American Exceptionalism and Its Discontents
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Sid Shniad
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<http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175911/>Tomgram October 23,
2014American Exceptionalism and Its DiscontentsBy David Bromwich*

We’re now passing through a no-name election season of a particularly
lusterless sort, but don’t count on that for 2016. Here, in fact, is a
surefire prediction for that moment, which (given the nature of modern
presidential campaigns
will kick off with the usual round of media speculation and odds-making on
November 5th. Whoever the presidential candidates may be, expect the
political landscape to be littered with references to the United States as
an “exceptional nation” and to “American exceptionalism” (as well as its
more recent *doppelgÀnger*, “indispensable
as in “indispensable nation”). And the presidential candidates, baying for
the exceptional privilege of entering the Oval Office in 2017, will join a
jostling crowd of past presidential candidates, presidential wannabes,
major politicians, minor figures, and pundits galore who have felt
compelled in recent years to tell us and the world just how exceptional we
really are.

Such references were once rare in our politics, but that was back in the
days when Americans didn’t doubt our exceptional nature, which meant that
there was no need to talk about it *ad infinitum*. Like anything spoken of
too insistently, recent rounds of exceptionalist comments surely reveal
lurking feelings of doubt about this country, its state, its fate, and its
direction (which, according to most polls
Americans believe to be downward, as in “wrong track” or “decline

So, as an antidote to the creeping sense that the U.S. -- that unipolar
power, the last superpower etc., etc. -- may not be quite all it’s cracked
up to be, here’s the beginning of a little post-9/11 list that you can
complete at your leisure: six incontestable areas where America is #1.
Once filled out, it should help future candidates for office and leave the
rest of us punching the air with a renewed sense of celebratory pride.

We’re #1 in investment in our military and our national security state! No
other country comes within a light year of us! In 2011, the defense
budgets of the next 13
countries combined didn’t quite equal ours and we’ve been dumping up
to a trillion
yearly into the national security budget since 9/11. The best news of all:
with a new war
on our hands and those budgets sure to rise
we’re guaranteed #1 status into the distant future!

We’re #1 in “renditions” (called “kidnappings” when done by the security
forces of less noble governments)! Post-9/11, at least 136
“terror suspects” (some certifiably innocent
were taken by the CIA and other American outfits
off the streets
of global cities
and from the backlands of the planet! Who in the world can equal that?

We’re #1 in knocking off wedding parties from the air! At least eight of
in three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen) in a little more than a
decade! Bridal parties, brides and grooms, hundreds of wedding goers
obliterated by American air power! You tell me: What other country could
brag of such a feat?

We’re #1 in military bases
on foreign soil! We have hundreds of them across the planet, some the size
of small American towns. There’s never been anything like it, not from the
Romans, nor the British at their imperial heights, and no other country
today has more than a handful. When it comes to bases, we’ve got history
by the throat!

We’re number #1 in invading, occupying, and/or bombing Muslim countries, 14
of them since 1980! I challenge you, find me another country with such an
accomplishment -- and for the record, it’s never been a “crusade
just what needed to be done to keep order on our planet!

We’re number #1 in investing in militaries
that won’t “stand up”! At least $25 billion
for the Iraqi military alone (and you know how successful we were there,
since it recently collapsed
allowing us to rearm it and stand it up again
And that’s nothing compared to the Afghan military into which our country
had poured $51 billion
by 2011 and billions more thereafter -- and don’t tell me that wasn’t a
success, since that force’s desertion rate has long hovered at or near 25%
annually! High fives all around!

American exceptionalism? Honestly, who could deny it -- other than
*TomDispatch* regular
David Bromwich, author most recently of *Moral Imagination
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0691161410/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>*, who
explores the special immorality of imagining yourself as the most
exceptional of lands. *Tom*

*The Importance of Being Exceptional *

*From Ancient Greece to Twenty-First-Century America *

By David Bromwich <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/davidbromwich>

The origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” are not especially
obscure. The French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, observing this
country in the 1830s, said that Americans seemed exceptional in valuing
practical attainments almost to the exclusion of the arts and sciences. The
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, on hearing a report by the American
Communist Party that workers in the United States in 1929 were not ready
for revolution, denounced
“the heresy of American exceptionalism.” In 1996, the political scientist
Seymour Martin Lipset took those hints from Tocqueville and Stalin and
added some of his own to produce his book *American Exceptionalism: A
Double-Edged Sword*
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0393316149/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>*. *The
virtues of American society, for Lipset -- our individualism, hostility to
state action, and propensity for *ad hoc* problem-solving -- themselves
stood in the way of a lasting and prudent consensus in the conduct of
American politics.

