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American Exceptionalism – Your Thoughts?

Statute of LibertyBy now I imagine most readers have read Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed, published yesterday. In the piece addressed to the American people and their political leaders, the Russian President argues against military intervention in Syria and urges adherence to the United Nations Charter to “preserv[e] law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world … to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.”

Putting the debate on the morality and legality of a possible US strike against Syria to one side, I found the final paragraph of the op-ed most striking:

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

As a foreigner, relatively new to the United States, there are many things I have grown to love about this country. I have found Americans, on the whole, tend to approach life with an infectious enthusiasm and optimism, underpinned, it seems, by a cultural discourse of fixed (national) self-belief. For some, though by no means all, this translates into a firm conviction that America is “the greatest country in the world” (Pew Research Study 2011).

I raise President Putin’s remarks on American exceptionalism here because the American “presentation of self” is a subject of great interest to me personally, as a relative newcomer to your shores. Moreover, America’s global military presence, whether in Syria or Afghanistan or as recently “pivoted to Asia”, is presumably predicated on and influenced by domestic beliefs and assumptions, spoken and unspoken, about America’s distinguishing characteristics, values and powers. And so I wonder how you responded to the respective remarks of Presidents Obama and Putin on American exceptionalism? Is it an “essential truth” that America is different, and what do we really mean by such a statement? Is it as President Putin argues, a dangerous rhetoric? Or is it a meaningful assessment, descriptively or normatively, of America’s relative place in the global order?

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Bruce E. Boyden

    Is American exceptionalism exceptional? I’ve always assumed that the residents of most countries think that their country is the best country in the world. But perhaps that’s not accurate.

  2. David Papke

    I earned my Ph.D. in American Studies, and almost all scholars in that interdisciplinary field reject the idea of American exeptionalism as a socio-political fact. However, the notion of the United States as an “exceptional” nation in the world remains a powerful and central premise in the dominant ideology. The idea goes back to the Puritans and their belief that God has chosen this land as its favorite. Most American political leaders invoke the notion of the nation’s exceptionalism when it serves their purposes, and Ronald Reagan was perhaps the greatest master at this. One difference might be that, as far as I could tell, Reagan genuinely believed in American exceptionalism. The most powerful ideology, after all, is ideology that is fully internatlized and taken to be nothing but common sense.

  3. Bob Schildgen

    First, Bruce, it isn’t true that most countries think theirs is the “best in the world.” The Italians, for example, are very self-critical. They may claim to have the best food in the world or a very nice climate and a remarkable collection of art and architectural masterpieces, but they never claim to be “special” in the moral and political sense that American exceptionalism claims. American exceptionalism is a disastrous idea that gained popularity in the 19th century because it could be used to justify ideas like Manifest Destiny, the idea that God or Nature ordained us as a special nation among nations. It is a sort of perversion of the idea of the Founding Fathers that we were forming a new kind of democratic government that could set an example for the world, which it did. But they did not inflate this idea into a justification for interfering with other nations or making war on them. Nor did they allow the claim of moral superiority as a rationalization for such such interference. Since World War II, because we widely believe that we and we alone “won” the war, the exceptionalism has only become more blindly self-righteous—to the point where we consider ourselves the world’s moral and political enforcers. Not a model, as with the founders, but enforcer of a model.

    This is not to say that other nations don’t go through this form of conceit. The Japanese, for example, gave justification to their military and imperialist expansion by claiming that they were saving Asia from western colonialism. “Saving” became an excuse for invasion, just as it has repeatedly for the United States. The same sort of moral exceptionalism was used by Hitler to justify German invasions. But these were, if you will “exceptional exceptionalism,” and not a deep and enduring aspects of either nation’s permanent self-conception. (Japan, for example, had purposely isolated itself for hundreds of years, and had no designs to expand or “save” other nations.) American exceptionalism is permanent and grounded deeply in our self-conception, and as the years go by, it becomes more and more toxic, to the point where it is a kind of mental illness, a delusional state of ego-inflation that leads us to believe we have not just the duty but the ability to impose our view of the world on others. Putin was being polite and diplomatic when he said, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” He could have said “narcissistic” or even “sociopathic,” because instead of questioning their self-conception, the narcissist and the sociopath allow it to dictate their destructive behavior.

