When a society comes under stress, people look for simple beliefs that seem to offer a solution to the troubles. I don’t think these folks are ‘escaping reality’ or ‘clinging’ to anything. A situation gets complicated, very good information is hard to come by, there are entrenched and powerful interests who seek to further manipulate the situation, so ordinary people try to cut through it all and get to bedrock. That only rarely works. More often it leads to the situation we have with the concept of American Exceptionalism.
I need to state briefly that having been to a lot of countries all around the world, it’s my observation that almost all cultures, societies, and nations consider themselves to be special and in certain ways superior. This is not a uniquely American attitude. It’s human nature, so let’s move forward from that fact.
Along with much of the rest of the world, America is under stress. It’s unknown how this will turn out in the years and decades ahead. Uncertainty and a vague, looming threat leads the Tea Party/Conservative Right to public pronouncements of American Exceptionalism. In response to this public embrace, particularly when it’s one of the more polarizing public figures doing the embracing, the Progressive Left’s response is to deny any manner of American Exceptionalism. The Right claims that America is the special favorite of God. The Left claims that America is as ordinary as rust, and dangerous to boot. Beck says America has God’s blessing, Olbermann blurts vulgarities. The media and corporate elites revel as the common people of America pit themselves against each other.
Both of these positions cheat the people of the United States of the legitimate vision of American Exceptionalism that is necessary to guide and to inspire this nation through difficult times times. American Exceptionalism is not a special blessing from God, and it is not an evil arrogance. America is an exceptional creation among nations.
I am going to try to list what I see as some of the more salient elements of American Exceptionalism. Few if any of these elements are completely unique, but taken together these elements constitute a genuine, sustainable, humble sense of an inheritance that is exceptional. That inheritance demands from us exceptional effort to sustain this nation. The following points are as much expectations that history places upon us as they are blessings:
First, the United States of America was the first nation to be born to independence in revolution against the world’s greatest imperial power, a seemingly impossible task that demanded the pledge of life, fortune, and sacred honor;
Second, this revolution set the stage for perhaps the most famous statement of human rights in history, the Declaration of Independence, which set the basic rights of man beyond the reach of any government to revoke;
Third, this nation was founded on principles that challenged us and continue to challenge us. That this nation fails to live up to its ideals does not indicate weakness or hypocrisy, it indicates that we have set the bar to a height that is not easy to clear and sometimes requires many tries;
Fourth; except for Native Americans, there are no “original” Americans, there is no DNA that has any particular claim on authenticity. A newly naturalized immigrant is as much an American as the descendant of a Mayflower family.
Fifth; the early days of our nation produced the oldest standing Constitutional government in human history, founded upon a written document that was the product of a conscious process of man to describe how government would work. Nothing was assumed, the plan was committed entirely to writing;
Sixth, that this nation has never accepted “corruption of the blood”, the child has never inherited the sin of the parent;
Seventh, this nation has become a flourishing garden for an astounding spectrum of accomplishments, from Nobel Prizes and engineering and scientific solutions, to athletics and Olympic medals, to music and art, to humanitarian relief efforts, and on and on;
Eighth, that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, by popular vote and under the law, has been sustained for longer than any historical effort on anything like this scale;
Ninth, that as our government has become unbalanced in one way or the other, that it has been the people who have righted the situation to set thing back on track. Neither the military nor the church nor a tyrant has been the stabilizing force, it has always been the people;
Tenth, that we have remained a nation where no proposition goes unchallenged, where no claim to exceptionalism is readily accepted, where no proposition which is proven remains rejected;
Eleventh, Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in history and the progenitor of by far the largest system of national parks, monuments, reserves, and wilderness areas;
Twelfth, by far the most deeply diverse large society in history, there are almost no cultures that lack a presence in America, and those that do would be welcomed.
Finally, there is the issue of scale. Size matters, at some point complexity goes exponential. We assume that Rome crumbled due to socioeconomic factors, but maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe Rome just got too big to manage, and couldn’t figure a way to engineer a downsizing. The United States is far bigger than it’s generally thought to be. Only China and India are larger. The US is about as large as the entire European Union combined. The US is twice the size of Russia, three times the size of Japan, and four times the size of United Germany. It’s fine and dandy to criticize the US for being slow in this area or inefficient in that area. But nobody is doing things on anywhere near the scale that the US is, and there’s no reason to believe that anyone else could do any better (or even as well). Thirteenth, our federal system of government is exceptional.
That’s enough for now. G’day all, and with no contradiction whatsoever to what I’ve just written, may God continue to bless America!