I suspect the general attitude that informed the use of this phrase springs from the notion of American Exceptionalism, which began long before the colonies became a country, continued on through Manifest Destiny, and got firmly attached to the Republican party about the time Ronald Reagan called the country a “city on a hill.” Exceptionalism sets up a false binary: Either America is the greatest country in the world—God’s country, in fact, created to be a shining example of democracy and Christianity, which are, in the eyes of some people, the same thing—or else it is the worst country in the world, a cesspool of intolerance that’s far inferior to anything in Europe. Republicans, in the eyes of some Democrats, say the former; Democrats, in the eyes of some Republicans, say the latter.
I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and so I suppose I’m somewhere in between the poles. I believe in American Exceptionalism to a limited extent in that I believe in the “mission” of the country and that I believe that democracy is a good system of government that beats out a lot of other options, but I don’t believe America holds a special religious status or (God forbid) that Christianity is somehow summed up in democracy. (In fact, I suspect God moves more freely in more oppressive countries, but I’m no church historian.)
Further, I believe that one thing that makes America great is its capacity for self-doubt. I think it means something important and good that one reaction to September 11 was for some citizens to ask what we did to deserve it. The proper attitude for both the individual and the nation is constant self-scrutiny, constant self-improvement, and, if you’re of a religious mindset, constant repentance. So maybe blaming America first isn’t such a bad thing.
That being said, I think the term is misapplied largely because the people in question often aren’t blaming America qua America first; rather, they’re blaming their political enemies first. Thus, anything negative that happened to America from 2002 to 2008 was, naturally enough, George W. Bush’s fault (including Hurricane Katrina, you’ll remember); and, for Glenn Beck, et al, anything that’s happening bad right now is Barack Obama’s fault. The correct position is instead an inward stare. When the economy hits the skids, the first question we should ask ourselves is, “What did I do to make this happen or to keep it from not happening?” That’s the right way to blame America first; as Langston Hughes says, “I, too, am America.” Starting with self-doubt is a very good way to save yourself from self-righteousness when you actually start looking around at other causes.
That’s one reason I like Nathaniel Hawthorne. I hated The Scarlet Letter for a long time until I finally came around last summer. I’m rereading the novel yet again, and I’m noticing more and more the degree to which Hawthorne suspends judgment before enacting judgment. A popular 20th-/21st-century reading of the novel, for example, is to say that those awful Puritans were wrong to treat Hester Prynne as if she’d done something sinful. (See, for example, the truly execrable 1995 film version starring Demi Moore.)
But Hawthorne doesn’t allow for that reading. Hester Prynne does the wrong thing when she sleeps with Dimmesdale, however understandable her loneliness and their connection is. She even admits her wrongdoing to herself and undertakes her sewing career with “an element of penance” in it. Nor is the scarlet A an unequivocally cruel punishment; it alienates her from her fellow colonists, it’s true, but by the end of the novel it’s come to signify something else entirely.
So Hawthorne’s problem with the Puritans is not that they blame Hester Prynne for doing something wrong—indeed, he goes along with that blame to a certain extent. His problem with them is that they enact this condemnation on someone outside of themselves, ignoring the sin that most certainly dwells in their own hearts, thereby using Hester as a scapegoat for the wrongdoing of the entire community. It’s the same thing we see in politics when we blame an entire financial crisis on one political administration—things just aren’t that simple.
Ah, you might say, but when Hawthorne points a finger at the Puritans, he’s got three pointing back at himself. Isn’t he just using Puritan sins as a way to cast the reader’s eyes away from his own sins or the sins of his society? Well, no, he’s not, as is evidenced by the (at times boring but overall worthwhile) introduction to The Scarlet Letter, titled “The Custom-House.” Here he comes clean about his own ancestry. If you’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, you’ll no doubt remember Judge Hawthorn of the witch trials, who was an ancestor of Hawthorne’s and who put dozens of presumably innocent people to death:
I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.The only way, in other words, that Hawthorne can even get down to telling the condemnatory tale of Hester Prynne, is by implicating himself, via his ancestry, right away, and asking forgiveness from God and the reader for his own culpability, however unlikely or small.
It’s a remarkably humble move, one that greatly enriches the subtext of the novel, and one that could teach today’s political commentators (yes, including myself) quite a bit.