    I am frankly shocked that a man of Obama’s intelligence and understanding of U.S. history would invoke this old, tired, but still dangerous idea to justify an attack. I assume he felt he had to pull out all the stops to prove he had the strength of character to back up his remarks of a year or so ago about the use poison gas in Syria being a “red line.” (An echo, ironically, of Netanyahu.) In other words, it is hard for me to imagine that he truly believes in American exceptionalism. The fact that he is an African-American makes it even harder to imagine.

    Why? Well, I may not be as intelligent as Obama, but I became aware of the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism at the age of 10. The occasion was when “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. First, as a Catholic boy, I felt that the only person who had the right to claim special attention from God was the Pope. Plus, My father had already told me about the historic prejudice against Catholics in the United States. It thus seemed blasphemous to claim that the country was “under God.” This experience alone confirmed in my young mind the importance of separating religion from state. But I was also struck by the way this claim contradicted the actual history of the United States and my own childish experience of that history. I knew that my great-great-grandfather had been killed fighting for the Union in the Civil War, because my father had showed me the man’s name on a monument at the county seat. I was told that this war was fought to end slavery, which was itself an evil that could not possibly have enjoyed the guidance of the Almighty. From the other side of the family were stories from my grandfather, who as a boy lived near an Indian reservation in Nebraska. He told stories of the crass treatment of the Indians by the U.S. government, which did things such as shutting down Indian dances or distributing shoes that wore out instantly. This simply confirmed what even our sanitized history books told us about the brutal treatment of the Indians. On top of all this, came tales of more recent disasters, about family members who lost their farms during the Great Depression and had to endure anxiety and poverty no matter how hard they worked. None of these narratives added up to anything resembling a nation “under God,” which is why the two words seemed like a complete lie or a con game masked by piety. After this, I never again said the Pledge of Allegiance, though I did stand up at school when it was recited each day. (This level of protest simply did not occur to the budding dissident.) The point is, if I saw through this manifestation of exceptionalism at age 10, it’s impossible to believe that Obama hasn’t seen through it.

    None of this is meant as anti-American. I’ve spent enough time in Europe to understand the specific things that we can rightly boast of: a sense of daring and willingness to innovate that indeed often seems lacking in Europeans; a better and more open educational system; a greater social mobility (though we are fast losing this feature, thanks to the rise of an unscrupulous plutocracy); an openness, frankness, generosity less prevalent in older societies. These are all laudable traits, because, as Anna High says, they help us to approach life with an infectious enthusiasm and optimism. But they do NOT make us “exceptional” on the moral and political level as implied by Obama and many others. It’s great to be proud of our positive national traits, but to believe that we’re also on higher moral ground is, as Putin indicates, disastrous.

  4. Steve Nelson

    The phrase has become a political dog whistle signifying the difference between “real” and “other” Americans. The theme on the right in the last election was to create the meme of “real v. other” and “makers v. takers.” The President may talk of the U.S. as greatest nation on earth, but when he doesn’t use the exact phrase “American Exceptionalism” his is pilloried by some as not being a “real” American. In response to the State of the Union Address in January 2011, Speaker Boehner had this say: “Well, they — they’ve refused to talk about America exceptionalism. We are different than the rest of the world. Why? Because Americans have — the country was built on an idea that ordinary people could decide what their government looked like and ordinary people could elect their own leaders. And 235 years ago that was a pretty novel idea. And so we are different. Why is our economy still 20 times the size of China’s? Because Americans have had the freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail. We’ve got more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and that is exceptional but you can’t get the left to talk about it. They don’t — they reject that notion.”

  5. Bruce E. Boyden

    Perhaps American exceptionalism is exceptional, but it doesn’t seem limited to nationalism if it is. People tend to think their home state is the best state; people in that state think their city is the best city; people think that their local sports teams are the best sports teams. That last one does not seem peculiarly American, at least.

