American Exceptionalism

liberty skittishIs America exceptional? Listen to any politician and the answer must be YES! Apparently one of the requirements to run for office is a willingness to say that America is the greatest nation ever, the most wonderful place on earth. Republican contenders for their party’s Presidential nomination have recently been polishing their exceptionalist credentials.

Rick Perry’s campaign website says, “Rick Perry will restore confidence in the American Dream and American Exceptionalism.” His campaign book, “Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington” (2010), proclaims that Americans are “a people blessed by the Almighty”. Mitt Romney writes in “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” (2010) that the US is “the world’s leading nation”. Hermann Cain is behind in the polls, so he may need even stronger words. In The American Spectator, March 2011, he wrote: “There is no denying it: America is the greatest country in the world.” Then he repeats the sentence a few lines later.

President Obama offered a different view at a press conference in 2009: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Perry in “Fed Up” comments sarcastically on this statement, and says, “America is unique in its greatness”. Romney also criticized Obama’s statement in his book, saying it means that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all. For conservatives, only Americans can rightfully be exceptionalists.

Throughout our history, Americans have claimed exceptional status for our country. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader, thought of his version of America as a “City upon a Hill”: the Puritans of New England would serve as a model for the rest of the world. As a conscious creation of settlers from many countries, a new nation with an unprecedented Constitution, the US was a exceptional nation. But what about now?

Last week I happened to be taking 11 international students to the Lincoln Museum in Springfield and thinking about what American exceptionalism might mean to them. I have been trying to explain my homeland to Africans, Asians, and Europeans. The US is very different from their home countries: for example, our farms and cars and houses are enormous compared to what they are used to. In those ways, every country is exceptional, with different languages, customs, history and economy. When does exceptional mean better?

As we might expect, the stronger the statements about America as the greatest nation, the more ignorance or disdain is displayed about the rest of the world. It is much more difficult to proclaim that the US is best after getting to know another country. Living elsewhere confronts you with two uncomfortable truths.

The first is that other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own. The Germans and the Chinese have better train systems. The Dutch and the Scandinavians are far better at teaching languages to school children. Many peoples are more hospitable to strangers and we have the highest per capita rate of murders with firearms of any industrialized country. To say “America is the greatest” begs the question, “At what?”

A second truth is that Obama is right: each people sees their own country and culture as exceptional and exceptionally good. It makes no sense to argue for American exceptionalism with a Nigerian or a Swede. They might agree that our buildings are taller or our per capita income higher, but then ask, “So what?” Any claim that we are better people, more moral or more happy or more just, will provoke an argument without end.

American exceptionalism is dangerous. The desire to proclaim superiority leads to stupidity, such as Perry’s claim in “Fed Up” that the US has “the best health care system in the world.” It leads to attempts to hide any possible flaws, especially the most embarrassing ones, like our violent denial of Constitutional rights to black Americans through most of our history or our enormous prison population. Exceptionalism of the “We are the greatest” variety is an adult form of the elementary school boast, “My father can beat up your father.”

Steve HochstadtLeaving arrogance and ignorance aside, it is worth thinking about what is exceptional about the US. Our exceptional flaws should provoke us to seek corrections. Our exceptional virtues, such as our ability to challenge authority, our free press, our system of higher education, and our wide variety of good beers, can be sources of pride.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Published by the LA Progressive on August 30, 2011
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."

Comments

  1. The unqualified notion that ‘Exceptionalism is dangerous’ is itself dangerous – it’s silly and simplistic.

    Some claims of ‘exceptionalism’ are irrelevant, some are cogent, some are false, some are true. Simply tagging all claims of exceptionalism as inherently and generically ‘dangerous’ is wrong and silly.

    Hochstadt’s article ends with a far more reasoned view: “Leaving arrogance and ignorance aside, it is worth thinking about what is exceptional about the US. Our exceptional flaws should provoke us to seek corrections. Our exceptional virtues, such as our ability to challenge authority, our free press, our system of higher education, and our wide variety of good beers, can be sources of pride.”

    But Hochstadt here omits one important aspect of our virtues, our positive ‘exceptionalisms’, that even some otherwise reactionary folk perceive: there’s more to do than just to take pride in them. Not only should our flaws be guide to action at home, but our virtues should be guides to policy abroad. Contra Obama’s approach to US foreign policy, regimes in Iran, N Korea, Sudan, Syria, occupied Tibet, etc. are not entitled to our forbearance, ceremonial hand-wringing, and mere ‘bearing witness’ . These regimes are NOT entitled to oppress their people simply because that’s ‘their accepted way’ , which does not include USA ‘exceptionalisms’ like civil liberities. It’s NOT true that every regime should be entitled to freely practice its negative exceptionalisms.

