YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 10, 2014

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” NOT

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda

One of the Humanities-Net discussion groups, the History of Diplomacy (H-Diplo) reviewed a recent book by Mary E. Stuckey.  The Good Neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rhetoric of American Power.  Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series. East Lansing Michigan State University Press, 2013.  376 pp.  $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61186-099-3.

Here are some paragraphs from the review; they avoid the actual commercial trade components of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor policy” –a goal declared as early as 1933 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Neighbor_policy), in favor of its “rhetoric,” which is applied, willy-nilly to today’s updated version of Wilsonian internationalism. This misplaced emphasis on language reflects the fashionable postmodernist and culturalist turn in the humanities, which sees words as constitutive of reality. Hence the word below, “performative”:  saying that words create the real world. It follows that “hate speech” must be banned, as opposed to other non-linguistic strategies for improving economic opportunity.

I am asking you read this material, because it suggests to me that “American exceptionalism” is obliterated in favor of the foreign policy embraced by the Obama administration, that often appears to abandon the notion that the 18th century Enlightenment was the vanguard of humanity. Is it true that blatantly authoritarian societies share alleged “universal values”?

[Excerpt from H-Diplo review by Monica A. Bank:] “Stuckey identifies the elements of the good neighbor in five distinct characteristics: first, believing in the notion that right thinking people embraced a set of universally shared values; second, shaping the nation as a political community united by rhetoric that emphasized shared hardship, sacrifice, and interdependence; third, employing various types of political rhetoric, such as educative, invective, and performative speech; fourth, defining friends and enemies according to a specific set of values that coincided with the concept of “good neighbor” and “bad neighbor”; and fifth, emphasizing equality and mass participation under a strong executive as vital components of a strong neighborhood. The five subsequent body chapters follow these characteristics and delve more deeply into how these qualities constituted the Roosevelt administration’s concept of the national and global neighborhood.

“Stuckey sets up the book by explicating the way that Roosevelt understood the nation’s shared values, and how he framed the national neighborhood as a foundation for the global neighborhood. For Roosevelt, the nation was held together by a set of Judeo-Christian values, such as privileging spiritualism over materialism and committing to social justice. Social justice, for Roosevelt, was defined broadly as access to a decent home, the ability to work, and a safeguard against misfortune. Stuckey points out that Roosevelt tied Judeo-Christian values to the benefits that liberal capitalism could provide but that he also aimed to protect the vulnerable from the dangers and inconsistencies inherent within the liberal capitalist system. Such a framework allowed him to make compelling arguments about the nature of the economic crisis brought about by the Great Depression and, significantly, allowed him to offer a specific prescription for recovery that blamed his political enemies while simultaneously maintaining the greatness of American traditions. Stuckey’s analysis of shared Judeo-Christian values is also vital for understanding how Roosevelt’s move to significantly strengthen the role of the executive fit within the metaphor of the good neighbor. She points out that many Americans viewed the president with an almost religious fervor and that Roosevelt subtly employed rhetoric that encouraged comparison of him with celestial beings that became increasingly common and accepted during his administration. To counter concerns over his expanding executive authority, Roosevelt employed a religious discourse that portrayed his presidential role as one of service rather than of ruler. He also portrayed the expansion of executive power as a helpful and effective way to enact the will of God for the good of the American people.

Furthermore, his rhetoric conflated notions of religion, nation, and democracy as vital and interrelated points of a strong civilization.

This association allowed him to privilege national identity over the local and to position himself as the natural and benevolent leader driven by service to the spiritual needs of the community.” [End, review excerpt]

What are these “universally shared values”? Diversity, ethnicity, multiculturalism, tolerance? How could America both be in the vanguard of nations and respectful of less democratic, even tribal, nations? One or the other must yield, and it should be obvious that in today’s postmodern academy, “America” is a conception to be despised, unless it conforms to the current notions of “progress.”

For a related blog, see https://clarespark.com/2013/02/27/american-exceptionalism-retold/.

The "muse" of Good Neighbor policy

The “muse” of Good Neighbor policy

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