In recent years, the phrase “American exceptionalism,” at once resonant and
ambiguous, has stolen into popular usage in electoral politics, in the
mainstream media, and in academic writing with a profligacy that is hard to
account for. It sometimes seems that exceptionalism for Americans means
everything from generosity to selfishness, localism to imperialism,
indifference to “the opinions of mankind” to a readiness to incorporate the
folkways of every culture. When President Obama told
West Point graduates last May that “I believe in American exceptionalism
with every fiber of my being,” the context made it clear that he meant the
United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was
demonstrated by our possession
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175337/william_astore_freedom_fighters> of
“the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” uniquely tasked
with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow
ourselves to “flout international norms” or be a law unto ourselves. The
contradictory nature of these statements would have satisfied even
Tocqueville’s taste for paradox.

On the whole, is American exceptionalism a force for good? The question
shouldn’t be hard to answer. To make an exception of yourself is as immoral
a proceeding for a nation as it is for an individual. When we say of a
person (usually someone who has gone off the rails), “He thinks the rules
don’t apply to him,” we mean that he is a danger to others and perhaps to
himself. People who act on such a belief don’t as a rule examine themselves
deeply or write a history of the self to justify their understanding that
they are unique. Very little effort is involved in their willfulness. Such
exceptionalism, indeed, comes from an excess of will unaccompanied by
awareness of the necessity for self-restraint.

Such people are monsters. Many land in asylums, more in prisons. But the
category also encompasses a large number of high-functioning autistics:
governors, generals, corporate heads, owners of professional sports teams.
When you think about it, some of these people do write histories of
themselves and in that pursuit, a few of them have kept up the vitality of
an ancient genre: criminal autobiography

All nations, by contrast, write their own histories as a matter of course.
They preserve and exhibit a record of their doings; normally, of justified
conduct, actions worthy of celebration. “Exceptional” nations, therefore,
are compelled to engage in some fancy bookkeeping which exceptional
individuals can avoid -- at least until they are put on trial or subjected
to interrogation under oath. The exceptional nation will claim that it is
not responsible for its exceptional character. Its nature was given by God
<https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+1&version=KJV>, or
History <http://www.amazon.com/dp/0873488296/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>,
or Destiny

An external and semi-miraculous instrumentality is invoked to explain the
prodigy whose essence defies mere scientific understanding. To support the
belief in the nation’s exceptional character, synonyms and variants of the
word “providence” often get slotted in. That word gained its utility at
the end of the seventeenth century -- the start of the epoch of nations
formed in Europe by a supposed covenant or compact. Providence splits the
difference between the accidents of fortune and purposeful design; it says
that God is on your side without having the bad manners to pronounce His

Why is it immoral for a person to treat himself as an exception? The reason
is plain: because morality, by definition, means a standard of right and
wrong that applies to all persons without exception. Yet to answer so
briefly may be to oversimplify. For at least three separate meanings are in
play when it comes to exceptionalism, with a different apology backing
each. The glamour that surrounds the idea owes something to confusion among
these possible senses.

First, a nation is thought to be exceptional by its very nature. It is so
consistently worthy that a unique goodness
shines through all its works. Who would hesitate to admire the acts of such
a country? What foreigner would not wish to belong to it? Once we are held
captive by this picture, “my country right or wrong” becomes a proper
sentiment and not a wild effusion of prejudice, because we cannot conceive
of the nation being wrong.

A second meaning of exceptional may seem more open to rational scrutiny.
Here, the nation is supposed to be admirable by reason of history and
circumstance. It has demonstrated its exceptional quality by adherence to
ideals which are peculiar to its original character and honorable as part
of a greater human inheritance. Not “my country right or wrong” but “my
country, good and getting better” seems to be the standard here
The promise of what the country could turn out to be supports this faith.
Its moral and political virtue is perceived as a historical deposit with a
rich residue in the present.

A third version of exceptionalism derives from our usual affectionate
feelings about living in a community on the scale of a neighborhood or
township, an ethnic group or religious sect. Communitarian nationalism
takes the innocent-seeming step of generalizing that sentiment to the
nation at large. My country is exceptional *to me* (according to this view)
just because it is mine. Its familiar habits and customs have shaped the
way I think and feel; nor do I have the slightest wish to extricate myself
from its demands. The nation, then, is like a gigantic family, and we owe
it what we owe to the members of our family: “unconditional love
This sounds like the common sense of ordinary feelings. How can our nation
help being exceptional to us?

