American Exceptionalism

Ever since the birth of the Republic, Americans have taken comfort in the notion that ours is a country that is truly exceptional, outstanding in virtue and qualified to serve as a shining example to other, less fortunate nations. I believe there was some justification for this self-pride when our young republic was established, and many other countries shared our view that America was special. Gradually, however, we lost sight of the essence of what made us so exceptional, and developed the bad habit of confusing power with merit. From being seen by others as the city on the hill, shining exemplar for the rest of humanity, we have become another brawling neighbor, more likely to irritate than inspire.

Part of our loss of luster is natural enough. When our nation was young and most of the rest of the world was still struggling to get rid of its obsolete monarchies, the idea of a system based not on inherited status but on individual freedom and merit was genuinely revolutionary. Now, many modern states are democracies and some of their governments are more efficient, and better and delivering goods and services to their people, than is ours.

But a major part of our loss has been through our own agency. We started with an inspired Constitution which coped with the eternal problem of human fallibility through an ingenious system of checks and balances. A major purpose was to prevent the consolidation of power in too narrow a segment of the population, and for a while it worked fairly well. In the last several decades, however, there has been a drift toward concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, a concentration of power in the hands of the military industrial complex, and an imperial attitude toward the rest of the world that inspires fear not respect.

Nevertheless, many of our political leaders still trumpet our exceptionalism to the four winds. This serves two purposes: it gratifies the American public, and its transparent hypocrisy irritates foreigners. The advantage of the first is obvious; the merit in the second is that keeping foreigners irritated means we are more likely to be embroiled in disputes in some part of the world at any one point in time, and it is a truism that the public is more likely to support its leaders whan there are external threats. Thus exceptionalism becomes wedded to patriotism as the refuge of scoundrels seeking to becloud their purposes in a fog of chauvinist frenzy.

Don’t get me wrong: I truly believe ours is an exceptional country, though I also believe we’ve become spoiled by our success and value America mostly for the wrong reasons. I also believe, on the basis of extended service abroad, that almost every well established nation believes that it too is a society that is outstanding and exceptional by virtue of its history and values. Any reasonably responsible diplomat smooths his path by playing to these sentiments and flattering them. This is, after all a harmless enough conceit as long as it is kept in bounds. The trouble starts when this sense of exceptionalism gets so exaggerated that it justifies preaching to other countries and insisting that they somehow make themselves over in the preacher’s image.

In Nazi Germany’s case a sense of German exceptionalism metastasized into a rationale for world domination. We have not gotten that far, but we are getting dangerously close. Why are we not content just to stand back and tell the rest of the world look, here we are, we’ve accomplished a lot, and if you want to come study us, and find elements in what we are doing that you would like to copy, fine, but it is basically up to you.

A humbler America would be an easier partner for the rest of the world community of nations to live with.

Carl Coon 11/30/10 rev. 1/18/11

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