What is and is not exceptional about America

Recently as part of the exchange which resulted in the Magnum Opus posted May 7 of this year one of the participants asked me what I thought about American Exceptionalism. I answered to a small degree in the Magnum Opus but would like to be a bit more specific here.

Wikipedia lists 3 sorts of idea on American Exceptionalism. I’ll just quote from “them”:

“American exceptionalism is one of three related ideas. The first is that the history of the United States is inherently different from other nations.[2] In this view, American exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called “the first new nation”[3] and developing a uniquely American ideology, “Americanism“, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire for business. This ideology itself is often referred to as “American exceptionalism.”[4] Second is the idea that the US has a unique mission to transform the world. As Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg address (1863), Americans have a duty to see that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Third is the sense that its history and its mission give the United States a superiority over other nations.”

I find this definition somewhat lacking because what I hear and read so often from the Right is that a god made the U.S. and has plans for us. Naturally, not being a supernaturalist, I don’t consider this one as serious but many people do. It is related to the last definition from Wiki and, as the latter does, warrants intervention in the affairs of other nations. The second one, that we have a mission to transform the world, feeds into this, too. What if the world does not want to be transformed? Well, we just perform an intervention, aka invasion. The M0nroe Doctrine and all that.

The first one I can go along with to the extent that we were formed quite deliberately, as Peggy Noonan writes:

“Our patriotic fervor was the result of the old and widespread belief in the idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that America was a new thing in history, different from other countries. Other nations had evolved one way or another, evolved from tribes from a gathering of clans, from inevitabilities of language and tradition and geography. But America was born, and born of ideas: that all men are created equal, that they have been given by God certain rights that can be taken from them by no man, and that those rights combine to create a thing called freedom.”

Not bad for a conservative. The earlier first definition I would qualify where it inserts egalitarianism and laissez-faire in business: without an understanding of how the government has always been used to promote particular business interests it may appear as if all business sink or swim depending on their appeal in the market place. The egalitarian thing is a joke considering that most of the signers of the Constitution owned slaves.

Obama said: “I believe in American Exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism.”

Let’s review how some other countries might be considered exceptional is one way or the other. The British formed the greatest world empire starting in the 1600s and shaped world culture forever more. The Greeks trace their language back to a heritage as the foundation of much of modern culture: science, the arts, conquest, empire building, medicine, politics and governance and on and on.

The Chinese have tried every form of government and all before Rome fell. And the Italians, like the Greeks, trace their heritage back to one of the world’s greatest empires, one whose contributions to world culture are incalculable and whose contributions to European culture are foundational. The Japanese have a unique island culture which transformed from a feudal state to a modern nation in only fifty years. You get the idea. We could even cite countries not often mentioned in these terms, like Nigeria, Cuba, Saudi Arabia; can you think of what those countries have done that might make them exceptional? And I’ve left out Spain and India and so many more.


So what do I consider exceptional about America? Given the rise of Trump, we really can’t say that “It Can’t Happen Here”. I have always placed my sense of my country being exceptional in its institutions: our form of government, our civic life. Even the monstrous caste system that consigned African-Americans to a lower ring of life for almost 400 years was transformed relying on the provisions in the Constitution and the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence.

So flag waving is OK on national holidays like the Fourth of July and on days of victory like V-E Day. But to use our exceptional status as a nation founded on ideals and principles written down in order to secure advantages over other countries in the exploitation of natural resources or to squelch aspirations of other peoples just because we do not approve, is to betray the inner value of American exceptionalism: the self-actualization, to use a phrase from my counseling days, of all people is to be respected and not crushed by an overweening corporate and militaristic America.

Sept. 21, 2016 Addendum.

I read recently that the term “unilateralism” was coined as a joke by Arthur Schlesinger, deriding the notion that America could “go it alone”. But unilateralism was taken up by the right as an ideal of sorts and labeled American Exceptionalism. I didn’t know that.


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