*Teacher of the World*

Athens was just such an exceptional nation, or city-state, as Pericles
described it in his celebrated oration
<http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7142/7142-h/7142-h.htm#link2HCH0006> for
the first fallen soldiers in the Peloponnesian War. He meant his
description of Athens to carry both normative force and hortatory urgency.
It is, he says, the greatest of Greek cities, and this quality is shown by
its works, shining deeds, the structure of its government, and the
character of its citizens, who are themselves creations of the city. At the
same time, Pericles was saying to the widows and children of the war dead:
Resemble them! Seek to deserve the name of Athenian as they have deserved

The oration, recounted by Thucydides in the *History of the Peloponnesian
War*, begins by praising the ancestors of Athenian democracy who by their
exertions have made the city exceptional. “They dwelt in the country
without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed
it down free to the present time by their valor.” Yet we who are alive
today, Pericles says, have added to that inheritance; and he goes on to
praise the constitution of the city, which “does not copy the laws of
neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators

foreshadowing here of American exceptionalism is uncanny and the
anticipation of our own predicament continues as the speech proceeds. “In
our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and
deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the
same persons... As a city we are the school of Hellas” -- by which Pericles
means that no representative citizen or soldier of another city could
possibly be as resourceful as an Athenian. This city, alone among all the
others, is greater than her reputation.

We Athenians, he adds, choose to risk our lives by perpetually carrying a
difficult burden, rather than submitting to the will of another state. Our
readiness to die for the city is the proof of our greatness. Turning to the
surviving families of the dead, he admonishes and exalts them: “You must
yourselves realize the power of Athens,” he tells the widows and children,
“and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your
hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must
reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor
in action that men were enabled to win all this.” So stirring are their
deeds that the memory of their greatness is written in the hearts of men in
faraway lands: “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.”

Athenian exceptionalism at its height, as the words of Pericles indicate,
took deeds of war as proof of the worthiness of all that the city achieved
apart from war. In this way, Athens was placed beyond comparison: nobody
who knew it and knew other cities could fail to recognize its exceptional
nature. This was not only a judgment inferred from evidence but an
overwhelming sensation that carried conviction with it. The greatness of
the city ought to be experienced, Pericles imagines, as a vision that
“shall break upon you.”

*Guilty Past, Innocent Future*

To come closer to twenty-first-century America, consider how, in the Gettysburg
Abraham Lincoln gave an exceptional turn to an ambiguous past. Unlike
Pericles, he was speaking in the midst of a civil war, not a war between
rival states, and this partly explains the note of self-doubt that we may
detect in Lincoln when we compare the two speeches. At Gettysburg, Lincoln
said that a pledge by the country as a whole had been embodied in a single
document, the Declaration of Independence. He took the Declaration as his
touchstone, rather than the Constitution, for a reason he spoke of
elsewhere: the latter document had been freighted with compromise. The
Declaration of Independence uniquely laid down principles that might over
time allow the idealism of the founders to be realized.

Athens, for Pericles, was what Athens always had been. The Union, for
Lincoln, was what it had yet to become. He associated the greatness of past
intentions -- “We hold these truths to be self-evident” -- with the resolve
he hoped his listeners would carry out in the present moment: “It is [not
for the noble dead but] rather for us to be here dedicated to the great
task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased
devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of
devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died
in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

This allegorical language needs translation. In the future, Lincoln is
saying, there will be a popular government and a political society based on
the principle of free labor. Before that can happen, however, slavery must
be brought to an end by carrying the country’s resolution into practice. So
Lincoln asks his listeners to love their country for what it may become,
not what it is. Their self-sacrifice on behalf of a possible future will
serve as proof of national greatness. He does not hide the stain of slavery
that marred the Constitution; the imperfection of the founders is confessed
between the lines. But the logic of the speech implies, by a trick of
grammar and perspective, that the Union was always pointed in the direction
of the Civil War that would make it free.

Notice that Pericles’s argument for the exceptional city has here been
reversed. The future is not guaranteed by the greatness of the past;
rather, the tarnished virtue of the past will be scoured clean by the
purity of the future. Exceptional in its reliance on slavery, the state
established by the first American Revolution is thus to be redeemed by the
second. Through the sacrifice of nameless thousands, the nation will defeat
slavery and justify its fame as the truly exceptional country its founders
wished it to be.

Most Americans are moved (without quite knowing why) by the opening words
of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers...”
Four score and seven is a biblical marker of the life of one person, and
the words ask us to wonder whether our nation, a radical experiment based
on a radical “proposition,” can last longer than a single life-span. The
effect is provocative. Yet the backbone of Lincoln’s argument would have
stood out more clearly if the speech had instead begun: “Two years from
now, perhaps three, our country will see a great transformation.” The truth
is that the year of the birth of the nation had no logical relationship to
the year of the “new birth of freedom.” An exceptional character, however,
whether in history or story, demands an exceptional plot; so the speech
commences with deliberately archaic language to ask its implicit question:
Can we Americans survive today and become the school of modern democracy,
much as Athens was the school of Hellas?

