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Saturday, February 21, 2015

American Exceptionalism: No Place in American History

This term -- American exceptionialism -- has become quite the rage in Republican circles the past few years. The context in which it has almost always been used, to exhort us to behave or assume responsibilities for others, just has never sounded quite right. It's often reminded me of the smug nags who profess to be morally superior and lord over their inferiors. There was just...something that didn't sound or feel right. (Update: An outlier arguing that exceptionalism means America is, well, exceptional, is the Kyle Smith op-ed, just published hours after my article.)

Now, growing up as a poor conservative, I never heard of the phrase "American exceptionalism."

I never heard Ronald Reagan use that phrase. Never. Not once.

Neither did a certain University of Virginia politics professor. Check out this passage from James W. Ceasar, writing in 2012:
THE MEANINGS OF EXCEPTIONALISM 
Until recently—say the last 2 or 3 years—few outside of the academic world ever encountered the term "exceptionalism." It was reserved almost exclusively to scholarly discourse, used mostly by social scientists and occasionally by historians and students of American studies. Today, the word has become ubiquitous, appearing in political speeches, newspaper columns, and blogospheric rants. Exceptionalism has gone viral. It serves for the most part as a term of polarization that divides liberals from conservatives.
(Ceasar, at page 2. Emphasis is mine.)

There's more. Various sources across the Internet claim that Alexis de Tocqueville is the father of the concept. Typical Internet claim: nonsense. Certainly I haven't been able to find the phrase or concept in his writings. And neither could Professor Ceasar. See this:
Its frequent use in social science before it exploded onto the political scene might lead one to think that the term goes back far into American history. But this turns out not to be the case. Take John Winthrop, the person most often associated with originating the concept. Aboard the Arbella in 1630, Winthrop described the Puritan settlement to be built as "the city on the hill," a phrase usually recalled today, thanks to Ronald Reagan's embellishment, as "the shining city on the hill." And Winthrop went on to add the further exceptionalist theme that "the eyes of all people are upon us." But nowhere did he ever refer to his position as his doctrine of "exceptionalism." Nor for that matter did Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville is widely credited with having developed the social scientific idea of exceptionalism, meaning uniqueness in relation to most other nations. America, as he showed, was distinct in its historical circumstance of having experienced no feudal past. But what of the term? Modern analysts have scoured Tocqueville's works in search of a mention, in the hope of receiving his benediction. All of their prodigious efforts have yielded no more than one oblique reference, which on examination has no relation to any plausible meaning of the concept. In explaining why Americans do so little to cultivate the arts and sciences, Tocqueville attributes the deficiency to the harsh physical conditions that originally deprived them of the time and leisure to develop a higher culture: "the situation of the Americans is therefore entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in it". (Ceaser at 5.)
And here is Professor Ceaser's best line, from the end of that paragraph:
If this is the meaning of exceptionalism, Americans who favor the term should probably consider fleeing to Great Britain. (Ceaser at 5.)
Yes, that Great Britain, the kingdom whose tyranny of taxation inspired the original Tea Party and this little insurgency called the American Revolution. Something which today might be considered some lunatic fringe extreme right-wing violent movement. 

And as for Reagan? Professor Ceaser wrote that Reagan never used the term, and perhaps at best, expressed a similar concept in his famous farewell address:
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.
You can see that, as with any good speech -- or lawyerly rhetoric -- the words become the vessel into which others may read into it their desired meanings.

But that doesn't mean Reagan was ever a proponent of "American exceptionalism." Nor was any other American conservative who sort of knew what he or she was talking about. 

Ceaser concludes:
"Ronald Reagan, as far as I know, never used the term "exceptionalism." (Ceaser at 6.)
That phrase "American exceptionalism" is now quite the rage among Republican Party speakers and wannabes. Here is one recent example from former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, speaking on Friday. Giuliani is, as we all know, a legendary conservative philosopher. But all these current uses don't mean any of their speakers really know what it means.

In fact, the use of the term "American exceptionalism" might only signal what so often is signaled by those who use big words hoping to sound smart and only reveal their ignorance.

If American exceptionalism means this country has unique values, that's one thing.

But if American exceptionalism means we have a special duty or obligation to go fix things in the rest of the world, which are neither our doing nor our responsibility, and particularly when it's at the cost of our young men and women's lives and our national treasury, well, that is entirely something else and it doesn't sound very appealing.

In fact, it sounds like your abilities give rise to your duties.

That's not a reward in any rational sense. That's a punishment, if in fact you are exceptional. 

In fact, it sure sounds like this: 
From each according to his ability. to each according to his needs.
And that's from Karl Marx, writing in 1875. (I link to a nice website with plenty of Marxist rhetoric, and I recommend you spend a lot of time reading it.)

You don't have to be an Ayn Rand Objectivist to see -- or more accurately, feel -- that this principle feels more like a punishment, a strong disincentive, for doing well, for being good. This is the psychological basis for schadenfraude, for class envy, for the "Meann Girls" and frenemies who secretly hate the Homecoming Queen for being, well, "popular."

This is all the stuff that, if observed by a senseless space alien, would lead it to conclude that the objects of such demands were indeed being derided, despised and indeed punished -- for, naturally, being exceptional.

On the eve of next weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, one may want to hold back on using "American exceptionalism" until one understands its place in the rhetorical pantheon of Marxist-style class envy and redistributionist ethics. 

Eric Dixon is a New York corporate lawyer who is active in Bitcoin and blockchain technology development and has represented several major political campaigns on opposition research and election law matters. 

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