It’s Time to Rethink American Exceptionalism | David Bromwich ~ The Nation

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David Bromwich on October 24, 2014

The origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” are not especially obscure. The French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, observing this country in the 1830s, said that Americans seemed exceptional in valuing practical attainments almost to the exclusion of the arts and sciences. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, on hearing a report by the American Communist Party that workers in the United States in 1929 were not ready for revolution, denounced “the heresy of American exceptionalism.” In 1996, the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset took those hints from Tocqueville and Stalin and added some of his own to produce his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. The virtues of American society, for Lipset — our individualism, hostility to state action, and propensity for ad hoc problem-solving — themselves stood in the way of a lasting and prudent consensus in the conduct of American politics.

In recent years, the phrase “American exceptionalism,” at once resonant and ambiguous, has stolen into popular usage in electoral politics, in the mainstream media, and in academic writing with a profligacy that is hard to account for. It sometimes seems that exceptionalism for Americans means everything from generosity to selfishness, localism to imperialism, indifference to “the opinions of mankind” to a readiness to incorporate the folkways of every culture. When President Obama told West Point graduates last May that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the context made it clear that he meant the United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was demonstrated by our possession of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” uniquely tasked with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow ourselves to “flout international norms” or be a law unto ourselves. The contradictory nature of these statements would have satisfied even Tocqueville’s taste for paradox.

On the whole, is American exceptionalism a force for good? The question shouldn’t be hard to answer. To make an exception of yourself is as immoral a proceeding for a nation as it is for an individual. When we say of a person (usually someone who has gone off the rails), “He thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” we mean that he is a danger to others and perhaps to himself. People who act on such a belief don’t as a rule examine themselves deeply or write a history of the self to justify their understanding that they are unique. Very little effort is involved in their willfulness. Such exceptionalism, indeed, comes from an excess of will unaccompanied by awareness of the necessity for self-restraint.

Such people are monsters. Many land in asylums, more in prisons. But the category also encompasses a large number of high-functioning autistics: governors, generals, corporate heads, owners of professional sports teams. When you think about it, some of these people do write histories of themselves and in that pursuit, a few of them have kept up the vitality of an ancient genre: criminal autobiography.

All nations, by contrast, write their own histories as a matter of course. They preserve and exhibit a record of their doings; normally, of justified conduct, actions worthy of celebration. “Exceptional” nations, therefore, are compelled to engage in some fancy bookkeeping which exceptional individuals can avoid — at least until they are put on trial or subjected to interrogation under oath. The exceptional nation will claim that it is not responsible for its exceptional character. Its nature was given by God, or History, or Destiny.

An external and semi-miraculous instrumentality is invoked to explain the prodigy whose essence defies mere scientific understanding. To support the belief in the nation’s exceptional character, synonyms and variants of the word “providence” often get slotted in. That word gained its utility at the end of the seventeenth century — the start of the epoch of nations formed in Europe by a supposed covenant or compact. Providence splits the difference between the accidents of fortune and purposeful design; it says that God is on your side without having the bad manners to pronounce His name.

Why is it immoral for a person to treat himself as an exception? The reason is plain: because morality, by definition, means a standard of right and wrong that applies to all persons without exception. Yet to answer so briefly may be to oversimplify. For at least three separate meanings are in play when it comes to exceptionalism, with a different apology backing each. The glamour that surrounds the idea owes something to confusion among these possible senses.

First, a nation is thought to be exceptional by its very nature. It is so consistently worthy that a unique goodness shines through all its works. Who would hesitate to admire the acts of such a country? What foreigner would not wish to belong to it? Once we are held captive by this picture, “my country right or wrong” becomes a proper sentiment and not a wild effusion of prejudice, because we cannot conceive of the nation being wrong.

A second meaning of exceptional may seem more open to rational scrutiny. Here, the nation is supposed to be admirable by reason of history and circumstance. It has demonstrated its exceptional quality by adherence to ideals which are peculiar to its original character and honorable as part of a greater human inheritance. Not “my country right or wrong” but “my country, good and getting better” seems to be the standard here. The promise of what the country could turn out to be supports this faith. Its moral and political virtue is perceived as a historical deposit with a rich residue in the present.

A third version of exceptionalism derives from our usual affectionate feelings about living in a community on the scale of a neighborhood or township, an ethnic group or religious sect. Communitarian nationalism takes the innocent-seeming step of generalizing that sentiment to the nation at large. My country is exceptional to me (according to this view) just because it is mine. Its familiar habits and customs have shaped the way I think and feel; nor do I have the slightest wish to extricate myself from its demands. The nation, then, is like a gigantic family, and we owe it what we owe to the members of our family: “unconditional love.” This sounds like the common sense of ordinary feelings. How can our nation help being exceptional to us?

 


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