Tag: American exceptionalism

Book Forum Thursday: Debating American Exceptionalisms with Richard Gamble

Thursday at 10 AM Cato hosts Richard Gamble to discuss his book: In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. Historians Walter McDougall and Derek Leebaert will provide commentary. 

Gamble’s book traces the “city on a hill” metaphor as American self-description. We follow it from John Winthrop, who may have used the term, following the gospels, to remind the other Puritans onboard the Mayflower of their faith’s requirements, to modern conservatives like Sarah Palin, who use it in a story about the inherent virtue of the United States—the version of American exceptionalism that sees U.S. foreign policy as the engine of liberalism’s global progress. 

The forum should help us make sense of recent debates—or rhetorical posturing—about American exceptionalism. Its loudest advocates today claim that their opponents, starting with President Obama, deny that the country is exceptional. What they ignore, as Gamble shows, is that their exceptionalism reverses the old kind. What made the United States exceptional upon independence was its liberal government. Most early American leaders thought that form of government would suffer from participation in European power politics. They worried that entanglement in foreign troubles would produce domestic conditions corrosive to liberty— a large military establishment and consolidated executive power. So the liberalism that made the nation exceptional meant avoiding the crusading foreign policies that modern proponents of American exceptionalism say it requires. 

Here’s how Gamble put it in the American Conservative last September: 

The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world. 

McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 concerned this revolution of exceptionalism’s meaning, so his comments should be telling. Leebaert’s recent book, Magic and Mayhem: the Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, is also quite relevant. As moderator, I will push the speakers to answer two questions. First, aren’t we discussing competing ideas of American nationalism? Second, are the ideas we generally see as drivers of foreign policies really just their PR and power the cause of both? 

Register here or watch live online.

The GOP’s Insipid American Exceptionalism

I’ve had it with “American exceptionalism.” Enough already.

The phrase has garnered a considerable amount of attention lately, namely because Republicans are saying it over and over again. The Atlantic points out that the term itself was coined by Joseph Stalin, lamenting America’s inability to go communist (cf. Louis Hartz). Of course, the concept that America was different than Europe goes back at least to Tocqueville, but is it too much to ask that we recall Tocqueville was writing nearly 200 years ago? Might we not pause, at least momentarily, to reconsider the argument from authority and subject it to a bit of scrutiny?

I complained about the pervasive theme at the Republican convention in my podcast yesterday, and Alex Massie holds forth against the exceptionally exceptionalistic speechifying at Foreign Policy today. Republicans—and the rest of us—ought to just shut up about exceptionalism already. As it stands now, a few word substitutions could make Herder or Fichte feel right at home at a GOP convention. We ought not to like this.

Encouraging citizens to reify, then flutter with excitement at the uniqueness of their own “imagined community” lubricates both the administrative capacity of and enthusiasm for the Great American Welfare/Warfare State that is presently bankrupting our unborn children. Those of us who would like a bit more federalism, veering toward sectionalism even, do so realizing that this would create downward pressure on the centralization of our lives in the body of the national government. (“Who is this fellow 2,000 miles away from me and why should I subsidize his career and pay his flood insurance and pension?”) That the disgrace of slavery accompanied the last era of sectionalism in this country is no reason to throw out the concept itself.

Bizarrely, the GOP married this nationalistic theme with an ostensible concern for how America is viewed across the world. Might we not consider that the world finds this constant self-congratulation unseemly and perhaps even dangerous? Imagine your coworker, or neighbor, or spouse, constantly parading about, preening and pronouncing that he is the greatest person ever to have been made and marveling at how lucky are those subject to his ministrations. Any impartial observer would forgive you for nudging him off a pier, and all the more so if he were, in fact, great.

This is perhaps the saddest part of the whole garish spectacle. The United States is a great country. Take a look around you. Saying it over and over again doesn’t make it any more so; in fact it makes it less. All the bleating about our exceptionalism from our leaders is enough to make you think that they don’t really believe it. The party doth protest too much, methinks.

The next time your would-be ruler holds forth about exceptionalism, remind yourself what Mencken said:

Democratic man, as I have remarked, is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group, or shake with fear and loneliness—and the group, of course, must have its leaders. It would be hard to find a country in which such brummagem serene highnesses are revered with more passionate devotion than they get in the United States. The distinction that goes with mere office runs far ahead of the distinction that goes with actual achievement.

That’s what this is all about: If we allow the other party or candidate to insert its peculiar and grotesque proboscides into our homes, wallets, and lives—well, we’ll be just that much less exceptional.

Much more in the podcast:

Wednesday Links

‘Give Thanks for the TSA’?

My Washington Examiner column this week covers two developments last week that may make you somewhat less likely to “Give Thanks for the TSA” as former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen urged on National Review’s website.

The first is the viral video of a TSA agent at New Orleans airport giving the “freedom fondle” to a six-year-old girl. The second is Friday’s revelation that among the “behavioral indicators” TSA uses to scope out travelers who deserve extra manhandling is the “arrogant” expression of “contempt against airport passenger procedures.”

Because, clearly, making a scene on an airport security line is sound strategy for anyone trying to sneak a bomb onto a plane.

Is it possible that anyone with an IQ above room temperature buys that logic?
A lot of Al Qaeda terrorists are pretty dumb. But it seems doubtful that they’re that dumb.

The column looks at what our willingness to submit to this sort of thing says about “American Exceptionalism”:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “American Exceptionalism,” and whether President Obama understands what makes America stand out among the family of nations.

I’ve always thought that what makes Americans exceptional is our ornery resistance to being bossed around….

Neoconservatives see America’s uniqueness as an excuse to bomb any country that looks at us crosswise. But the original idea was somewhat less aggressive. With “every spot of the old world… overrun with oppression,” America would be freedom’s home – an “asylum for mankind” – as Thomas Paine put it in Common Sense.

In the 1992 film adaptation of “Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper’s novel about the Seven Years War, there’s an exchange that illustrates American Exceptionalism at its best. An effete British officer berates the rough-hewn colonial “Hawkeye”: “You call yourself a loyal subject to the Crown?”

“Don’t call myself ‘subject’ to much at all,” Hawkeye replies.

You have to wonder how long that spirit can survive in a world where official federal policy requires you to stand by placidly while agents of the state run their rubber gloves under your innocent 6-year-old daughter’s waistband. And it’s far from clear that these procedures are even making us any safer.

Friday Links

  • They passed the bill, and now we’re finding out what’s in it.
  • We’re finding out that the war in Libya could really be about protecting European interests.
  • In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand described a world in which government both partly produced and partly subsidized goods; we’re finding out she wasn’t far off the mark.
  • We’re finding out that “American exceptionalism” is a cloak for military adventurism.
  • The longer America fights a war on drugs, the more we find out about how detrimental it is to our fiscal outlook: