American Exceptionalism: Myth or Reality?

American Exceptionalism: Myth or Reality?

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on April, 2009)

I

The idea of American exceptionalism is a hotly debated topic, and there are good arguments, pro and con. The term was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville. Soon after, it was widely adopted by other statesmen and analysts of the American experience, so much so that it had become shorthand, an encapsulation of American uniqueness.

II

De Tocqueville lists five values that he deemed crucial to America’s success: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. For de Tocqueville, those qualities defined what he called “the American Creed.” Each indicated the absence of feudal and hierarchical structures in such governmental forms as monarchies and aristocracies, England included.

There’ve since been many additions to this list of political virtues in de Tocqueville’s treatise. Of these, the idea of meritocracy — i.e., of the abolition of class barriers — was the most important; but that was just the icing on the cake. In no time, the idea of American exceptionalism has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche. It became the modus operandi, the motive, and the explanation of America’s uniqueness in all matters ranging from cultural dominance to military might.

III

It’s pretty apparent that the very term “exceptionalism” is at the root of the controversy because it implies uniqueness, a one-of-a-kind type of experience, the absolute. Well, let me disavow you of this notion by citing from Seymour Martin Lipset: “Exceptional” in this context comes to “qualitatively different from all other countries.”

That’s as neutral a definition as can be, relatively speaking value-neutral and inoffensive. And I tried to improve on it by insisting on relative or comparative use of the term rather than absolute. In particular, I argued for a temporal and history-bound kind of excellence rather than any singular, never-to-be replicated uniqueness — for the here-and-now and the concrete rather than some eternal abstract. Well, these nuances have fallen on a deaf ear, so let me try again.

IV

Throughout history, there have always been centers of civilization and culture: ancient Greece during the Periclean era; Rome when it was still a Republic or even under Augustus; the Italian city-states, Florence (which gave us Dante) and Venice (the Medicis), which both gave rise to international trade, commerce, and banking, and spearheaded the Renaissance; the Elizabethan age, or “the Golden Age” as some have called it, and whose most vocal exponent was Shakespeare; France under Le Roi Soleil, along with Moliere, Corneille, and Racine; France again, during the Age of Enlightenment and the philosophes; and then the British Empire during and after the Industrial Revolution.

For all of the hardships that had come with the times, there was also an unprecedented flourishing of culture, arts, and political philosophy: John Stewart Mill and George Bernard Shaw, Keats and Shelley, Robert Owen and the emancipation movement, Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, and the Fabians. It was a glorious age, or in Charles Dickens’s memorable phrase, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

And it’s no different with America, except that it’s a relative newcomer. So perhaps therein lies the stumbling block because it’s always more challenging to acknowledge greatness in our contemporaries than in the ancients. But let’s try nonetheless. In that vein, let us enumerate some of her achievements, her unprecedented successes, and the virtues that made her the leader she was. And here, I can think of no better way to proceed than to look at her literature.

V

Perhaps no other aspect of culture better reveals the nation’s potential, its hopes and aspirations, its birth pangs, stresses, strains and fissures, its successes and failures than its literature does. And American literature for the past hundred years or so has undoubtedly been more dynamic, more vibrant, more energetic, and comprehensive than any literary output from around the globe.

VI

Just consider. 

From the Wild West experience and the gold-rush days to Al Capone and the Prohibition era; from the antebellum South and the carpetbaggers to the industrial North and the life in the big city; from the Jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the life of the rich and famous to the horrid conditions in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; from the Great Depression so brilliantly portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath to the small-town mindset in Peyton Place; from the brilliant crop of Southern, regional writers to black humor and moblike mentality in The Day of the Locust or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Color Purple and To Kill a Mockingbird; from Jack London and Theodore Dreiser to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal – all these speak volumes to the breath and the intensity of the American experience. 

No other country produced literature as rich and in such quantity because none other offered their novelists such an incredible wealth of human experience – ever new, ever happening, ever on the cutting edge! That was the raw material from which the novelist derived his or her inspiration. And the literature was but a mirror.

VII

Why in America? 

Explanations abound, but in my mind, it all comes down to the following: It was the most open society ever known to humankind. And with that openness, there had come a complete breakdown of all traditions because no sooner were they established, they were liable to be broken.

The very influx of peoples from all parts of the globe – the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Norwegians, the Poles (not to mention all those who were abducted, like the Chinese, coupled besides with the Native Americans and the initially enslaved blacks) – all that had made for the most colorful mix of humanity ever assembled in one place they would eventually call home! A “melting pot,” some have called it.  

Only Alexander the Great had a dream that approximated and foretold of the far distant future – I call it “America” – but it was short-lived. He died prematurely before realizing the implications. Well, ours is his dream come true, the best and the worst of times.

And indeed! You can only expect the best and the worst when you put together such a mix of unruly, ethnically diverse, and contrary peoples at shoulder’s length. The question is – and that’s the miracle of it all! – what held them together rather than tear them apart and be at one another’s throat? The American Dream is what I say, the one chance in a thousand. The promise!

VIII

Say what you will, but the idea of a melting pot encapsulates the American experience. From spirituals to rock ‘n roll and the blues, from Hollywood and Wall Street to Main Street and Saturday night, from hot rods and drag racing to taverns and soda fountains — each is uniquely American in concept and execution.

James Dean and Elvis Presley, Luis Armstrong and John Travolta, and yes, Marilyn Monroe, too! — all are icons. America is all about icons! Darn it, we invented icons and made them part of everyday experience. The world had become an oyster.

