Taking on the Great God of Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism flag

Time was when the U.S. was really truly exceptional in many areas — in the 1950’s and 1960’s  —- after the rest of the world’s manufacturing was destroyed in World War II. But in those years, there wasn’t much talk of American Exceptionalism. It was so obvious, especially in the economic sphere, when the U.S. accounted for 50 percent of the World’s GDP.

But, America was also clearly superior to the rest of the world in terms of education, civil liberties, social mobility, science, health care, and a host of other areas. And most importantly, the ideas — our ideas,  that were at the formation of the American Revolution: liberty, equality, free trade, the rights of the governed, etc — had triumphed throughout the world –besting fascism, communism, and feudalism.

In nearly four decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, that overwhelming superiority has slowly ebbed as the rest of the world caught up economically, educationally, medically, and with greater social mobility.

Can America Ever Regain its Exceptionalism?

It depends.

The myth of American Exceptionalism stems from the idea that the U.S. was the product of an immaculate conception — a virgin, fertile continent bordered by two vast oceans and free of the foibles and follies of the old counties in Europe.

We began anew with a clean slate.

This myth became a reality when America was able to exploit plentiful natural resources and rich farmlands. Of course, isolation from the turmoil of European wars, and the fact that the U.S.  borrowed and adopted the best of the Old World (education and technology and free markets) helped achieve our riches, and our seeming Supremacy.

But neither democracy, nor capitalism, nor Protestantism were born in the United States. We became exceptional because we improved upon these basic ideas and rejected the rigid class and educational restrictions that so crippled European politics, culture and economy.

Lately, there has been much talk about American Exceptionalism, especially from conservatives who adopted a rigid, self-righteous interpretation of the concept.

It has become almost traitorous to admit that America may not be so exceptional after all, despite all the contrary statistical evidence. (Just as it became disloyal for politicians to not wear an American flag lapel pin.)

Mike Huckabee, said “To deny American Exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”

Interestingly enough this new mantra about American Exceptionalism entered the public sphere in the 1980s during the Reagan era when U.S. economic, scientific, medical, military, educational dominance was beginning to wane and other countries were starting to catch up.

For the rest of the world, our current national preoccupation with, and our constant crowing about, American Exceptionalism seems, frankly, downright embarrassing.

Before she was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Powers, asserted that “we’re neither the shining example, or even competent meddlers. It’s going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism…”

The current right wing preoccupation with American Exceptionalims is a public attitude which Americans might have been expected to outgrow by now, that smacks of small town boosterism — not to mention: jingoistic, silly, juvenile, braggart, blowhard, and ultimately: a Sin of Pride,

It bespeaks of an inflated sense of self-worth — a classic sign of insecurity. If we really are that exceptional, why do we have the constant need to say so?

“It is 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 find their way to democracy….We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in words that no sensible person could disagree with.

The word “dangerous” is the key here. The reason talk of American Exceptionalism — in the sense that we don’t have to follow everybody else’s rules —- is perilous because it blinds us to our faults and does not allow us to correct them. The ability to self-correct, quickly, is a quintessential American strength — to improvise and adjust — that allowed us to become exceptional in the first place. The ability to learn from other countries experiences.

Today’s talk of  American Exceptionalism has become a religion, a myth in which we worship ourselves and give ourselves the excuse, the right, to do as we please. Anthropologically, the myth of the chosen people was an almost necessary trait for survival, Social Darwinism in nature.

Historically, in the most primitive tribes, humans were hard-wired to believe that their tribes were special and that the tribal rules of fairness, equality and justice …. “Our” rules need not apply to outsiders… In a natural progression from tribal loyalties, we see these primitive feelings expressed in fealty to high school football teams, towns, cities, clubs, fraternities and nations.  No data or evidence will ever convince Americans (or Frenchmen) that they do not live in the best country in the world.

In fact, some studies posit that ethnocentrism — a belief that one’s culture or religion is superior — may be hard wired into the human DNA. One 2011 paper suggests that ethnocentrism may be mediated by the oxytoxin hormone, which generates in-group favoritism and out-group degradation.

The Chosen People belief (anointed by God) is evident and codified in almost all religions including Muslims, Jews, and Christians. It’s often justified by what only can be called myths. Fundamentalists see their way as the only way, forgetting that myths are spiritual, not historic events that can be used to validate acts of violence.

If Americans merely bragged that they were unique (which we are), it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But it wouldn’t inherently give us the right to impose our will on other peoples. But the way the word ‘Exceptionalism’ is being used recently has a much more pernicious meaning. From President Ronald Reagan to Vice President Dick Cheney to President George Bush and even to President Barrack Obama, it has been made clear that American Exceptionalism means that American is an “exception” to the rules that we expect other nations to follow.

We can invade other countries …. In clear violation of UN and international rules and standards…..  because we are “exceptional.” It is like saying we are better and have finer motives… and because we are better, we can do what we want. This attitude is the reason the U.S. has not accepted the jurisdiction of the World Court, or signed the Kyoto treaty. In many respects, we are an outlier nation.

Americans must revert to a different meaning of Exceptionalism rather than the ones co-opted by conservatives, which posits that the doctrine of Exceptionalism essentially means that the U.S. is always right.

I submit that the true hallmark of American Exceptionalism lies in embracing America’s long-time ability to adapt and take the best from all nations —- of developing an economic and political culture that is constantly trying to better itself… of maintaining a climate that attracts bright, energetic people and the best ideas from all over the world.

Our Exceptionalism is derived from all of the contributions made by the waves of immigration starting with the pilgrims, the English, the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, and more recently Hispanics and Russians.

Think of Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin who came from Russia with his parents and went on to start Google.

Our historic forebears Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, all, were not above learning from Europe. They all read extensively in Latin, all the histories, Thucydides, then later John Locke, all the Renaissance philosophers. For 340 years post Mayflower, nobody trumpeted our “Exceptionalism.”

If other counties have found a way to deliver health care at half the cost, we must be able to learn from them. If other countries have found a way to control crime without having the largest criminal population or execution rate in the world, we should follow their lead.

If other counties have found a better way to foster social mobility, through a more equal educational system, we should see what they are doing right.

And if other counties have found some clues to creating more national happiness (the U.S. ranks 17th,  among 156 countries evaluated for a U.N. report this year — from 2012 to 2013 the US fell from 11th to 17th) — then we should think about what we are doing wrong.

America is exceptional. We have done great things for our people and set an example to the rest of the world. But, in order to maintain that magic potion, we must reject narcissism and embrace a culture of constant change and self improvement, no matter where the ideas come from.

Write: jfleetwood@aol.com

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About Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at jfleetwood@aol.com.
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