ex·cep·tion·al /ikˈsepSHənəl/ Adj – Unusual; not typical.

(Image from beavtrain.com)

Following up on my previous post, in which I discussed my happiness at seeing President Obama try to reclaim “American exceptionalism” from the Republicans, I got a comment from tjphantom saying:

but who’s to say that belief in American Exceptionalism is such a great thing anyhow? rather than get into it, i’ll just say, “see: Larison.”

Looking back at some of Larison’s articles* in which he discusses the idea of “American exceptionalism”, the primary criticism I find him making is, I think, not overly dissimilar from mine (though I don’t know that he would share my happiness at the definition I saw Obama hinting at in the State of the Union). In one article, Larison says (emphasis added):

Republicans have made a defense of “American exceptionalism” the thing that is supposed to distinguish them from Obama, and in order to make that claim they have defined American exceptionalism to mean an absurd overconfidence in the political and economic uniqueness and supremacy of America

The sort of American exceptionalism that has become the defining feature of Republican rhetoric over at least the last two years seems to require “boasting of the largeness” of America at every turn. This is not healthy admiration for one’s country, but an idolatry that prevents its devotees from seeing things as they are.

It is that sort of exceptionalism that I was happy to see Obama push back against the other night. I would be thrilled if the connection between “American exceptionalism” and “supremacy” went away.

But that does not mean that I don’t believe that America is, in fact, exceptional. My views on American exceptionalism are quite similar to those voiced by Obama when he was asked about it in 2009:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world….

I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional…

I would challenge someone to argue that the history of the United States is anything but exceptional, defined as “unusual” or “not typical” by Merriam-Webster. The birth of this nation required winning independence from the most powerful nation in the world at the time. America was a world power basically as soon as she arrived on the scene. I would call that unusual and not typical.

It is precisely because claims of exceptionalism evoke images of a hegemonic power that I was happy to see Obama attempt to reclaim the idea. When I think of American exceptionalism, I don’t think of that as a normative title (using the second definition of the word) that requires the US to shape the world in its image. Britain was exceptional during its heyday, as Greece was exceptional in ancient times. But the exceptionalism was different in each case, and what made Greece great in ancient times is not necessarily the same thing that made Britain great more recently, which is again distinct from the qualities that make America exceptional. And in both of those situations, the exceptional nature of the societies did not prevent their eventual collapse.

For these reasons, I take issue with anyone who thinks that America’s exceptionalism is an argument that American ideals should be imposed on the rest of the world. What worked for the US might not work for the other countries. But I do think that those things that Obama outlined as exceptional qualities of America in his State of the Union speech are the qualities that made America great, and provide the best way forward for the US to maintain its exceptionalism and assume its proper place in the world. I don’t know what that “proper place” will end up being, but the rise of China (or any other country) does not have to come at the expense of America, and I think treating it like it does (in essence, applying the view of “American exceptionalism” that Larison argues against) will only hurt our world standing in the long run.

Instead, I would like to see America focus on those things (that Obama identified) that made it exceptional in the past and will promote America’s continued relevance, though maybe not dominance, on the international stage long into the future. Exceptionalism isn’t a zero-sum game.

* This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather the first couple of results that popped up when I googled “larison exceptionalism“.

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2 Responses to ex·cep·tion·al /ikˈsepSHənəl/ Adj – Unusual; not typical.

  1. tjphantom says:

    Nice post. I’m having trouble tracking down Larison quotes that get at my main concern, though, which is the need to call ourselves exceptional at all (try this: http://www.amconmag.com/larison/2008/09/15/taking-exception/, but I think I’m reading between the lines of all his posts on the subject). Belief in innovation, education, and infrastructure are not uniquely American traits–nor, for that matter, is the pursuit of political and economic hegemony.

    Rather, my issue is that to arrive at a definition of American exceptionalism that is not overly base and self-aggrandizing means picking ingredients, as you say, that cease to become the sole province of any nation, ethnicity, etc. In such case, what is the point of thumping our chests and citing our exceptional nation?

    If that’s what it takes to rally the (figurative) troops, fine, I guess, but in my view, there’s something lacking in historical and international perspective when we have to go delineating all the particular ways in which our nation is better than all the rest.

    • frouglas says:

      While the traits you’ve listed are not specific to America at all, the way that they have come together in the past is, I would argue, unique and exceptional. Again, this is not an exceptionalism that we should force on the rest of the world. But it is something that has worked in the past for us, and in my view has the best chance of working in the future.

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