American “Exceptionalism” Explained

It’s not what you think…

I wish we could at least get the term right, this “American Exceptionalism” formulation whose mangled and incorrectly perceived definition is a source of, among other things, a ready tool for those who would deride what they present to be American arrogance.  I wish, at the very least, the President would get it right.  It’s true, as he said, that just as he might believe in “American Exceptionalism”, it’s in the same way that “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,”—but in that, while he is making a true statement about people feeling they are, or might be, or hope to be “exceptional”, he is missing by a country mile the far more portentous notion of exceptionalism and thus, the way the word is intended to be applied in the “American Exceptionalism” construct.

This mistake, this misunderstanding of the concept of American Exceptionalism is so common as to have become almost universal, but is innocent and understandable since it flows from the application of the more common usage of the word “exceptional” as being “extraordinary” or “better than”, instead of the word’s less frequent usage (at least these days) to mean “a departure from” as in, “an exception to”.

It’s a simple concept, American Exceptionalism, not at all what many people believe, but requires a bit of explaining, so, if you will, stay with me:

The Founding Fathers of what would become the United States of America studied several thousand years of human history, and they realized that throughout that history human beings derived rights and freedoms only at the pleasure or discretion of an overarching authority that stood “above” them. That “authority” might be a monarchy—a king or queen who would decide what the people got, or were allowed to have, or to do, or to keep—or, with time, given the Magna Carta (which, importantly for this discussion, did not assert human rights but, rather, forcefully petitioned the King to grant those rights), it might be a parliament or some other quasi-democratic entity, and it would be that entity that would decide, by one means or another, what the people were allowed to have, or to do, or to keep.

But it all flowed downward to the people from a controlling higher authority that might be beneficent (at least for a time) or might not be.  Human rights were allocated to the people, or distributed to the people, or permitted to the people by virtue of an inherently empowered greater entity whose reason for existence was to impose order and structure that would yield some kind of civilization that would, in turn, be better for someone—perhaps the monarch, perhaps in part the people, perhaps the government itself, interested in its own perpetuation.

No matter: It flowed downward and sometimes things improved for a while, sometimes not, but the whole thing made human freedom a somewhat tenuous enterprise, dependent on an outside agency for it to be granted or withheld, prolonged or terminated, narrowed or expanded.

Yes, I’m simplifying, but think top-down, flowing to you, from a higher authority, from it to you, always, throughout recorded history, in one configuration or another.

The Founding Fathers quite consciously and deliberately set about creating a society that was an exception to this.  An exception.  Rights would not be granted by an outside entity, flowing downward: Rights would be deemed to be innate, inborn and integral to each and every individual, granted by a Creator—granted by no less a power, no less an authority than The Almighty.  You did not have to wait to have rights flow down to you, they would flow up, from you.  You didn’t have to petition a king or a parliament for your rights— you had them inherently and immutably—and the only way anyone should be able to affect those in-built rights would be if you, voluntarily, decide to relinquish them, in part, into the hands of a mutually agreed upon limited authority, and that relinquishment should be done gingerly and sparingly—because that same attention to thousands of years of history taught them the excruciating inevitability of authority seeking greater and greater authority until liberty has been extinguished and tyranny established.  They discerned this to be the pattern, over and over and over, as far back as the eye could see.

Central government must be contained, they believed.  It must be limited, and strict attention must be paid to restrict its natural tendency to accumulate power, to grasp to itself the otherwise inherent human freedoms to which it is not entitled, because failure to do so leads always and inevitably to a loss of those freedoms, piece by piece, almost without your awareness that you are trading pieces of “liberty for a small amount of temporary security” (in Franklin’s words) until nothing of your freedoms remain.

This was their view, and they were convinced of it to their very souls.

So they established a Constitutional Republic.  This would be different from all those prior constructs they had studied where the people derived their rights only at the fiat of a higher authority.  This would be the “exception”.  As Jefferson said, “The Constitution of the United States asserts that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty.”

We forget how revolutionary this was at the time, how, well… exceptional, but therein, right there, lies the root of the term “American Exceptionalism”: Not America is “better” or Americans are “better” or more extraordinary.  We are no different, better or worse, more or less capable or decent or flawed than anyone else.  But the system under which we operate was a dramatic, revolutionary exception to the rule, and, miraculously, it turns out that human beings operating within the structure of that “exceptional” system have, somehow, been able to create more prosperity and more influence for good in the world (yes, with the imperfections) than any country in recorded history.

