I became interested in the political philosophy known as “American Exceptionalism” a few days ago. I had a short post tucked away in my saved items in my reader, thinking that I’d get to it, and run off a post with my brilliant thoughts and dust off my hands and move on.
Of course, things seldom turn out as planned. As I perused this post, that led to another, then another, and well escalation happens. Moreover, the subject is nuanced, which it about the antithesis of blog posts. This is serious research stuff, and needs pages to explain it properly.
Wait, before you click off, I’m not going to do that. I will attempt to generally state the idea, give my views and then give you a good strong list of materials you can read at your leisure should you be interested enough to continue.
This started of course when President Obama had the audacity to mention the word “arrogance” in relation to the US while overseas. The asshats of political punditry from the right, started fainting dead away:
Fox News’ Sean Hannity said Obama’s speech was evidence that “he harbors deep resentment” of America. The right wing continued its hysteria over the weekend and today:
KARL ROVE: There are ways to make the point that he made without running down America.
SEAN HANNITY: I am tired of Obama pandering to what I consider to be the worst instincts of those who hate this country.
NICOLE WALLACE: I think at his core he does not seem to believe in American exceptionalism, the way more Republicans define it.
Actually the phrase “American Exceptionalism” was coined by one Alexis de Tocqueville on his tour of the 50-year old country, claiming that it was so by virtue of it’s being a country of immigrants and being the first modern democracy.
It received a different though important impetus from religious circles, starting with the Puritans who saw America as that “light on the hill” the land where a Godly nation could be constructed. It was a special gift of God, this land called America.
Some have attached a natural resource component to it as well. We were a nation blessed ( for some at least) with nearly unlimited land to expand within, resources both broad and deep, a climate favoring agriculture and then manufacturing, and a political and economic system favoring the use of all this.
Sometime after WWII, the term was actually brought forth, this time by the new movement known as neoconservatism. It in a sense blends these various components into one. We are favored by God, favored by our location, size and resources, and favored by our political system to be the leader, the best in the world.
It seemed to have taken an ugly turn in the Bush Administration to mean that additionally since we were the military might of the world, and the moral leader, we were in a sense above international law. Worse, it became our job to export democracy, at the point of a gun if necessary. This has led, as anyone can see, to a growth in hatred for the US, mostly defined as the Government of the US.
Interestingly, President Obama was asked if he endorsed this concept of American Exceptionalism:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
“And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
“Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
“And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
Obama, I think, strikes the proper balance. At least as far as I can see. America is without question, a blessed nation in terms of its natural resources, its unique federalist political system, it’s broad immigrant past. But one is sheer luck, the other an amazingly lucky happenstance that such a group of brilliant men located within it, and the third is, well obvious, if one excludes the poor Native American population which was pushed out of the picture.
Those things, and the a number of historical accidents, principally WWII, worked to place the US today in a unique position of having the most military might and at the baseline, arguably still the strongest economy. Yet at one time arguably Rome had much the same, yet it managed to destroy itself.
I especially dislike and reject the notion that God has somehow offered America some special grace. I found that unpersuasive in the Old Testament as regards the Hebrews, and find it more unpersuasive today in regards my own land.
But, hey, I reject intellectually the rational for individual nations anyway. It is a stupid and counterproductive manner of organization, and one which results in haves and have-nots by virtue mostly of resources. It’s guaranteed to start fights, and does.
Much like going around proclaiming that your faith is better than mine or Susie’s, it does nothing but engender distrust, resentment, and the desire on the part of others to take the breast beater down a peg or two. It places a target squarely on the back of the American Eagle. We are all, sorrowfully too aware of that.
I can but imagine what it must feel like to be in any other country knowing that in some manner, large or small, my fate depends on what is occurring in the US. It must have been truly frightening during the eight long years of pure stupidity this country engaged in. It must make the blood boil to watch illiterate rednecks and arguably insane sideshow punditry bloviate about how America is bigger, better, best, and if you don’t like it, well too bad.
Frankly it shames me. I know that most of America is not like this. Most of America recalls its immigrant roots all too well, and knows that those back home are decent, thoughtful, bright folks too,with skills and abilities every bit as grand as any that any American can produce.
We are more lucky than exceptional. Until we eradicate hunger and homelessness, provide health care for all, provide education on par with increasingly large numbers of other countries, and on and on, we have no claim to exceptionalism whatsoever. We are lucky that we can speak openly, with only the reactionary right to call us traitors and unpatriotic. We aren’t being round up and arrested, though we came close during the Bush years.
So I stand as one who says, no to American exceptionalism. I stand and say yes to equality, and a willingness to embrace the contributions of my brothers and sisters across the globe. We are one family, whatever the jerks in our governments may say. And in the end, I believe we will overcome all this bigger, better, best crap, and move on to create a world of peace and goodwill, and then we all will be the “light on the hill.”
For further reading:
American Exceptionalism: Carl Schmitt and the Neoconservative Justification for the Sovereignty of Politics, by Stale R. S. Finke, Professor of Philosophy, University of Trondheim.
American Exceptionalism, Wikipedia
Far Right’s New Talking Point: Obama’s Remarks in Europe, Proves He Hates America, Ali Frick, Think Progress.
Neoconservatism and the American Mainstream, Zachary Selden, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
American Exceptionalism, Steven Benen, Political Animal, Washington Monthly.
Obama Too is an American Exceptionalist, by Michael Scherer, Swampland, Time.