July Fourth was a good day to think about “American exceptionalism.” In general, it’s not a term that I’m fond of. If a nation has to spend too much energy insisting that it’s “exceptional,” maybe it isn’t.
But this is a touchy point with many Americans. A couple of years ago, our deliberative, even-handed president was hit with considerable criticism when he made the mistake of saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
The scandalized responses thoroughly decontextualized his remark. Elsewhere in the same speech, the president talked clearly about just how remarkable and exceptional our country is. But the snippet provided an irresistible opening to critics from the right, some of whom said President Barack Obama doesn’t believe that there’s anything at all remarkable about us, that we’re just like everyone else.
Clearly, the president was making a charitable rhetorical concession to the feelings that many citizens have about their countries. To think of your own clan or tribe or nation as different from and better than all the others — that is, “exceptional” — is one of the most basic human impulses. The Navajo aren’t the first or only nation to call themselves, simply, “The people,” as if there were no others. Nor are the Jews the first or last group to think of themselves as “chosen.”
Nevertheless, maybe there is something special about America. The current events in Cairo drive home emphatically just how hard it is to create and nurture a lasting, effective democracy like ours.
At the same time, our ill-advised attempt to plant democracy in Iraq is sliding in the direction of chaos and sectarian warfare. Other examples abound, but the upshot is that much of the world just has a tough time establishing the kind of functioning democracy that we’ve managed to create here.
Of course, many Middle East and African countries are hampered by the arbitrary boundaries set up across ethnic and cultural fault lines by colonial powers. Some countries don’t have enough natural resources to develop a stable economy conducive to democracy. Others have too many for their own good.
Furthermore, our country has been working at democracy for a lot longer than most countries. Of course, our “city upon a hill” was never Eden. Our nation grew out of the destruction of the Indians, slavery, an exploitative war against Mexico, a civil war, and hard-fought, protracted battles to realize the rights of minorities, women and gays.
Still, last week’s events in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and many other places remind us that the United States is an excellent place to live. Some of this we owe to the wisdom and will of our founders and ancestors. Some of it we owe to the vast, largely untouched trove of resources that lay before the first settlers. In some ways, we’ve just been lucky.
Of course, our culture has its own fault lines, but usually we manage to use the rule of law to resolve them without taking to the streets, which is exceptional enough in the modern world. Sure, we’re exceptional, but maybe we can find a way to appreciate our exceptionalism, while tempering it with realism and modesty. Now, that would be exceptional, indeed.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)
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