Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last day of the year: contemplating American Exceptionalism

I have learned quite graphically over the past two days that differences of opinion over Israel and the Palestinians are--if possible--more polarizing than differences over abortion rights or gay marriage. There appears to be a sort of absolute moral calculus involved in contemplating that confict that eliminates all possibility of reasonable discourse between otherwise rational people. So be it.

Strangely enough, this got me to thinking about another moral absolute for many, many of my fellow citizens: the idea that the United States and her citizens represent something unique among all the nations and peoples of the world, a beacon of freedom, a nation given a special mission by God to spread democracy and human freedom around the world....

A city on a hill....

The greatest country God gave any people...

Manifest destiny....

They hate us for our freedom....

As far as I know (and most authorities agree with me), the term American Exceptionalism was coined by the Frenchman, Alexis deToqueville in his Democracy in America, and consisted originally of five inter-related conceptual observations about what made our society tick:






And, at some point, the concept of Anti-Statism ended up in the mix.

There's an outstanding primer to both the concept, its advocates, and how it has changed over the years here.

In the 20th Century, American Exceptionalism in the Toquevillian sense was assumed to be part of the answer to the question, Why has America--unlike the other industrialized nations--never developed a major Socialist or Labor Party movement?

[A fair question: after reading Stephan Thernstrom's Poverty and Progress in graduate school, which challenged the idea of upward social mobility in America in the late 19th Century, I had one of those blinding flashes that's either insight or unsubstantiated fantasy, in which I speculated that in American extreme geographic mobility often substitutes for (or distorts) true social mobility. One of those things I'd like to have had time to research along the way....]

One of the most intriguing formulations of the consequences of American Exceptionalism that I have ever read was written by historian Seymour Martin Lipset [who has had a number of different positions on the issue throughout his career]:

Born out of revolution, the United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism, as different people have pointed out, is an "ism" or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms. As G. K. Chesterton put it: "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. . . ." As noted in the Introduction, the nation's ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissezfaire. The revolutionary ideology which became the American Creed is liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings, as distinct from conservative Toryism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism, and noblesse oblige dominant in monarchical, state-church-formed cultures.

Other countries' senses of themselves are derived from a common history. Winston Churchill once gave vivid evidence to the difference between a national identity rooted in history and one defined by ideology in objecting to a proposal in 1940 to outlaw the anti-war Communist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill said that as far as he knew, the Communist Party was composed of Englishmen and he did not fear an Englishman. In Europe, nationality is related to community, and thus one cannot become un-English or un-Swedish. Being an American, however, is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American.

Wow. Those last couple sentences strike pretty hard.

Then there's Lipset's observation about the nature of labor movements in US history:

Prior to the 1930s, the American trade union movement was also in its majority anti-statist. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was syndicalist, believed in more union, not more state power, and was anti-socialist. Its predominant leader for forty years, Samuel Gompers, once said when asked about his politics, that he guessed he was three quarters of an anarchist. And he was right. Europeans and others who perceived the Gompers-led AFL as a conservative organization because it opposed the socialists were wrong. The AFL was an extremely militant organization, which engaged in violence and had a high strike rate. It was not conservative, but rather a militant anti-statist group. The United States also had a revolutionary trade union movement, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, like the AFL, was not socialist. It was explicitly anarchist, or rather, anarcho-syndicalist. The revived American radical movement of the 1960s, the so-called New Left, was also not socialist. While not doctrinally anarchist, it was much closer to anarchism and the IWW in its ideology and organizational structure than to the Socialists or Communists.

This would all be something of a curiousity for historians and political theorists, I guess, except for the jingoistic, evangelical turn that American Exceptionalism has taken over the past few decades.

These days we find the idea of American Exceptionalism invoked in churches and along the campaign trail to justify all manner of foreign adventures or public policies.

Both Libertarians and Progressives (merely to name ideologies on opposite ends of most political spectra) regularly appeal to American History to support their positions, when--in reality--they are appealing to a constructed public memory of an idealized society that never really existed.

