16 November 2010

Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

Jonah Goldberg's latest column has alerted me to the latest outbreak of op-ed polemic on the subject of "American exceptionalism." Goldberg goes after two liberal writers, Michael Kinsley and Peter Beinart, who have allegedly challenged the orthodox notion that America, in Goldberg's own words, "has its own way of doing things separate and distinct from Europe." He also takes a retrospective swipe at the President, who while running for office affirmed American exceptionalism yet added that every nation considers itself exceptional. Goldberg's criticism of Obama is relatively mild, but it gets to the point of his column, which is to affirm, contra the columnists, that the U.S. is not only objectively exceptional among nations but is still "the last best hope on Earth."

What did Kinsley and Beinart actually write? Kinsley was guaranteed to offend from the start, since he headlined his column, "U.S is not greatest country ever." Let's make clear that American exceptionalism and American supremacy are two different propositions; Somalia, after all, is arguably as exceptional a nation as the U.S. Kinsley is more concerned with American chauvinism, noting that 75% of Americans polled by Yahoo regard theirs as the greatest country ever. "Does any other electorate demand such constant reassurance about how wonderful it is — and how wise?" he asks. The answer is: probably. He then goes on to challenge a certain idea of American exceptionalism -- not so much that the U.S. is qualitatively different from all other nations, but that America is an exception to the rules governing other countries.

The notion that America and Americans are special, among all the peoples of the earth, is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” Because of our long history of democracy and freedom, or because we have a special mission to spread these values (or at least to remain a shining example of them), or because of our wealth, or because of our military strength, our nuclear arsenal, our wide-open spaces, our pragmatism, our idealism, or just because, the rules don’t apply to us. There are man-made rules like, “You can’t start a war without the
permission of the United Nations Security Council.” We’ve gotten away with quite a bit of bending or breaking of that kind of rule. This may have given us the impression that we could ignore the other kind of rules —the ones that are imposed by reality and therefore are self-enforcing. These are rules such as, “You can’t have good ice cream without fat” or “You can’t borrow increasing amounts of money indefinitely and never pay it back, because people will eventually stop lending it to you.” No country is special enough to escape these rules.


After quoting Obama's remarks on exceptionalism, Kinsley identifies the wrong kind of exceptionalism with Newt Gingrich, who still identifies America with "the frontier [and] the sturdy independent farmers." To espouse this kind of exceptionalism, Kinsley writes, is to live in a fantasyland. Worse, exceptionalism combined with faith in American's intrinsic supremacy blinds people to the necessity of change and hard choices. "If people believe it's true [already]," he states, "they won't do what's necessary to make it true."

As if anticipating Goldberg's criticism, Kinsley closes:

Every time I strike this note, which I guess I do a lot, I hear from people calling me elitist or unpatriotic. Here is my answer: If you think a friend is talking nonsense or behaving in a way that damages both of your long-term interests, it is not elitist to say so. To the contrary, it is treating him or her like an adult and an equal. As for patriotism, if you think your country is in danger, how is it unpatriotic to say so?

Kinsley's piece appeared before Election Day. Beinart's came after, and was provoked by Senator-elect Rubio of Florida's affirmation that America is "the single greatest nation in all of human history. A place without equal in the history of all mankind." For Beinart this expresses a particularly "lunatic" strain of exceptionalism, founded on the idea that "America is the only truly free and successful country in the world." To the contrary, just as Kinsley notes that BMW is opening more car plants here because it can pay American workers less than their European counterparts, Beinart observes that "From China to India to Brazil, hundreds of millions of people are rising economically in ways their parents could scarcely have imagined, in part because their governments are investing in infrastructure in the way the United States did in the late nineteenth century. The American dream of upward mobility is alive and well, just not in America." Exceptionalism, Beinart argues, not only blinds Americans from the lessons to be learned from other countries, but blinds them to the useful lessons of their own history while bedazzling them with an ideological mythos of "sturdy independent farmers."

Rather than answer either writer's substantive arguments -- Kinsley in favor of austerity on the new British model, Beinart if favor of Keynesian stimulus spending -- Goldberg denounces them as if they had denied any kind of American exceptionalism. It makes him look intellectual to point out, correctly, that American exceptionalism has been a subject of historical and sociological inquiry since the time of Tocqueville, and that even leftists have had to account for America's exceptional lack, among industrialized nations, of a strong socialist movement. But neither Kinsley nor Beinart deny that the U.S. has had an exceptional history. Nor did either writer assert, as Goldberg charges, that "the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia or ignorance." It might have been more fair to write that they blame the persistence of the worst sort of exceptionalism in the face of hard facts on right-wing jingoism, etc.

Goldberg insists that declaring the U.S. "the greatest country in the world ... doesn't mean it's perfect." In recent years he's been quite critical of an American crony-capitalist culture that culminated in the Bailouts of 2008-9, though he can think of no alternative to idealized "real" capitalism as the remedy for it. I suppose Goldberg deserves credit for acknowledging American imperfection, but insisting on both exceptionalism and supremacy implies that the U.S. has nothing whatsoever to learn from other countries or new ideas, and that today's problems can most likely be solved by looking backward to our presumably more perfect past. As a nation born from revolution, Americans have naturally seen themselves as an exceptional people. As revolution recedes further into the past, however, exceptionalism can acquire an increasingly reactionary, fundamentalist aspect that could retard necessary evolution. If exceptionalism becomes entirely a matter of what Americans should not do, or should not have to do, we may find ourselves less exceptional among the ranks of failed empires and powers than we want to think.

1 comment:

Crhymethinc said...

America is exceptionl: It shows exceptionl levels in greed, crime, violence, gluttonish behahior, rudeness, crassness, an exceptional high difference between the haves and have-nots. Exceptional arrogance as well as ignorance.

What I really take exception to is the idea that Americans claim America to be the home of democracy and yet we refuse to treat other nations - even our allies - as democratic equals.