One week ago, in the process of announcing the recipients of the Governor's Civics Seal, Gov. Bill Lee tweeted: "In TN, our students will be taught unapologetic American exceptionalism."
This was clearly an implicit reiteration of the opposition to critical race theory that has so animated Lee and his fellow partisans of late. I doubt our governor could satisfy an AP History teacher with his definition of critical race theory or American exceptionalism, but anyone who's taken a high school history class in these exceptional United States knows pretty much what he means by the latter. It is the ideology of American innocence; not of a perfect country, but one whose flaws only serve to emphasize its greatness. In the story of America that this thinking imagines, the country has done wrong, yes, but the true and important part is how America eventually got around to doing less wrong. There will be a few paragraphs on slavery — it was a horrible bit of business. But who ended slavery? America did.
Bill Lee should know well the kind of culture that results from diminishing the gravity of America's sins. He and I share an alma mater in Auburn University. When I was there, a history professor of mine referred to the Civil War as "the fight for Southern independence." When Bill Lee was there, he dressed up as a Confederate soldier for a fraternity party.
In fairness, there is another aspect to this idea of American exceptionalism. This is the notion that America is a place of refuge from persecution — a home for the tired, huddled masses. This country has almost always fallen short of this lofty notion. But it is a good goal. And if the governor means anything he says, he can help bring us closer to it now.
No doubt you've seen the devastating images of the tired, huddled masses trying to flee Afghanistan, the country from which we are now withdrawing our military — rightly but disastrously — after a mostly aimless 20-year war. There are thousands of Afghans now yearning to breathe free; some of them helped the U.S. military at great risk to themselves over the years, and others were simply caught in the maelstrom of the past two decades and now face the return of the Taliban. All of them — all of them — deserve the best we can offer.
And governors around the country have started to offer refuge. Democratic and Republican governors alike have spoken up to say their states will welcome refugees from the country we've torn apart — one that is now ruled again by violent theocratic gangsters.
Bill Lee should join them. If he did, it almost certainly wouldn't go over well with his fellow Tennessee Republicans, who have made a name for themselves by being inhospitable to refugee resettlement in the state. But he should do it still. He should come out and say, as Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said this week, that our state "stands ready to welcome refugees from this war-torn country." If our culture is so infected by partisan politics that he can only do this by framing it as a response to President Joe Biden's failure to execute a more orderly withdrawal, then fine. Do that. It will make no difference to the men, women and children trying desperately to fit into the inside, or hang onto the outside, of airplanes departing Kabul.
Do the right thing, governor. Sen. Marsha Blackburn has been making noises of concern for the women and girls of Afghanistan all week — maybe she'll join you.