And it’s been like that ever since. The movies, Andy Warhol, pop culture, counter-culture and rhythm & blues, the Dairy Queen and McDonald’s, the ugly American and the Snow White, Walt Disney and Stephen King, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and David Lynch — these are uniquely American institutions and integral parts of our culture. And all the while, the entire world was but watching and drooling and waiting for more.

Only America could generate enough excitement and provide us with toys and diversions to escape the ugly reality while entertaining the illusion that life could be beautiful and worth living. A fleeting illusion, for sure, as fleeting as the picture on your TV screen, but what the heck! Most of us live in a moment.  

Anyhow, that’s how symbols and cultural icons get transferred – from the center outwards! And then, there’s also the centripetal pull in the opposite direction — from whatever’s outside inwards.  

IX

I suppose we could all sit here and argue about America’s greatness until the cows come home. You have your ideas, and I have mine. I think it’s real and undeniable. The whole world is watching and following suit. How we turn, what decisions we’ll make, which direction we’ll end up going, so will the rest of humanity. For the time being, at least, we are the cutting edge. Our closest competitors have resigned themselves to the practice of “borrowing” — a polite term all considering. “Stealing” is more fitting — of “intellectual property” in particular. Japan had done it in the ’70s; China is doing it now.   

X

I’ve been accused of extreme patriotism and the eventuality 

  • that the love of my country had blinded me from seeing things as they are; 
  • that baseball and our other pastimes have distorted my vision; 
  • that my belief in the American way of life rests on false premises, or at least that it made me ignore our many faults.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I see it as an objective appraisal of our past, present, and future – as objective as the verdict that future historians will accord us one day. A great many world powers in our historical past have earned the epithet of greatness. I’m sure that America will count amongst them.

XI

Let’s consider the natural connection between power and greatness. “Natural” because it’s a necessary one as well. 

And here, too, I’ve been criticized at length because power – in human hands at least – doesn’t come without abuses. But whereas ’tis true that abuse of power is as good as a given, it’s also true that power and greatness are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other, although this relationship doesn’t always work in reverse. We’ve all had our share of “evil empires” in the past, and our future is not yet writ.

XII

Perhaps Thucydides had it right when he intimated that in the final analysis, power needs no justification.

The incident concerned the island of Melos. The Athenians were particularly anxious to get absolute control of Melos because, as an island, her independence constituted a bad precedent for the subjects of a maritime empire. 

A contingent of the Athenian navy was dispatched to Melos to reduce the island or bring it into submission. Before engaging in any hostilities, however, the Athenians communicated with the government of Melos and requested a conference.

What follows is an excerpt from the famous Melian Dialogue in the History of the Peloponnesian War.

XIII

ATHENIAN DELEGATES: On our side we will not make you long speeches – which you would not believe, anyhow – with fine phrases to the effect that our empire is a just one because we defeated the Persians or that our attack upon you now is due to wrongs suffered at your hands; and we must beg you to spare us likewise – that is to say, not to think you will convince us by saying that you did not join our side because you were colonists of the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] or that you have done us no injury, but let us try to get done what is practicable based on real opinions of each of our governments, each side being well aware that in human terms justice is only in question when an equal degree of compulsion exists on each side, and that in practical terms the more powerful do what they can and the weaker yield what they must.

XIV

And now, here’s a commentary in Man In His Pride, pdf, by David Grene:

What she [Athens] has thought the rest of the Greeks chiefly is to be aware of the creation of power in the name of nothing except itself and to consider the factor of the creation of power openly and rationally. In these two respects – and they go closely together – Athens was unique in terms of past history and, it may be contended, in terms of succeeding history until our own time.  And further down:

The extraordinary feature of the Athenian empire is that that the Athenians built it with nothing to stand between themselves and injustice they caused; that they faced it all together, every one of them, in individual moral responsibility all the time; and that what they tried to construct as explanation of their actions was no nationalist or semireligious fiction but, as they thought of it, a rational account of the manner in which all men everywhere have acted (pp. 4-6).

Though the Melian expedition was a trivial affair in the larger scheme of things, the population of Melos was wiped out, and that was the end of it.

XV

Now that we’ve come full circle to the notion of American exceptionalism, my take on it is – it’s an advertisement! All empires in the past have tooted their own horn, and America is no exception.

  • The Athenian city-state, for example, had once proclaimed itself to be “the school of Greece” in the immortal Funeral Speech by Pericles. 
  • The Roman Empire featured Pax Romana, the blessed peace enjoyed in all territories under Rome’s control once the “belligerent” nations were conquered and brought into the fold. 
  • With the British Commonwealth, it was Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.
  • With America, it’s “exceptionalism” to propagandize its greatness. 

All told, it’s a public relations campaign that a world power uses to justify itself. And the point is to present itself as more palatable, more humane, more acceptable to all who are under its spell.

Foolish, perhaps, but human, all too human!

XVI

In Part II, we shall see that “American exceptionalism” is a fragile notion, a notion that’s subject to several conditions — prosperity, most importantly. The point is that you can’t argue for any country’s greatness apart from the accompanying wellness – a kind of wellness that’s attributable to almost every member of the commonwealth.

It is precisely on this score that America is beginning to falter. It’d seem that it can no longer deliver widespread prosperity at home or make good on the American Dream. And with the American Dream acquiring all the characteristics of unreality — attainable only by some, not all! — so goes the notion of American uniqueness, exceptionalism, and so on. 

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