Medved has said that "Islam, as a faith" has "a special violence problem." (Medved also seems to have more problems with gay people than you might expect from a member of an anti-bigotry coalition.)
Tim Wildmon, another member of Bozell's band of self-described opponents of bigotry, has praised a far-right author who has advocated the execution of gays, adulterers, and doctors who perform abortions.
I'm sure there are plenty more examples, but you get the point: Bozell's "Citizens Against Religious Bigotry" is made up of some of the most notable bigots in American public life. And yet Sally Quinn and the Washington Post allowed them to portray themselves as opponents of bigotry, without any indication of their own enthusiastic bigotry towards a wide range of people.
Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham offer a one-sided and misleading summary of the Brit Hume/Tiger Woods controversy on their Washington Post "On Faith" site:
Media biased against Christians?
Fox News analyst Brit Hume said "widespread media bias against Christianity" was to blame for criticism of his suggestion that Tiger Woods should embrace Christianity to find redemption. "Instead of urging that Tiger Woods turn to Christianity, if I had said what he needed to do was to strengthen his Buddhist commitment or turn to Hinduism, I don't think anybody would have said a word," Hume told Christianity Today. "It's Christ and Christianity that get people stirred up."
Sarah Palin and other conservative Christians have made similar claims. Is there widespread media bias against Christianity? Against evangelicals such as Hume and Palin? Against public figures who speak openly and directly about their faith? Against people who believe as you do?
That might -- might -- have been a reasonable post had Hume merely suggested that Woods "should embrace Christianity to find redemption." But that isn't what happened. Hume also suggested Woods' current religion is inadequate -- that's the part that upset people.
An accurate and neutral framing of the "question" of whether the media is "biased against Christians" wouldn't have adopted Hume's claim that nobody would have been upset if Hume had said Woods needed to "strengthen his Buddhist commitment." Instead, such a framing might have asked what the reaction would be if a someone said Christianity lacks a clear-eyed, fact-based view of the world, so he should adopt atheism instead. That's directly analogous to what Hume said. And had, say, Keith Olbermann, said anything like that, there would have been a firestorm that would have made the Hume/Woods controversy look like a love-in.
In a post raising the possibility of media bias, Quinn and Meacham only demonstrate their own.
Newsweek's Jon Meacham argues that Dick Cheney should run for president in 2012. There's so much wrong with Meacham's thinking, it's hard to know where to start. But let's try the beginning:
I think we should be taking the possibility of a Dick Cheney bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 more seriously, for a run would be good for the Republicans and good for the country. (The sound you just heard in the background was liberal readers spitting out their lattes.)
Really? We're still on this liberals-drink-lattes crap? Yawn.
Back to Meacham:
Why? Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people.
Right there, in his third sentence, Jon Meacham gave away his little game: He seeks to suggest that there is currently "ambiguity" about the will of the people. That two straight elections in which the Democrats kicked the Republicans' butts -- so much so that Barack Obama carried Indiana and North Carolina -- were somehow ambiguous and don't count. That Barack Obama isn't really a legitimate president, because he didn't have to defeat Dick Cheney to get the job.
This is stupid and dangerous.
The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting.
A) Not really and B) We've actually had a few of those voting things recently, despite what Meacham seems to think. And we'll have a few more in the future, with or without Dick Cheney.
One of the problems with governance since the election of Bill Clinton has been the resolute refusal of the opposition party (the GOP from 1993 to 2001, the Democrats from 2001 to 2009, and now the GOP again in the Obama years) to concede that the president, by virtue of his victory, has a mandate to take the country in a given direction.
Right. I remember the Democrats being so convinced that President Bush wasn't legitimate and didn't have a mandate that they filibustered his 2001 tax cuts (which were significantly larger than those he campaigned on) and his education bill and tried to impeach him as soon as they got the opportunity and ... Oh. Wait. Never mind. That didn't happen. None of it did. Jon Meacham's both-sides-are-guilty paint-by-numbers approach to column-writing is nothing but a lie.
Also: Meacham's complaints about "the opposition party" refusing to concede that "the president, by virtue of his victory, has a mandate" to govern are a little odd coming so soon after Meacham refused to concede that President Obama, by virtue of his victory, has a mandate to govern.
A Cheney victory would mean that America preferred a vigorous unilateralism to President Obama's unapologetic multilateralism, and vice versa.
Well, no, that isn't really what elections mean. And if it was ... Well, again, we just had two straight elections in which the results were pretty damn unambiguous, no matter how badly Meacham wants to pretend otherwise.
Back to Meacham (skipping ahead a bit):
A campaign would also give us an occasion that history denied us in 2008: an opportunity to adjudicate the George W. Bush years in a direct way. As John McCain pointed out in the fall of 2008, he is not Bush. Nor is Cheney, but the former vice president would make the case for the harder-line elements of the Bush world view.
Well, actually, the direct way to "adjudicate" the George W. Bush years would be to, you know, put people on trial for crimes they committed during those years. An election eight years after the fact is an awfully indirect way to adjudicate anything.
