Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

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President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)

In the speech last week that put on hold his request to Congress to authorize the bombing of Syria’s chemical weapons sites, President Obama — no mean orator himself — faced a familiar orator’s problem. How would he end on a strong and upbeat note while announcing what was in fact a sensible retreat from his “red line” pledge dictated by clear and overwhelming evidence that both Congress and the public at large had no appetite for any more Middle Eastern interventions? How could he still defend America’s assertion of its role as the enforcer of the “civilized world’s” conscience even as he stepped back from the brink?

Other nations, of course, believe much the same thing, but not with the broad sweep of the claim of America, where we do things on a grander scale.
The words he chose nodded in both directions. “America is not the world’s policeman,” he acknowledged. “[I]t is beyond our means to right every wrong.” Then he added: “But when with modest effort and risk ” (something entirely impossible to guarantee) we can stop children from being gassed to death. . . I believe we should act.” But why us alone? That cued the final trumpet flourish. “That’s what makes America different,” said the president. “That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.” Pleased as I was with the outcome and its sequel so far, I couldn’t help thinking of George M. Cohan’s remark that “many a bum show is saved by the American flag.”

For there it was, the magic word, the popular core belief that we are the recipients of God’s special favor. Other nations, of course, believe much the same thing, but not with the broad sweep of the claim of America, where we do things on a grander scale. It is an essential truth, we say, that we are unique in history because prior to the modern age we had no history.

Our national origin myth is that the United States was born in a state of immaculate innocence. Voiced best in the nineteenth century by the popular historian (and loyal Jacksonian Democrat) George Bancroft it ran like this: The discovery of a “New World,” the Renaissance, the Reformation and the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century were all overtures to the grand curtain raising on the birth of the United States. One of our christening gifts was a “virgin” continent sheltered by two oceans, ours to possess without obstruction except for the inconvenient presence of heathen savages without the power to resist modern weapons. The other, even more important, was a blank slate, scrubbed clean of the crimes, errors and follies, the wars and oppressions of the past. We could create, unhindered, whatever government we desired. We could invent a national character for ourselves in whatever form we wished.

What might that be? For the Puritan founder of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, we were destined to be a “city upon a hill,” the eyes of all mankind turned on us as, in his words, “a model of Christian charity.” In the sweeping imagination of Tom Paine, victory in the American Revolution, would give us the freedom to “begin the world anew.” Fourscore and seven years later, Lincoln announced that the Union’s survival in the Civil War was vital to the entire world, because it was an experiment in democracy whose failure would cause the very idea of popular government to perish from the earth.

In those forms, exceptionalism had a positive face. It inspired the signers of the Declaration of Independence to risk their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. It nerved nineteenth century reformers like abolitionists or women’s rights advocates to fight on to victory in the face of contempt, hostile laws and physical assaults. It gave trade unionists the courage to defy the bullets and billy clubs of repression in their struggle for the equal rights to which America’s founding documents entitled them. To progressives it furnished the patience to persist for years in legal and political battles to make real the Preamble to the Constitution’s oft-forgotten promise to “promote the general welfare.” And it shone again in the peaceful struggle of the modern civil rights movement to hold America to its promises.

But exceptionalism has another uglier mask. Its hidden core of arrogance has often turned it into a kind of nationalism-on-steroids that carries with it imperial swagger, the itch to crush dissent at home, and a defiant statement to the world that we’re free to ignore what Jefferson called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Re-branded as “Manifest Destiny” it was used to justify unnecessary invasions of Canada and Mexico, the eventual establishment of colonies in the Pacific and a period as the de facto suzerain over the weak governments of the Latin American nations of this hemisphere.

Curiously, both the benign and the sinister interpretations — the Jekyll and Hyde versions, we might say — have something in common, too long and too commonly neglected by our mythmaking historians. Neither of them is true. We have never been as “original” as they claim.

Democracy was not invented here. Neither were capitalism or Protestantism, the distinguishing characteristics of the first British settlers in North America. Even as colonies we were part of a trans-Atlantic culture. Our books and arts, our faiths and our economic practices were imported mainly from Great Britain and Western Europe. The first simmers of revolt here rested on the colonists’ demand for “the rights of Englishmen” gained in the mother country by uprisings a century earlier that had beheaded one king and deposed another. The elite among our Patriot leaders were familiar with the works of the French philosophers who were busily undermining the intellectual foundations of their absolute monarchy. James Madison, often called “the father of the Constitution” for his heroic labors in the Convention, like many fellow members was familiar with the theories and performances of republics in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy and the Swiss confederation and Dutch republic of their own time. Knowledge like that guided their own choices among the political and practical deals they had to make as, in your own words, the great charter was “hammered, reasoned, shaped, argued, cajoled and compromised into being.”

