On American Exceptionalism
Is America exceptional?
The question is often used as a crass litmus test. Some "conservatives" (for want of a more accurate term) assert that "liberals" (ditto) are unfit to lead America, and lacking in patriotism, because they don't accept that America is exceptional and (put more bluntly) superior. Some liberals complain that conservatives treat belief in an exceptional America as a self-sufficient justification for any act, whatever its own merits, and that American ideals are not necessarily the best ones.
I believe in American exceptionalism.
But I believe that American exceptionalism is too often treated as plumage. It isn't. It is a sought-for ideal.
Nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, revolutionaries said this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . .
That was the statement of an ideal — a goal — and our founding fathers swiftly went about falling short of it, as all of us routinely fall short of our best intentions. The history of our country is a history of not treating all men — let alone all people — as equals, but we have fought and bled and clawed our way towards that hope. The history of our country is a history of the powerful abusing power not conferred upon them by the people. Our progress towards that goal is perhaps less steady.
Early in our history our founders decreed that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," yet just as quickly passed and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts. We complained in our Declaration of Independence of mock trials (or no trials at all) and other abuses of police power, and passed Constitutional amendments to ward off such historical abuses, yet we dabble in them now, and seek to classify obscure and arbitrary classes of persons as beyond the protection of the law, and tolerate large-scale spying upon us by a government putatively serving at our pleasure. When speaking of American exceptionalism we often think of the extraordinary service of our military — both volunteer and drafted — and our heritage of brave soldiers, but not our repulsive and dishonorable treatment of the brave once they return to us.
We have not achieved American exceptionalism as a laurel on which we can rest. It's a grimly determined acknowledgement of duty, not a complacent boast of accomplishment. American exceptionalism is a set of challenges to ourselves about liberty and equality and the rule of law and justice. We have not finished, and will never finish, the work to fulfill those challenges. American exceptionalism is not "I have earned this." It's "what can I do?" American exceptionalism is this:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
We do not deserve pride in ideals unless we fight for them.
Every Fourth of July I link, and repeat, this story, which is on the same theme. Happy Independence Day.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time - September 12th, 2014
- The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained, But It May Have A Litmus Test - September 11th, 2014
- [Rerun from 2011] Ten Things I Want My Kids To Learn From 9/11 - September 11th, 2014
- Yale Might Want To Look Into Some Sort of Basic Civic Literacy Course - September 10th, 2014
- U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Very Wrong - September 6th, 2014