  2. So why do i have malnutrition and perio disease causing heart disease and cant even get the primary care md to get the ER records and make a follow up appointment since April ? Why cant many multi disabled get much needed care unless you are in one of the 3 well lobbied groups?

    Why can’t poverty level people with disabilities get the same care he can?

  3. Ginny Atherton says:

    Subscribers to Exceptionalism lurk in unsuspecting places.

    I worked once in a junior high school with students who sometimes struggled to achieve, but more often put no effort and even challenged teachers to “you can’t make me bring a pencil,” let alone homework to class.

    A re-opened school again serving neighborhood that previously had been dispersed to other schools (a la recent efforts in Raleigh, NC), school pride needed developing. Baskeball season offered incentive to develop cheerleaders and chants…encouraged by the Principal to affirm the this school, this team is “the Best!” When the other, visiting team won, our kids stoned their bus…for exposing the truth, that not even at basketball, that night was our team “the Best!”

    In private life, exceptionalism invades behaviors such as “I can smoke in a non-smoking hotel room,” or “I don’t need to use directional lights when pulling out of a street side parking space.”

  4. Melissa Powell says:

    America is exceptional in every way, or so it has up until the Democratic Party, the liberal and progressives got into bed with the enemies. That is plural, for they are bed hoppers, from the socialists, to the facists, to the communists and now coddling and playing footsies and slap-tickle with the likes of Muslims who stated goal is the decimation and subjegation of the west.

    As to your first point “other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own:” that is indee laughable. American innovation and self reliance is what has given us the bes nation in 235 years, moreso and quicker than any other nation or culture on this earth. They have had centuries to make the same strides. They have not.

    As to your second point “each people sees their own country and culture as exceptional and exceptionally good.: I have to ask you, “So what?” No one questioned their exceptionalism, no one ever does, except for leftists, liberals, progressives who have an axe to grind with their own country.

    As to your claim that “American exceptionalism is dangerous” complete and utter balderdash. As stated above, it is just another stupid statement meant to used to flog a GOP candidate, but please don’t let facts get in the way of a liberally tainted rant; it’s kind of like the headline “Is Perry Stupid.” So what?

    The thing that is the most exceptional about America is her citizens. Those who are CITIZENS, born, raised and those that bleed red, white and blue. Those that owe their allegiance to her, to her only, and despite any of her flaws, are in awe of the lady. She is magnificent precisely because of her people, those that fought for her, bled for her, gave their lives for her….they deserve more than your rhetorical questions and flippant op-ed screeds. America…..she is defined by the exceptional people that fight to keep her and her founding principles alive. And I for one, love her daily.

    MPowell
    Crowley, TEXAS

    • Mark Halfmoon says:

      Aryan exceptionalism was enthusiastically embraced in Germany in the 1930s. It was dangerous because it allowed a people to believe they were greater than all others, and that what happened to others was irrelevant. Their society was superior and deserved mastery and dominion over all. Anyone who thought otherwise was clearly a communist or some other kind of traitor.

      I’m sure Melissa Powell from Crowley, Texas won’t see it, but her irrational tirade is exactly the kind of danger that Steve Hochstadt is warning of. A perfect example of a proud and arrogant ignorance. She is so blindly convinced that she’s got the best of everything, that she doesn’t even have the desire to be exposed to any evidence that may raise questions about her foregone conclusion.

      There is no logic or reason to her argument that America is exceptional. Just some boilerplate jabbering about liberals “coddling and playing footsies” with communists and Muslims as the cause for their not agreeing with her.

      It is “indeed laughable,” she says, to think that other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own. Why, “they have had centuries to make the same strides.” How making the same strides has anything to do with other people’s ways of doing things, does not need to make sense in Ms. Powell’s exceptional America.

      “So what?” if other people think their country and culture are exceptional. America has exceptional citizens. Unlike those other countries, our citizens have psychedelic blood. And unlike those superstitious heathens, we anthropomorphise HER. We owe allegiance to HER, to HER only, despite any of HER flaws. We are in awe of the LADY. She is magnificent. HER people fought for HER, bled for HER, gave their lives for HER. And I for one, love HER daily. Not monthly. Not weekly. DAILY! Now THAT’S exceptional.

      Except, it’s been done before.

      • Mark Halfmoon does such a nice job of puncturing Melissa Powell’s ignorant writing, that there is little need for me to add anything. I do think that her comment that it is laughable to think that “other people’s ways of doing things might actually be better than our own” is typical of the ignorance at the base of most exceptionalism: I don’t know what other people do, but by definition we do it better. And if you disagree, then the exceptionalists’ supposed love of fellow citizens, as Ms. Powell says, doesn’t apply to you, because you are a traitor, hate America, are stupid. Like many conservatives these days, Ms. Powell really doesn’t like the majority of Americans who don’t agree with her.

        Steve Hochstadt

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