There’s a lot of talk these days about American exceptionalism. David Corn describes in Mother Jones how, now that birtherism has been effectively “eviscerated,” the GOP has begun stressing the “he is not like us” meme about President Obama.
A key plank in developing this platform is the idea that because Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism in the same way that the GOP believes in American exceptionalism, he is somehow not a true American. This begs the question, is America exceptional, and if so, in what way?
The dictionary offers an interesting dichotomy. Exceptionalism can mean either extraordinarily gifted–or it can mean a a person or object so far from the norm that special allowances must be made. In other words, being exceptional can apply to either a highly gifted student–or a student so challenged that he or she cannot be judged by the same standards as others.
So here’s the question. Is America exceptional because it is extraordinarily gifted, a nation of which great things might be expected? Or are we exceptional because the standards that everyone–including us–apply to the rest of the world cannot be applied to us?
History suggests that while in the past America was exceptional in the first sense of the world–for years we led the world in key areas–increasingly the view of American exceptionalism has shifted to the second sense–that somehow we are not to be held to the same standards as the rest of the world.
Consider our stance–and indeed, our military actions–waged in opposition to leaders we had judged guilty of war crimes, including torture. And then consider the uncomfortable fact that our government, in recent memory, determined that it need not be bound by the Geneva conventions, engaging in “enhanced” forms of interrogation that we ourselves had previously defined as torture.
Consider the fact that when this came to light we did not hold the regime responsible to account. Right now, we have a former President living comfortably in Texas who, by his own admission, authorized the use of acts which we, along with the rest of the signers of the Geneva conventions, defined as torture.
Consider the fact that our own government has engaged in behavior that, had it been any private citizen or corporation, would have been deemed unconstitutional–things like unwarranted wiretaps, and widespread spying against its own citizens.
Consider also the fact that we no longer lead the world in key areas. Our educational and healthcare systems fall short of standards set in other parts of the world. Our industry has largely been gutted. Our standard of living is declining, particularly in the middle class, which is losing ground at an alarming rate. Wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a very few mega-wealthy people and organizations.
And yet–in many ways, America is still a wonderful place. We still have millions of clever, innovative, and resourceful citizens. In spite of recent government inroads we are in many ways still remarkably free to pursue happiness in our own way. Unlike many other nations, we have, with few exceptions, never had war carried to our homeland.
I love America. I cannot since “America the Beautiful” without getting a lump in my throat. I feel like Woody Guthrie had me in mind when he wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” I live in a town not so very far from where I grew up. This is my land. Its rhythms are in my blood. I count the turning of the year not by days or months, but by the color of the fields, by plows in late winter, by combines in mid-summer, by the turning of the trees. A while back I stood on a hill overlooking my town. It was late spring. The wheat in the field behind me was thick and lush, and already had heavy heads on each stalk. I was there for a cemetery dedication–my son’s class had spent time cleaning up the old pioneer cemetery that spring, and we were there to celebrate our past in the form of the silent headstones, and our future in the faces of our children.
I stood there caught in the moment, balanced delicately between past and future, and I knew that this land, this town, and these people were America, and yes, we were–and are exceptional. We are remarkable.We have incredible natural resources. We have a generation of bright, gifted children who, if we do our jobs right, will be capable of honoring our shared past while shaping an unimaginable future.
Which is why, I suspect, it so offends me to have American exceptionalism apparently defined by the other term–that somehow we are exceptional in the sense that we need not be bound by the same laws as the rest of the planet. Among some of us, American exceptionalism seems to me that we are above the common standards of humanity. Global warming need not apply. The laws of cause and effect are somehow to be turned back at our borders, along with all of the would-be illegal aliens. The laws of society and history apply to others, not us. We can somehow continue along our disastrous path where the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer and poorer. We can meddle at will in other nations’ government and social structures. And somehow, there will be no consequences, because we are exceptional.
There is a quote from an old book: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
I don’t think any of us would quibble about the idea that America has been given a great deal. We are exceptional. But our very exceptionalism obligates us to act in ways that benefit not just ourselves, but the planet, and all who live on it. Here’s another quote:
No man is an island13, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory14 were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…
Being exceptional does not place us apart from or above the rest of the world. We are all diminished by the loss of any. We can no longer afford to act as if America is somehow a place apart, untouched by the events that touch the rest of humanity. We were all broken by the tortures enacted. We are all touched by diminishing resources. We are all devalued by the attitude that business and corporations can be expected to act against their own self-interest and somehow behave in moral, kindly, benevolent, or even just ways.
Our very exceptionalism requires us to understand that exceptionalism does not place us above the rules which we have agreed should govern the rest of the planet. Nor does it place us above the laws of nature. “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Nor does it entitle us to impose our own culture upon others against their will. It demands that we allow other nations room to grow and determine their own fate that we experienced ourself. America is exceptional. It’s time we started acting like it.