John McWhorter: AOC’s critics are pretending not to know how language works
American exceptionalism does not merely connote cultural and political uniqueness. It connotes moral superiority. Embedded in exceptionalist discourse is the belief that, because America has a special devotion to democracy and freedom, its sins are mostly incidental. The greatest evils humankind has witnessed, in places such as the Nazi death camps, are far removed from anything Americans would ever do. America’s adversaries commit crimes; America merely stumbles on its way to doing the right thing. This distinction means that, in mainstream political discourse, the ugliest terms—fascism, dictatorship, tyranny, terrorism, imperialism, genocide—are generally reserved for phenomena beyond America’s shores.
A half century ago, Vietnam so radicalized the American left that it seriously challenged these semantic boundaries. Exceptionalist assumptions underlay America’s rationale for war: The North Vietnamese were Communists; Communists were totalitarians; totalitarians committed aggression, as Hitler had in the 1930s. Thus, Hanoi was the aggressor in Vietnam, not the freedom-loving United States.
The anti-war movement inverted this moral logic. In the 1969 book that helped make him famous, American Power and the New Mandarins, Noam Chomsky argued that “by any objective standard, the United States has become the most aggressive power in the world.” Invoking some of the most notorious fascist crimes of the 1930s and 1940s, the anti-war leader Jerry Rubin declared, “Vietnam is the Guernica, the Rotterdam, and the Lidice of the 1960s.” This antiexceptionalist discourse—which denied America’s moral superiority over the adversaries it had long contrasted itself against—even penetrated the Democratic Party. In 1971, George McGovern—who the Democrats would nominate for president the following year—called Richard Nixon’s bombing of Southeast Asia “the most barbaric act committed by any modern state since the death of Adolf Hitler.”
But when the anti-war and other protest movements of the 1960s faded, so did their challenge to exceptionalist language. By the 1980s, Democrats were playing catch-up to Ronald Reagan’s flag-waving patriotism. Exceptionalism was further bolstered in the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union and the seemingly global embrace of American-style democracy and capitalism appeared to reaffirm the fundamental superiority of America’s political system. During the Barack Obama years, questioning American exceptionalism was considered a career-imperiling transgression. When Republicans questioned his commitment to the creed, Obama in 2014 replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”
Read: What Donald Trump and Dick Cheney got wrong about America