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home : editorial : editorial May 3, 2016

9/17/2013 12:54:00 PM
American exceptionalism
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a nerve in his New York Times op-ed on Wednesday when he took a swipe at President Barak Obama's citing of "American exceptionalism" in making his case for U.S. military action against Syria.

The concept comes up a lot in American political discourse. John McCain and others criticized Obama for downplaying American exceptionalism; now Putin is knocking him for playing it up. And that has some in the American political establishment seeing red.

So what, exactly, is American exceptionalism?

Ironically, the term's modern use derives from a 1920s-era doctrinal dispute between American communists and those who toed the Stalinist party line. The debate was over whether American conditions lay outside the mainline Marxist theory of history - whether America was "exceptional." (No surprise - Stalin didn't think so).

Now, of course, American exceptionalism is a patriotic article of faith.

Certainly, there are some things that make America exceptional. For most of the first two centuries of our existence, we were protected from aggression of foreign powers by two vast oceans. Our natural-resource riches are unparalleled except, perhaps, by that other continental power, Russia. Low indigenous population and declining demographics made native resistance relatively easy to overcome, and the timing of the advent of the industrial revolution allowed rapid expansion and conquest of territory.

The fact that the United States is the world's longest-lived constitutional republic is a signal and exceptional achievement. And after World War II, we enjoyed decades as the world's preeminent economic force.

So, there is a strong case for calling America exceptional. "Exceptional" does not automatically equate to "virtuous." Acting as though it does puts us on a dangerous road, one that we have traveled too many times. It has led us to act as though we could reshape the world in our image, by force if necessary. Benjamin Franklin observed, our founders gave us "a republic - if you can keep it." Acting like an empire puts the republic at risk.

Journalist Ron Suskind quoted an aide to George W. Bush during the first year of the Iraq War (later attributed to Karl Rove) to this effect: "The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

There you go. Hubris is defined as an overweening pride and arrogance that is unhinged from reality.

Lest anyone think that such hubris is the sole province of one party or ideology, let it be remembered that for most of modern American history, interventionism has been a liberal trait, born out of American exceptionalism: A notion that America has a unique ability and responsibility to right the world's wrongs. It's led to no end of trouble and expense.

A sense of American exceptionalism should fill us with a sense of gratitude and humility, not hubris.

It's real meaning is that for a lot of geographic and geo-political reasons, we've been exceptionally lucky. And many have worked and sacrificed greatly to build upon our natural advantages.

We can't afford to be complacent.

By many measures, the modern U.S. isn't exceptional at all. Were at the low end of average among developed countries in education, especially in math and science. While we still lead the world in some areas of medicine, overall we have expensive health care and mediocre outcomes. According to The Economist, we still rank high in innovation, but some countries outstrip us and others are coming on strong.

So when Americans - especially politicians - get in a swivet because a self-serving Vlad the Insulter questions American exceptionalism, you have to wonder if they doth protest too much. Our exceptionalism is a gift we can no longer take for granted. We'd be best served by shutting up and working to keep it.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, September 28, 2013
Article comment by: John Rahm

Well said Jim and true, thanks much! You've struck a blow for realism and sanity, a sadly unpopular perspective.

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