[The surest sign that politicians are distorting history for their own ideological purposes, I tell my students regularly, is to check to see if their lips are moving.]

Moreover--and this is a touchy subject, going toward religion and all, but what the hell--the whole concept of American Exceptionalism goes against the grain of Christianity as I understand it. Isn't it the case that all souls are equal (even if equally loathesome, thanks to original sin) in the eyes of God? If so, in a religion that emphasizes the spiritual equality of all human beings--men and women, slave and free, Hebrew and Greek, a creed that emphasizes humility, where do we get off in internalizing the concept that where we live and the accident of our birth makes us inherently special?

Yet we have this ugly tendency to usurp Biblical language (especially what is called kingdom language) for our own political agendas, invoking God in prayers of war and battle because--as Americans--we apparently don't have to worry about whether our cause is just.

It's a tautology: we are Americans and therefore our cause is just.

I think there is a valid use--at least philosophically speaking--for the concept of American Exceptionalism, but that use falls in the nature of a challenge rather than a justification.

As a Libertarian and (perhaps paradoxically, I'm not certain) a Catholic, I've always had a tough time with American Exceptionalism, primarily, I think, because both claim to be universalist doctrines. This leads me into some pretty strange places, such as my own convoluted stand on immigration (specifically by brown people without papers).

The man I will always think of as my priest (Fr. Paul Mast) led me to the question of whether American laws should trump God's injunction that all people have the right to go peacefully to (or flee from) anywhere in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

They are coming here to take jobs away from real Americans, they're here to wreck our medical system and bleed dry our government benefits....

Strange, isn't it?

Throughout most of our history we have accepted the doctrine that immigrants to America were moved by freedom, liberty, and economic opportunity (American Exceptionalism!), that they each brought two working hands rather than one consuming mouth...

This last generation of immigrants, however, has suddenly become parasitic leeches. When did I miss the transition (don't worry--somebody will not notice that was a rhetorical question and set me straight in the comments, never fear)?

Does it not strike anyone else, on either first or last day of the year, that we as a nation are so damn sure of the value of American Exceptionalism that we wish to export the travel package to the rest of the world---

Political power flows from the barrel of a gun--stop that, Mao!

--but slam shut the gates and pull up the drawbridge when people want to come here by the millions and partake?

American Exceptionalism is a funny thing--funny here being used in a sort of Dennis-Rodman-he's-a-funny-freak-but-you-can't-look-away sense--an insidious thing.

It tries to make us all super-nationalists. It encourages us to rewrite history (next time you're watching Saving Private Ryan or The Big Red One, ask yourself what your high school history book told you about the significance of the Russian Front in World War Two). It requires us to categorize those who disagree with us--either fellow citizens or the leaders of foreign countries--as enemies to be vanquished and not people to be convinced.

Yes, I know there are real threats and real enemies out there. I spent twenty-one years wearing my country's uniform; I've spent a career studying military history. And I've learned that kill 'em all and let God sort it out makes a much better movie than a foreign policy.

This is the end of a year that has been troubling to me, both personally and in my interpretation of world events. I believe we are less safe--that my children's future is less safe--because we persist in pursuing interventionist policies abroad and intrusionist policies at home.

The ball will drop in less than two hours past the mummified face of Dick Clark, channeled through Ryan Seacrest.

If I have one resolution for the New Year that I have any chance of keeping (I gave up on those weight and exercise lies a long time ago), it's this: I will challenge those who blindly raise the standard of American Exceptionalism to deal with real facts, real history, and even real Christianity before they go after their fellow citizens as un-American, and reach the point where the photographic image of a wounded, dying human being no longer evokes an empathic reaction because that person was born and lived in Myanmar, or Gaza, or Cabinda, or even south-central LA.


Waldo said...

after all these years, there is only one truth: it's all explained by F.A. Mignet.

Steve Newton said...

It is a sad commentary indeed that neither one of us has anything better to do on the last night of the year recalling that at least one college library had the poor judgment to sell off a perfectly good copy of Mignet.