*The Ties That Bind and Absolve*

To believe that our nation has always been exceptional, as Pericles said
Athens was, or that it will soon justify such a claim, as Lincoln suggested
America would do, requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism. The belief
itself calls for extraordinary arrogance or extraordinary hope in the
believer. In our time, exceptionalism has been made less exacting by an
appeal to national feeling based on the smallest and most vivid community
that most people know: the family. Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, in
his keynote address
at the 1984 Democratic convention, put this straightforwardly. America,
said Cuomo, was like a family, and a good family never loses its concern
for the least fortunate of its members. In 2011, President Obama, acceding
to Republican calls for austerity that led to the sequestration of
government funds, told us that the national economy was just like a
household budget
and every family knows that it must pay its bills.

To take seriously the metaphor of the nation-as-family may lead to a sense
of sentimental obligation or prudential worry on behalf of our fellow
citizens. But many people think we should pursue the analogy further. If
our nation does wrong, they say, we must treat it as an error and not a
crime because, after all, we owe our nation unconditional love. Yet here
the metaphor betrays our thinking into a false equation. A family has
nested us, cradled us, nursed us from infancy, as we have perhaps done for
later generations of the same family; and it has done so in a sense that is
far more intimate than the sense in which a nation has fostered or nurtured
us. We know our family with an individuated depth and authority that can’t
be brought to our idea of a nation. This may be a difference of kind, or a
difference of degree, but the difference is certainly great.

A subtle deception is involved in the analogy between nation and family;
and an illicit transfer of feelings comes with the appeal to “unconditional
love.” What do we mean by unconditional love, even at the level of the
family? Suppose my delinquent child robs and beats an old man on a city
street, and I learn of it by his own confession or by accident. What
exactly do I owe him?

Unconditional love, in this setting, surely means that I can’t stop caring
about my child; that I will regard his terrible action as an aberration. I
will be bound to think about the act and actor quite differently from the
way I would think about anyone else who committed such a crime. But does
unconditional love also require that I make excuses for him? Shall I pay a
lawyer to get him off the hook and back on the streets as soon as possible?
Is it my duty to conceal what he has done, if there is a chance of keeping
it secret? Must I never say what he did in the company of strangers or
outside the family circle?

At a national level, the doctrine of exceptionalism as unconditional love
encourages habits of suppression and euphemism that sink deep roots in the
common culture. We have seen the result in America in the years since 2001.
In the grip of this doctrine, torture has become “enhanced interrogation”;
wars of aggression have become wars for democracy; a distant likely enemy
has become an “imminent threat
whose very existence justifies an executive order to kill. These are
permitted and officially sanctioned forms of collective dishonesty. They
begin in quasi-familial piety, they pass through the systematic distortion
of language, and they end in the corruption of consciousness.

The commandment to “keep it in the family” is a symptom of that corruption.
It follows that one must never speak critically of one’s country in the
hearing of other nations or write against its policies in foreign
newspapers. No matter how vicious and wrong the conduct of a member of the
family may be, one must assume his good intentions. This ideology abets raw
self-interest in justifying many actions by which the United States has
revealingly made an exception of itself -- for example, our refusal to
participate in the International Criminal Court. The community of nations,
we declared, was not situated to understand the true extent of our
constabulary responsibilities. American actions come under a different
standard and we are the only qualified judges of our own cause.

The doctrine of the national family may be a less fertile source of
belligerent pride than “my country right or wrong.” It may be less
grandiose, too, than the exceptionalism that asks us to love our country
for ideals that have never properly been translated into practice. And yet,
in this appeal to the family, one finds the same renunciation of moral
knowledge -- a renunciation that, if followed, would render inconceivable
any social order beyond that of the family and its extension, the tribe.

Unconditional love of our country is the counterpart of unconditional
detachment and even hostility toward other countries. None of us is an
exception, and no nation is. The sooner we come to live with this truth as
a mundane reality without exceptions, the more grateful other nations will
be to live in a world that includes us, among others.

*David Bromwich teaches English at Yale University. A *TomDispatch
he is the author most recently of *Moral Imagination
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/0691161410/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>* and *The
Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to
American Independence

*Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook
<http://www.facebook.com/tomdispatch>. Check out the newest Dispatch Book,
Rebecca Solnit's *Men Explain Things to Me
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/1608463869/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>*, and
Tom Engelhardt's just published book, *Shadow Government: Surveillance,
Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World
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