An argument can be made—and is made—that the world of 1776 bears no relationship to our own.  Our concerns, our evolving demographic our technology, place us in a realm the founders, however brilliant they might have been, could not envision, could not anticipate and accommodate in their governmental architecture.  Would they really have crafted the Second Amendment as they did if they could have imagined a modern assault rifle? No, this argument goes, we must progress beyond the limitations imposed by the inhabitants of the old world, in order to perfect our nation for the new world, the new realities, the new opportunities and challenges.  Failure to do so would doom us to stagnation, to social injustice, to the imposition of the will of the few on the many.  We must be progressive, this argument says, we must move on, we must re-invent, reconfigure, restructure as an enlightened view of current reality would demand.  They decry the arrogance of those who would use the supposed insights of theorists who died 250 years ago to stand in the way of brilliant current thinkers.

An argument can also be made—and is made—that, no, the “Progressive” approach is not progressive at all—it is retrogressive, leading not “forward” but back around full circle to the same spot it has always led, in other centuries, by other people who believed they were smarter and more capable than all who came before, who believed that their particular world was somehow different, that they were smart enough and modern enough and capable enough to corral human nature and channel it wisely towards a better reality.  This argument says that the Founding Fathers, far from being benighted by the limited vision of their own place and time, saw clearly the future trajectory because they understood that circumstances change but human nature and the laws of nature do not.  “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Jefferson said, and he was warning against the growth and encroachment of central government, the tendency of future generations, like past ones, to think they know better and to believe that the foundational principles need to be overcome as obstacles to a more enlightened present.  They decry the arrogance of those who believe they are smarter and wiser than Hobbes, Locke, Aquinas, Montesquieu and all the rest put together—to say nothing of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the others.

These arguments will continue.

But if you’re wondering how it could possibly be that very close to fifty percent of the American electorate—fully sixty million people— do not want Barack Obama, this seemingly shining, wonderful, brilliant man as their president, and if you really want a truthful and meaningful answer to that question (not the answer provided during the campaign by the Obama team that those who oppose him can do so only if they are greedy, lacking in a capacity for compassion, even deficient in the basic components of human decency) there are a couple of places to look, one in particular.

First, and of lesser importance, realize that a shockingly negligent moonstruck media is as sheltering of him as a mother bear protecting her cub.  The picture you are getting is a sketch meant to flatter the subject.  If you want a more accurate picture, they won’t be presenting it to you: You’ll need to do some digging.

Of greater importance ‘though, and at the core of it, is this:

This American “Exceptionalism”—not in the sense of “better” but in the sense of “different from all that went before” – is deeply embedded in the DNA of the American culture.  It’s what gives rise to the “Don’t Tread on Me” “rugged individualism” that some find off-putting—unless it creates an army that protects them or a gargantuan, thriving market into which they can sell and prosper.

It may be a good thing, the way of being in the world that flows from this “exceptionalism”, or it may be a bad thing—but it is the thing that has made us different and powerful and prosperous—and maybe even “good”—beyond the imaginings of even those who set it in motion.  Whatever it was that these “Founding Fathers” gave us, this Constitutional Republic (“If you can keep it”, as Franklin famously said to a passerby), this manifestation of an “exception” to all the governments that went before it, this governmental experiment that Lincoln called “The last best hope of Mankind”, whatever this “exceptional” thing was crafted to be, it is now in great peril– half the American electorate believes, on some conscious or unconscious level—because it has been eroded, piece by piece, over many decades, to the point where we have now re-elected a man as President who quite clearly doesn’t even know what it is.

Time—probably a very short amount of time now—will reveal the implications of this, not only for us Americans, but, given the nature of things, the rest of the world, too.

Fasten your seat belt.

Yet, in two years this same electorate, cleaved in two with a large chasm between the halves, will go back to the polls for the “mid-term” elections. What happens will be determined by any number of things that will be debated and analyzed endlessly.  But one thing is certain, I think: These American “Exceptionalists” will never again allow to go essentially unchallenged an avalanche of distortions and deceits that could so effectively and untruthfully create an image of greed and imperiousness and mendacity of the most ugly sort—in a man as decent, compassionate, accomplished and honorable as Mitt Romney.  Perhaps he would have made a good president or a worthier one, perhaps not.  But America deserves better than to have its leader assume office by riding atop the shoulders of a team of narrowly skilled but supremely skilled character assassins who brook no ethical restraint whatsoever in what they will do and say and fabricate and distort in order to accomplish their mission—and then trumpet their nobility.

This one was a surprise and a body blow.  But a lot of good people who do understand the real meaning of “American Exceptionalism” and who are willing to fight for its preservation, this “Last best hope”, have taken some smelling salts, picked themselves up off the canvas and dusted themselves off.  It won’t happen again.  Not this way.

Count on it.

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