Friday, April 29, 2011

Faith and Skepticism about American Exceptionalism

by Gary Berg-Cross
The topic of American Exceptionalism (AE) keeps cropping up like spring blossoms. Maybe it is more like weeds sprouting out of the fertile but dark earth from causal seeds casually sown by conservative sources. It is part of the title of Newt Gingrich’s new book, A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters and there is a short film on this being heavily flogged. The AE concept disparages the simple view of the United States as part of an expanded Western civilization zone. Instead the thrust of the AE argument is that the United States is more of a separate civilization. In this image we have a fundamentally different political system, are self made, highly educated, calm in crisis, devout, are composed of faithful families etc. Conservative say this was the exceptional American described by de Toqueville in Democracy in America (1835) . Indeed the AE term is attributed to Tocqueville. The concept serves as the justification and fortification for American conservative politics. Why was America so different from the aristocratic Europe? Well according to the conservative mantra we were/are a different society where hard work (and money-making) was/is the dominant ethic, where the common man enjoyed a level of dignity which was unprecedented, where commoners never deferred to elites (at least not academic ones). Instead (what de Toqueville described as) crass individualism and market capitalism had taken root to an extraordinary degree.True until the 20th century, and in contrast with rest of Western civilization, the US never had a true aristocracy or a peasantry. We had more of free farming tradition in the United States that for a while provided some different economic behavior and political impulses. One might argue, however, that we now have corporate and financial aristocracy and little left of small farm independence.
In The Myth of American Exceptionalism Godfrey Hodgson takes on the very notion of America as the “divinely anointed homeland of freedom, bravery, democracy and economic opportunity, with everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it, is so entrenched that this perceptive portrait of America the Ordinary seems downright radical.” He points instead to a lingering mythic memory of this older culture and its reality in terms of Western traditions:

“Observing the sheer density of the claims made for the uniqueness of the American experience and the exceptional qualities of American society, however, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they are motivated at least in part by a wish to believe in them. On one level it’s not difficult to render the idea of American Exceptionalism to the realm of mythology. After all despite America being established in the so called New World its philosophical foundation came from the philosophy of Europe’s Enlightenment and religion. Even the great western frontier expansion was powered by European investment, European markets, and not to mention European immigration. Plus if immigration and diversity are so much a part of the exceptionalism imagery would that not limit the idea of American as one exceptional, unified culture, or would its multiculturalism paradoxically be a big part of its exceptional nature? “
In 2009 Hodgson may well have been thinking back to the image Ronald Reagan spun in his Shining City Upon A Hill speech of January 25, 1974. Here Reagan appealed to a mystical plan to explain AE:

"You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage."
For conservatives this frames the issues nicely since they see themselves in a very un-American battle with a newly imported version of European socialism. Washington Post Reporter Karen Tumulty has studied the conservative’s belief that America “is inherently superior to the world’s other nations” and finds it to be widely held. Indeed, most Americans believe our superiority is not only inherent but divinely ordained. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agree with the Reagan-like statement, “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

On the other hand progressives (and many secularist without that devine vision) tend to see this type of extreme American Exceptionalism as a conservative myth. Yes, we have exceptional resources and can look back to wonderful founders and pioneers who gave it a go. We established some institutions to be proud of, but the nation endured slavery and to a larger extent that we are comfortable saying ,was built on “stolen land with stolen people.”

Another problem with clinging so dearly to the AE idea is that it lessens the ability to learn anything from other countries experiences and approaches. If we are so exceptional then little that happens elsewhere that informs us. Indeed we may just look at them from our perspective and ask, "what is in it for us." In the case of the Middle East it is oil. And if Holland is looking at a 200 year plan to combat climate change effects, we can learn nothing from those unexceptional people. Lucky for us all the good Dutch immigrated to America in pre-colonial times.

So this idea has serious consequences. Yet the AE debate seems interminable like a religious one. And as in religious debates people can’t agree on terms. What is the exact meaning of the concept? What current and historical data provides evidence for and against? AE is a broad concept built on other broad concepts like: liberty (or, freedom if you like), egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faireness. This point is made by Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword. The varied interpretations of history and the American Experience produce such an explosive combination of possibilities that individual terms quickly lose any testable meaning the way biblical passages do. The simple, but vague EA frame leaves us with difficult questions.
  • Were the country’s geographical attributes critical to our exceptional development?
  • How about resource abundance and the make up of immigration populations?
  • How important were economic systems and are systems like contemporary “free” markets a threat to egalitarianism, individualism, and populism?
It’s a complicated chemistry, which makes it fair game for spinning tales around a willfully vague concept.

Besides the interminable argue that has political impacts a long-term problem and real issue with AE is that American culture has changed and maybe we are losing some of what has made us “great”. This is the message of a long, critical article by David Morris called The Real American Exceptionalism. Morris explores the issue from several angles provides a nice discussion of how the myth is used by conservatives despite evidence to the contrary. He has some rude awakening charts that clash with the idea that we are a better nation than others. Two of these are shown below on military expenditures and prisoner populations.

Another shot across our exceptional bow comes
from our failing financial strength. This and our dollar currency have been dominant since the end of WWII. Now we have been put on notice by Standard & Poor’s that both may be on the path to a second rate status. Analysts are now working up the possibility of life after AAA ratings as S&P’s shifts to a negative outlook for U.S. sovereign debt.
Perhaps the most symbolic dent in our exceptional armor comes from the comics. Superman appears to be taking another step that could have major implications for his national identity and it is happening in Action Comics #900 where Superman announces that he is going to give up his U.S. citizenship. Despite his alien immigrant beginnings, Superman has been patriotic icon for "truth, justice, and the American way. " A white man in a red and blue costume he embraces that 1930s traditional image of small town America ideals and what it means to stand up for the "American way". Now it is increasingly complicated even for him and other superheroes who have come to mirror essy mcurrent events.  This includes dealing with moral and political complexities rather than the earlier era with its simple black and white morality. Exceptionally hard times indeed.

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