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"Exceptional” -- Really?

Frank Fear: Exceptionalism has no place in Progressive vocabulary or practice. Leadership, Progressive-style, can’t tolerate it. Progress starts by taking an honest look in the mirror, seeing warts and all, and then working to get better—for the public good.

They were two unanswered questions of my youth. “Why is it called The World Series?” I asked. (How could it be called “world” when only U.S. teams play?) I never got a good answer. Ditto for this one: “Why is it called The Civil War?” (Civil wars happen all over the world. Ours isn’t the only one.)

Fighting American Exceptionalism

The conundrum continued into my teen years. It was sports again, this time about the college football rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State. Repeated references were made to “The” Ohio State University. Isn't there only one? And I wondered about four words in the Wolverines’ fight song:

“Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan
the leaders and best.”
(italics added)

Really? Why do Ohio State and Michigan self-attribute high praise?

Those were my questions back then—none with good answers. Relief came later, in college, by way of a sociology class (alas, not taken at Michigan). We read and discussed a book, “Democracy in America,” written by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. de Tocqueville wrote about what he had experienced in mid-19th Century America. It was my introduction to what we know today as “Exceptionalism.”

What is it? Exceptional = beyond ordinary. Special. Definitely not widely distributed. This is about having “it.” Most don’t have “it” or much of “it.” Oversupply makes for ordinary. And the really important part is this: if you’re affiliated with “it” then, by association, you’re exceptional, too.

Once understood, Exceptionalism is easy to spot. It’s certainly not to be taken seriously. Just dismiss it. Right? Well, not exactly.

WORLD Series. THE Civil War. THE Ohio State. LEADERS and BEST.

Once understood, Exceptionalism is easy to spot. It’s certainly not to be taken seriously. Just dismiss it. Right? Well, not exactly.

Exceptionalism of all forms is serious business, a socio-political reality, ubiquitous with considerable force. It reduces the capacity of otherwise reasonable people to make reasonable judgments based on reasonable evidence. Questioning ceases. Facts aren’t important. Blind acceptance prevails.

How is this possible? Seduction is one reason. It’s appealing to be “special,” to be separated from others who aren’t. We even permit ourselves to be seduced by those who manufacture images of our special-ness. We do that even when we know they’ll benefit from having us believe we’re remarkable…even if it involves stretching facts and even if it’s a charade. But, c’mon, we relish the image. It’s what we prefer to be true.

Take this example—a good example—because it happens so frequently in marketing and public relations campaigns. It’s when admirable characteristics are attributed to a group of people, thereby making them appear exceptional. “Courage. Wisdom. Fortitude. Dedication. Persistence.” Things like that, virtues and other characteristics we’d wish for ourselves. What’s unclear, though, is whether the claim is true and, furthermore, whether the claim applies exclusively to that group and not to similar but unaffiliated people.

Here’s what I mean. My school (I’m professor emeritus at Michigan State) uses the tagline, “Spartans Will,” to convey an image about Michigan State University Spartans—of all Spartans. It’s expressed cleverly because “will” carries multiple interpretations—to possess it and to act. “Every day, MSU scientists, scholars, and students go where the tough problems exist and work to find solutions that make life better in Michigan and around the world,” is one way the university expresses it.

It’s a great image. At issue is whether “Spartans Will” accurately depicts the expansive frame of reference of Michigan State. Also at issue is whether the work done by Spartans is significantly different (in type, quality, and impact) from work being done at schools similar to MSU. Might the same thing be said about the University of Minnesota?

“Spartans Will” is a good example for another reason: it illustrates a common attribute of how Exceptionalism is presented, namely, through intentional vagueness. If you stumbled upon MSU’s tagline you’d probably ask: Spartans will what? While the answer on its face is unclear, institutional messengers will fill in the blank with appealing answers.

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It’s primarily a matter of image and imaging. My school does a very good job of that. The president’s strategic platform, “Boldness by Design,” conveys two positive images: strength (boldness) and intentionality (design). A subsequent expression, “Bolder by Design,” projects an image of continuous improvement (bolder). And, by indirect extension, it subtly communicates about MSU vis-à-vis other schools. Credit both outcomes to the power of adding two letters, “er,” to the word, bold. The school’s capital campaign slogan, “Empower Extraordinary” offers a compatible image—of broad exceptionality—to which donors can contribute, literally. It’s all snazzy stuff, Madison Avenue-style.

Fighting American Exceptionalism

Jefferson County protests

Years ago the late Bill Readings wrote about matters like this. He saw it as an example of the “corporatization” of public and nonprofit institutions. “Social marketing,” as it’s sometimes called, is the application of marketing concepts and principles to sell public products and services. Readings decried the use of murky, non-specific references to excellence. He preferred specificity—in language use and evidence—to undergird claims.

But, even if you agree with Readings’ position, it’s not always easy to get the full story because that story is problematic in the eyes of some. Here’s an example.

The place is suburban Jefferson County, Colorado. The context is the Jefferson County School Board, one of the state’s largest school systems. The Board took a stand on what it believes should be taught about American history to high-achieving (“Advanced Placement”) 10th Grade high school students. Board member Julie Williams puts it this way: the goal is to assure “that courses present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” It’s also important that “materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”

There are many issues embedded in this case, but consider as prominent the action taken by some of the district’s high school students. Hundreds organized a protest that culminated in presenting to the Board the names of 40,000 petitioners opposed to the curriculum change. “America was founded on what you are trying to prevent!” one student said to the Board.

That student’s response highlights one of the fundamental problems with Exceptionalism, and why promoting it is such a dangerous practice: it’s the desire to share only “the good stuff,” avoiding “all the other stuff.” An uncontrived portrait is replaced with a picture of how we prefer things to be seen.

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts expressed his opinion recently about the Colorado matter. He sees it as an “assault” and “intellectual vandalism.” America is exceptional in many ways, Pitts wrote, but there are critical issues that students need to know, discuss, and understand about their country. Otherwise they will be exposed to “happy history” that leaves them “positive, patriotic — and ignorant.”

In poking around the internet I couldn’t find a ton of stories about the Colorado case, but I did find numerous citizen reactions to Pitts’ point of view (his syndicated column appears in newspapers around the country). One of the most active locations was my winter home, Fort Myers, Florida. A number of local people wrote Letters to the Editor (Fort Myers News-Press)—so many, in fact, that the Community Connections editor devoted a page to the topic on October 20. Longer essays were published, too. Consider what local resident Ray Clasen had to say:

“Half the truth can be as pernicious as an outright lie…. There are numerous reasons to celebrate the American experience; great nation: yes, certainly, but the sad fact remains: we could be so much better than we are, and we won't get there by trivializing our mistakes, never mind refusing to learn from them.”

Incredibly expressive are those words—not only with reference to the Colorado matter, but to Exceptionalism writ large and to social life in general. It’s what we should hope for ourselves and for everything in else life: people and enterprises of all kinds (corporate, public, and non-profit) embracing truth-telling, learning from experience (good and bad), and growing from missteps. Honestly. Transparently.

Of Exceptionalism’s psychological etiology I’m unsure, although an unsettled self-concept, hubris, and chimera seem to figure in prominently. What I do know is this: Exceptionalism has no place in Progressive vocabulary or practice. Leadership, Progressive-style, can’t tolerate it. Progress starts by taking an honest look in the mirror, seeing warts and all, and then working to get better—for the public good.

John F. Kennedy expressed it well:


“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie…but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic…. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Commencement address, Yale University, June 11 1962

Frank Fear