American Exceptionalism—Part I

It is true, of course, that exceptional can just mean strikingly different—an exception to the rule.

So I’m busy this week at the national honors program of the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute.


The theme of the week is AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.

You might think that, being conservative, the emphasis would be on the virtues of American Exceptionalism, and the evildoers would be those who deny the unique and irreplaceable purpose and destiny of our country.

It turns out, though, that the theme has been explored in a wide and exceptionally open-minded variety of ways, and we’ve heard presentations that would suggest America is exceptionally good, America is exceptionally bad, and America isn’t exceptional in any really significant sense at all.  What follows are my own random reflections, which can't be blamed on the conference participants or ISI.

The opinion of President Obama that Americans think they’re exceptional just like the people of other countries think they’re exceptional has received a respectful hearing here.  It’s impossible not to love whatever is your own.  And so you think your country is exceptionally virtuous for the same psychological reason you think your kid is exceptionally talented or exceptionally cute.  There’d be something really wrong with us if we didn’t have pride—justified by the selective use of evidence—in who we are and what we do.  But that doesn’t mean that, from a detached or objective or un-American point of view, anyone should mistake our partisanship for the truth.  The Athenians thought there as something wrong with Socrates because he didn’t think Athens was really that special or blessed by the gods.  And so there was, from an Athenian point of view.  He was much more a philosopher—a lover of the truth—than a citizen.  There might be, in a way, something wrong with President Obama when he describes our political claims, as our political leader, with such a spirit of detachment.

It is true, of course, that exceptional can just mean strikingly different—an exception to the rule.  And so many obviously exceptional features of our country can be viewed as ambivalent—as both good and bad.

America's two cultural achievements Europeans seem to admire most are jazz and Southern literature  (Faulkner, Walker Percy, and so forth).  Those undeniably great and wonderful forms of art could have originated nowhere but America—nowhere, in fact, but the American South.  But jazz depends on the experience of the black slave—including the residual forms of enslavement that persisted under segregation, and Southern literature depends on the memories and other experiences of the dispossessed aristocratic master.  They both depend on a kind of monstrous injustice that flourished with a somewhat singular intensity in our country.  Do we really want to say that the race-based aristocracy that flourished in the South added a kind of psychological depth and emotional subtlety and even spirituality to our country that would have been absent otherwise?

I could go on, in the spirit of the very singular and almost inconceivably profound Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, to talk more about the Christ-haunted, evangelical, fundamentalist South, the Southern sense of place, the graciousness of Southern manners, the Southern (excessive?) appreciation of leisure, and even the honorable and chivalrous spirit that animates Southern violence as ambivalent features of American exceptionalism.  I could also go on, of course, to say a lot more about the distinctive and globally appreciated and appropriated cultural contributions of African Americans.

But the more obvious place to begin in thinking about American exceptionalism is with the Declaration of Independence.  Most countries, we sometimes say, are held together by a common tradition and culture.  We Americans are held together by a common idea.  We have, we sometimes say, a philosophical founding.  What else could be the source of the inalienable rights that come from “Nature’s God” (the God of the philosophers as opposed to the God of revelation) but philosophy?

The advantages of a philosophical founding begin with the abolition of the tension between “love of one’s own” and what’s really true.  Equal rights or equal liberty is not an American prejudice, we believe, but just a statement of the truth about who we are that any rational  person see with his or her eyes. 

If our founding is exceptionally true, then President Obama disses us unreasonably when he “relativizes” our claim for exceptionalism.  Our claim is not merely cultural or conventional or ethnocentric or even Eurocentric, but natural.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident” the Declaration asserts.  Their self-evidence is the foundation from which all American political life flows.  Hold might mean that we make a claim that might not actually be true but is an indispensable foundation.  We have to talk and act as if the truths about inalienable rights, being created equal, and so forth self-evident even if we’re not deep down certain.  We can’t indulgently be philosophers in the Socratic sense of only knowing for sure that we really don’t know for sure. Socrates rarely got around to doing anything.  But we might add that few Americans indeed have ever denied that equal liberty or equal rights is the bottom line when it comes to instituting and consenting to government.

There’s a lot to say about the downsides or at least the ambivalence of our “Declaration distinctiveness,” but later.

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