Anyway, here's the basic problem: Meacham simultaneously downplays the importance of elections in determining the will of the people (by pretending that the "thumpin'" Bush took in 2006 and Barack Obama's convincing 2008 victory were meaningless) and overstates it (by pretending that the Obama-Cheney Steel Cage Death Match of his schoolboy dreams would forever remove any ambiguity.)
There is, then one impressive thing about Meacham's column: He manages to be completely wrong in two opposite directions simultaneously.
Everybody knows about the non-apology apology -- when a public figure says, for example, "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" rather than "I shouldn't have made that racist comment, and I apologize for doing so."
It turns out the non-apology apology has a sibling: the non-explanation explanation.
This week's issue of Newsweek features a cover photo of Sarah Palin wearing short running shorts -- a photo that was originally taken for a recent issue of Runner's World, and which has no obvious connection to Newsweek's coverage of Palin. Earlier today, Media Matters' Julie Millican has explained the problems with that cover:
Making matters worse is the equally offensive headline Newsweek editors chose to run alongside the photo -- "How Do You Solve a Problem like Sarah?" -- presumably a reference to the Sound of Music song, "Maria," in which nuns fret about "how" to "solve a problem like Maria," a "girl" who "climbs trees" and whose "dress has a tear."
Now, this photograph may have been completely appropriate for the cover of the magazine for which the picture was apparently intended, Runners World. But Newsweek is supposed to be a serious newsmagazine, and the magazine is certainly not reporting on Palin's exercise habits.
As Julie noted, Newsweek's lousy judgement extended beyond the cover: The magazine also ran a gratuitous photo focusing on Palin's legs, and another photo of a "disgusting Sarah Palin-as-a-slutty-schoolgirl doll."
So what does Newsweek have to say for themselves? The magazine's editor responded to a question from Politico's Michael Calderone, but he couldn't even muster an "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" non-apology apology:
Editor Jon Meacham responds in an email to POLITICO: "We chose the most interesting image available to us to illustrate the theme of the cover, which is what we always try to do. We apply the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female: does the image convey what we are saying? That is a gender-neutral standard."
That's a textbook example of the non-explanation explanation. Read it again, and tell me: What does it mean? Meacham wants you to think he's explaining the cover choice, but he really isn't.
How, exactly, does putting Sarah Palin on the cover in short shorts "illustrate the theme of the cover"? (Let's assume Meacham meant the theme of the cover article; saying you choose a cover photo to illustrate the theme of the cover is more than a bit circular.) Meacham doesn't say. What is that theme? Meacham doesn't say.
How does the leg-centric image of Palin's legs "convey what we are saying"? Meacham doesn't explain. What is Newsweek "saying" with the article and the photo? Meacham doesn't explain.
It's a refusal to explain, dressed up as an explanation.
Another recent example: When Washington Post reporters Chris Cillizza and Dana Milbank produced an infantile and unfunny video calling Hillary Clinton a "bitch" and describing a wife suing for divorce from a cheating spouse as a "bitter woman from hell," they tried to explain the controversy away by saying the video was "satire."
But they didn't say what it was they were supposed to be satirizing. That's probably because what they were doing quite plainly was not satire; it was simply a couple of jerks sitting around making mean-spirited and sexist comments. There is a difference.
It's satire ... The photo illustrates the theme of the cover ... These things are designed to look like explanations; to win credit for addressing the issue and to cut off further questions and to justify bad behavior. But they aren't actually explanations at all. They are a refusal to deal with criticism in a forthright way, and should be recognized (and mocked) as such. Just as we all recognize the non-apology apology for what it is.
From the August 9 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
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Several media figures have claimed that President-elect Barack Obama won the election because he ran as a conservative and that notwithstanding Obama's victory, the United States is a conservative country. However, a poll conducted November 4-5 showed strong support for the progressive positions that Obama has articulated on the issues, rebutting the claim that the United States is a conservative country.
Despite the availability of expenditure reports showing that Sen. John McCain's campaign used a corporate jet owned by his wife's company over a seven-month period beginning in the summer of 2007, several members of the media asserted earlier this year that McCain flew coach when the campaign was low on funds.
Articles in Newsweek and The Washington Post mischaracterized a remark by former President Bill Clinton, claiming that he appeared to dismiss Sen. Barack Obama's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." In fact, Clinton was referring to Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war; he was not talking about the Obama campaign as the "biggest fairy tale." Further, the Newsweek article, as well as a New York Times article and a Washington Post op-ed, all truncated a comment by Hillary Clinton on the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, omitting a portion of her remarks in which she referred to President John F. Kennedy.
Without noting the flaws critics have cited in Rudy Giuliani's supervision of the post-9-11 cleanup, Newsweek, in its cover story on the former mayor, baselessly suggested that "[i]t is hard to imagine" Giuliani "botching the response to Katrina in the way President Bush did." Similarly, on MSNBC, the magazine's managing editor, Jon Meacham, echoed the article, saying, "[I]t's almost impossible to imagine a President Giuliani botching something like Katrina."