Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Mocking American Exceptionalism

Update (from Tom): John Miller quotes Paul Johnson on this issue:
It is appropriate to end this history of the American people on a note of success, because the story of American is essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence. America today, with its 260 million people, its splendid cities, its vast wealth, and its unrivaled power, is a human achievement without parallel. That achievement–the transformation of a mostly uninhabited wilderness into the supreme national artifact of history–did not come about without heroic sacrifice and great sufferings stoically endured, many costly failures, huge disappointments, defeats, and tragedies. There have indeed been many setbacks in 400 years of American history. As we have seen, many unresolved problems, some of daunting size, remain. But the Americans are, above all, a problem-solving people. They do not believe that anything in this world is beyond human capacity to soar to and dominate. They will not give up. Full of essential goodwill to each other and to all, confident in their human decency and their democratic skills, they will attack again and again the ills in their society, until they are overcome or at least substantially redressed. So the ship of state sails on, and mankind still continues to watch its progress, with wonder and amazement and sometimes apprehension, as it moves into the unknown waters of the 21st century and the third millennium. The great American republican experiment is still the cynosure of the world’s eyes. It is still the first, best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity.
I agree.


jeff bloodworth said...

American Exceptionalism is misused, abused, and misunderstood across the political spectrum. First, it is not America is better. As Seymour Martin Lipset eloquently (and I think definitively) claims, "it cuts both ways." In many ways America is superior to Western Europe but not in every way (homelessness, for example).

Liberals are afraid to use the term (unfortunately) leaving Rubio and his "America is the single greatest nation in all of human history" to become a popular synonym for AE. I think America is a force for good and our system is largely superior. But that sort of chest thumping "we are number 1" might be good political theater but hardly merits intellectuals defending it. AE is not America is better but that it is significantly different.

jeff bloodworth said...

jeff bloodworth said...

Paul Johnson writes beautifully and makes some fine points--but that is not what American Exceptionalism means. Whether Johnson's points are utterly correct or completely off base are immaterial--the term does not connote betterness--just and essential difference.

Tom said...

Jeff, we all agree that exceptional means different. I have long argued the same point. But let's be honest, if we do not impart some sort of value upon the differences among countries, then it is like playing sports without keeping score. Why bother identifying differences at all?

I don't say that to be flip. When we look at differences to identify which version is better, we can try to emulate the better version. For that very reason, I do not think America is as different as it once was. Much of the world recognized that American exceptionalism was better, and adapted American characteristics to their distinctiveness (just as we borrowed much from British exceptionalism). I think most of the world still admires American exceptionalism as something great.

More importantly, I do not believe that our collection of unique characteristics ought to be largely replaced by something else out there. I believe that our collection of unique characteristics ought to be reaffirmed, because our collection of unique characteristics have built within them the capacity (through the freedom of classical liberalism) and the duty (through classical republicanism and a morally affirmed work ethic) to improve.

The United States is different, and because the genius of our system is that it accounts nearly perfectly for the strengths and weaknesses of human nature, the United States is also better. Unless we abandon our unique set of characteristics, or human nature itself changes, then it will always be so. That is what American exceptionalism means to me.

Stephen said...

I don't know that we would agree on a definition of American Exceptionalism. Leaving the term aside, I do believe that America is significantly different. I also believe that America is better in every way that is important. I don't know if that counts as chest thumping and I am not making the statement as political theater. Political freedom as we understand it has costs and thus will always result in unsolved or unsolvable problems. But I don't think I would say anything on those issues that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison haven't already mentioned.

I think the point of the disagreement is critical though. It is significant that many Americans believe America is better than other countries. It is significant that many Americans believe America is no better than any other country--not just different, but better.