United States | September 24, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Understanding American Exceptionalism

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The HPR’s world editor, my close personal friend, and serial shirt unbuttoner Josh Lipson is an intellectual of sorts. He is interested in such high-minded concepts as transhumanism, and knows more about near eastern cultural curiosities than anyone I know.

I was surprised, therefore, when I saw on Facebook that Josh had “liked” a recent column on the student daily’s consistently embarrassing Op-Ed page.

The piece in question, written by Jorge Araya, unfortunately misunderstands the concept of American Exceptionalism.

Araya ably takes apart the claim that the United States is the greatest country in the world in a rant that could have been delivered by an ill-drawn and self-righteous Aaron Sorkin character.

American workers are not the most productive or the most prosperous, and they are certainly not the most educated (on that last count, they are failing miserably). For now, the U.S. economy remains the world’s biggest, but that will change in less than five years as the Chinese economy overtakes it. Furthermore, as Brazil, India, and other developing countries continue to emerge as world powers in their own right, America’s importance on the world stage is sure to diminish, although it will certainly remain significant.

American Exceptionalism argues that the United States is the best at everything. This isn’t true. Therefore, American Exceptionalism is bunk. Q.E.D.

The problem with this formulation is the definition of the term. In a way, Araya can be forgiven, because politicians–including both of the ones running for president–have been advancing this inane definition of American Exceptionalism ad nauseum.

The word “exceptional” has two definitions: 1. forming an exception or rare instance; unusual, and 2. unusually excellent; superior. Araya, and most everyone else, jumps to the second, normative definition, bypassing the merely descriptive first one. The origins of the term American Exceptionalism go back to Hamilton and especially Tocqueville, whose touchstone “Democracy in America” distills the essence of the young country that the great French thinker found so intriguing. Tocqueville emphasized not how fantastic the US was–although he admired much about America and realized its world-changing potential–but how unique it was.

America, more than any country before or after 1776, was (and is) an experiment. The genesis of its government was more deliberate and more daring than anything the world had seen. Instead of the long pre-nation-state history of European countries, it had a blank slate. It had a wide open frontier, and a commercial character wholly separate from the aristocratic and religious institutions of the Old World.

This exceptionalism (in the first sense of the word) has been perpetual despite the march of history and the rise of innumerable new states. America’s short and relatively non-exploitative colonial history can scarcely be compared to the colonial experience of much of the developing world. It has at turns (and occasionally simultaneously) been an imperialist and anti-imperialist power. It is a country of immigrants to an unusual degree, and its economy escaped socialism. Few Western countries have as tortured a racial experience as America’s. And, not inconsequentially, it has been the world’s lone superpower, and has influenced international relations and mass culture more than any other nation.

Yes, every country’s history is unique. Every country has its own culture. But America consistently and dramatically resists comparison to any other nation. This is what we should mean when we talk about American Exceptionalism.

Apart from what the “true” definition of American Exceptionalism is, I would argue that we should use this more nuanced definition because it is infinitely more interesting, and leads us to thoughtful self-reflection instead of towards partisan bickering. America is exceptional in part because it is a great experiment in democracy. I think Araya, Josh, and I would agree that pushing that experiment forward–practically and intellectually–is more important than arguing about who we are or are not better than.

 

Photo Credit: Life On Dover Beach

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