  6. Mitchell Scott

    Its so tempting and easy and perhaps necessary to wade into the generalization and hyperbolic end of the pool here. The answer is no, no America is not exceptional in the stories sense, and no it’s not different in the sense that that difference implies any sort of superiority. A generalization follows but I hope there’s sufficient truth here to warrant it. As a Canadian I can say that we take the approach, we can learn from other countries. Australia has a new idea on Energy Management, we’re listening. Germany or the UK has different approach on Health Care, again we’re still listening. The US has an angle on business increasing small business, yep we’re all ears. You get the idea. I don’t get that openness to other ideas from as many Americans. The point is we love our country but that love doesn’t A) blind us from what we can learn from other countries. B) doesn’t mean we see ourselves superior to other countries. We/I simply acknowledge that I am blessed to live in such a great country, we’re a work in progress, aren’t we all and that there are other countries that its citizens should also feel blessed to live in and should be part of their work in progress.

  7. Chris Christian

    Questioning U.S. “exceptionalism” has, at times in our past, caused people to be labeled as unpatriotic and anti-American. Many promoted America as being exceptional because of our “unique” form of government.

    I didn’t question that premise for many years – until I was liberally educated in the Social Sciences. We are not exceptional nor are we unique and we need to stop telling ourselves that we are.

    The world sees us accurately as the war-mongering, colonials we’ve always been. Our laws are written to favor our dominance in trade. Once it was cotton, now it is oil. We are greedy consumers – every one of us – and human beings all.

    I have come to believe that the American corporation was formed in order to exploit the workers, many of whom were actively drafted to immigrate to the new world in order to finance World Capitalism. Neither a unique idea, nor a very workable one. Governments are there merely to be manipulated in favor of keeping our country economically superior to others. We’ve recently blown that advantage and the investors are restless.

    The Patriot American Pride is a propaganda screen to keep the workers happy and mollified that they are honestly playing a part in the decisions our government makes. Many of us are re-thinking this paradigm even as I write here.

    We are blessed in this country with great minds and great ideas, but that does not include the idea that we’re superior in any way to anyone else. Everyone of us is exceptional, IMHO.

  8. Gordon Hylton

    As John Winthrop recognized in his City upon the Hill sermon in 1630 (while still aboard the Arabella), America has the capacity to appear exceptional in the eyes of the world. Whether or not it is worthy of that designation has been the question for past 383 years.

  9. Nick Zales

    America is a great place but so many other countries are far better. So if we are exceptional, what are they, super-exceptional? In the end it doesn’t matter what we think we are. It is what we really are that counts and our recent record has been dismal.

  10. Nikkole Salter

    I think we’ve been taught that having pride is an important factor in continued achievement. This is not so. Having self-confidence and self-respect is a primary factor in future achievement. The fact is, in order to feel proud, you have to achieve a worthy or difficult goal (or be associated with a body that does). We can be proud in our affiliation as Americans for the achievements of the past … but we have to be real about what was an achievement. The very creation of our country is tainted by our imperialist attitude, domination and obliteration of the indigenous populations. Are we proud of that? Does that make us exceptional? How is that different than the conquests of previous nations/empires? Are we proud of the rise of our economic prowess? It was built on the free labor of forcibly enslaved Africans and poor European indentured servants. Can we be proud of our tolerance and diversity? Our history of xenophobia, harassment and exploitation of immigrants is ever present. The forced assimilation of everyone to the Anglo-Protestant culture is well documented. Is that tolerance? Is that diversity? Can we be proud of our fairness and justice for all … LOL. I think not. Don’t get me started. What we have is the myth of exceptionalism … an American Dream that we all buy into that keeps us invested in the American ideals, even when they are not, nor have ever been a universal part of the American experience. That’s not to say nothing good exists in America. And more importantly, because our ideals are so remarkable (exceptional for their time, definitely), if we could actually manifest them, we still may not be exceptional, but the accomplishment would certainly be worthy of national pride.

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