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The Joy of American Unexceptionalism

September 04, 2013

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The Joy of American Unexceptionalism

The estimable Charles Murray has published a new pamphlet, American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History. It builds on the section in his 2012 book Coming Apart explaining what European visitors to the early Republic, from De Tocqueville and Dickens on down, found unique about our country.

The notion of “American exceptionalism” is highly contentious. Republicans leapt upon President Obama for not being sufficiently gung ho about the concept when he replied at a NATO summit, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

In response, Murray notes that his survey of the first century of US history demonstrates:

American exceptionalism is a concept that was shared by observers throughout the Western world, not just Americans.…[It] is a fact of America’s past, not something you can choose to “believe in” any more than you can choose to “believe in” the battle of Gettysburg.

I was impressed with Murray’s approach even though I’ve found most talk about “American exceptionalism” pernicious because it tends to imply that America needs to be exceptional to deserve what other countries rightfully take for granted.

“America is definitely exceptional in our recommended daily intake of flapdoodle.”

America is definitely exceptional in our recommended daily intake of flapdoodle. To Finns or Japanese or other sensible folk, their countries don’t have to be special proposition nations, nor cities upon a hill redeeming the world, nor the rightful destinations of other countries’ huddled masses, nor the scourges of wrongdoing in the Levant. Instead, they are the past, present, and future homes of their own people. So their responsibility is to be good stewards for their heirs.

In contrast, the vague grandiosity of the ideology of American exceptionalism makes Americans easier to manipulate with contrived narratives. After all, the past is so vast that interested parties can pick and choose nearly any historical details they want in order to control the present and the future.

American exceptionalism is especially popular with proponents of the Grand Strategy of invade-the-world/invite-the-world. For example, neoconservative chest-pounder Jennifer Rubin introduced herself to Washington Post readers in 2010 with: “What do I believe in? For starters: American exceptionalism.…” It offers a magical excuse to not have to explain the implausibilities in one’s policy: What, don’t you believe in American exceptionalism?

While getting militarily involved in interminable Middle Eastern feuds might seem like something a prudent Western Hemisphere nation would sit out, that’s because you don’t understand how different we are. Common sense doesn’t apply to us.

Similarly, American exceptionalism is often cited as requiring the country to admit more immigrants. Now, you might think that as we enter a sixth year of high unemployment, one reasonable policy would be less immigration. After all, that’s the way the political winds are blowing in most of the rest of the advanced world.

But that’s because you don’t understand American exceptionalism. We’re special.

Thus, a Jennifer on the Democratic side, starlet turned Michigan governor turned CNN talking head Jennifer Granholm, explained:

If we want true American exceptionalism, let’s fix [i.e., increase] immigration.…In order to keep America competitive—in order to remain “exceptional”—we must leverage the key strand of our national DNA: our global diversity. Our major national competitors are mostly homogeneous. Our diversity is our competitive advantage.

Of course, how we are special keeps getting altered in the retelling to suit the needs of powerful interests today.


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