As for creating a government on a blank slate free of crimes and errors?” No way. By 1787 it already had a century and a half of slavery and the theft of Indian land inscribed on it.

That’s not to deny the radicalism of the American Revolution, or the early existence of new and especially American habits of speech and forms of art. Voting into existence a people’s government — even with a limited electorate at first — was a daring leap into unknown seas, bordered by powerful nations still ruled by hereditary absolute monarchs and aristocrats. We were as much a novelty as the new plants and animals that our frontier exploration parties kept bringing home — a process, it’s worth remembering, also going on in other newly “discovered” parts of the world.

But 1787 was two and a quarter centuries ago. The democratic ideal, if not the practice, has long perched its banners over most of the globe. Our own democracy is no longer a lusty infant, but one of the world’s oldest, plainly suffering plutocratic and imperial dysfunctions and in need of a thorough popular overhaul to reclaim its genuineness.

The version of exceptionalism now peddled by tea party fable-makers has already done our economy noticeable harm. It convinces too many. It turns upside down our supposed hospitality to innovation by attempts to seal us off from learning anything from other, younger democracies. Improvements in health care, education, energy conservation — name your cause — are dismissed out of hand as “socialism,” bent on destruction of “the American way.” That kind of head-in-the-sand obstructionism is what we used to deplore in what we called “backward” parts of the globe. And what a useful tool it is for keeping the rich beneficiaries of our current unequal status quo in the top-dog position!

The damage that “unique” America as Dr. Hyde, fortified by a super-sized military establishment, has done is huge. Where once we independent-minded Yankees scoffed at “heel-clicking Prussian militarism,” the media and political establishments of today brag of our “superb” armed forces, while reporters covering Pentagon press conferences, as well as congressional committee members, struggle to outdo each other in deference to the beribboned generals who appear before them.

The international consequences are even worse. At a time when we need the world’s friendship and cooperation, the exceptionalist mindset licenses administrations of both mainstream parties to override the sovereignty of other nations in the interests of our own safety. Think of drones aimed at terrorists (so identified in secret by us alone) in neutral Pakistan or “allied” Afghanistan that take the lives and homes of nearby or mistakenly targeted civilians. Mere “collateral damage” to us, we ignore the scope of their tragic suffering. Think of CIA kidnappings on the streets of foreign cities under the very noses of their own police forces. Think of the symbolic impact of our refusals to sign international treaties banning the use of land mines or child soldiers, or of the special exemptions we demand from prosecution by local law authorities of crimes committed against civilians by our military personnel in the countries where we have bases established. What kind of self-portrait are we painting?

True, almost all nations commit offenses against common decency and common sense in the mindless fervor of war. Our country is not the only sinner or possibly the worst. But “We’re Number One” hyper-patriotism is simply the collective self-admiration of empty minds. It’s not what the American Revolution was fought for. Not what Tom Paine and Lincoln had in mind. The Declaration of Independence only says that we were seeking “the separate and equal station among the nations of the earth” to which the laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitled us.

That’s why I believe that it’s time to let exceptionalism become a creed outworn. It has lingered too long for whatever good it has done. But won’t that bury its positive and creative side?

Not necessarily. We don’t need that particular prop in order to believe that as a nation we should hope to realize the ideals of justice, individual dignity, decency and mercy embodied somewhere in almost all the world’s religions and secular codes of law from ancient times–if not always achieved, at least as goals to aspire to. This would not be the “isolationism” with which critics of our imperial overreach are now being charged. Rather, the effort to design a new moral compass for international relations in a world whose peoples are now more interdependent than ever. One that does not need the “leadership” of a single super-power–not even the United States.

I have no naïve dreams of armies vanishing overnight. But the unchecked violence of our times must be somehow reduced before it destroys any hopes of a decent future for humanity. If the United States would take an active role as a partner in the process, rather than an armed dictator of terms from a lofty perch of morality, it would go far towards restoring the admiration the world long felt for us when our military establishment was tiny and our practice of democracy was robust. Think what fine speeches could be woven around that essential truth.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that it was John Winthrop, not John Eliot who coined the phrase “city upon a hill.”

Bernard Weisberger is an American historian now in his 9th decade. A frequent contributor to this site, he is the author of more than a dozen books, including The LaFollettes of Wisconsin, They Gathered at the River, and America Afire. He collaborated on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns.
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