“Always remember that you are absolutely unique.
“Just like everyone else.”
– Margaret Mead
“From him to whom much is given, much is required; and from him to whom much is entrusted, the more will be asked.”
– Luke 12:48
There are three basic ideas to American Exceptionalism. The first is that we are a nation with a unique history, and with unique resources, that no other country can match. The second is that we have a unique mission in the world, one that no one else could fulfill. And the third is that these two make America superior to other nations. Typically interlacing all of these is the numismatic slogan, ANNVIT CŒPTIS: ‘God favors our efforts’: we were chosen by God.
Exceptionalism Isn’t New
Exceptionalism isn’t new. ‘Chosen people’ is an historical Jewish self-proclamation based on the Old Testament. Of course the Rastafarians claim that not only are they the chosen people, but they are also the true Children of Israel. There are yet others.
The Greek city-states all claimed special protection from one or more gods (Athens is named for Athena), and traced their ancestry to various divinities. Each also had histories and myths showing how they were superior to other cultures.1)See Iliad and Odyssey. One of my personal favorites is Thebes, which claimed to founded by Cadmus who brought the alphabet to the West; I like him because he was from Phoenicia, modern Lebanon, and therefor was one of my ancestors…
Each of them also claimed that other groups cultures were vastly inferior to them. The word ‘barbarian’ stems from the way in which the Greek mocked other languages: ‘bar-bar-bar-bar‘, implying than non-Hellenic languages are primitive baby-talk and gobbledygook.
The Romans had similar myths, traditions, and superiority complexes, but they took it a step further. Not only were the Romans descended from the gods, some of the emperors declared themselves to be gods.
All cultures, really, have such traditions. Even today, how much of our boasting and striving about our town, our college, our teams, our political party, and our religion, are all ways of saying, “We’re exceptional.” Which is code for saying, “We’re better than you.”
Exceptionalism is narcissism. It always was.
The Problem with ‘American’ Exceptionalism
And in America, American Exceptionalism becomes exceptionally ridiculous. We’re supposed to be exceptional to the people of other nations?
We are the people of other nations.
The few of us who weren’t rejects and desperadoes from elsewhere, were gold-diggers and profiteers from that same elsewhere. That even includes the original native Americans: face it, the only people who pick up and head out for new lands are those who aren’t successful, or aren’t successful enough (there’s that narcissism again) where they were.
As for the exceptionalism of our government, first of all we didn’t originate democracy. We got it from those warm-and-cuddly Greek and Roman narcissists. However, one way in which we are exceptional compared to them, is that we have made it abundantly clear through the last century that we expect the whole world to move to our standard. Earlier I discussed the Marshall Plan; to my knowledge, it was the first time in history that a conquering nation sought to restore its enemies to autonomy and power. Actually, to even greater power: the Marshall Plan was critical to the founding of the European Union. So now our enemies in Germany and Italy are part of a coalition that has become our economic (but so far, not military) rivals.2)And even our superiors: the population of the USA is 323M, the EU, 508M. And despite the racism of the internment camps, we implemented autonomy and recovery in Japan as well. So the second aspect of American Exceptionalism, that our position in the world is exceptional, is true.
Exceptionalism as a Trap
But here we become hoisted on our own pétard: if we remain exceptional, then we have failed in our exceptionalism. If we do not bring what is exceptional about America to the rest of the world, we have abandoned our position of leadership. On the other hand, if we do bring it to the rest of the world, we will eventually render ourselves un-exceptional, even common. It’s an interesting trap.
Then there is the part which says that God prefers us. This is one of the great hypocrisies that gets injected into many religions: “We are all God’s children, and He loves us.
“Of course, He does love us more.”
Face it, “We were chosen by God,” is a clever way of saying “And oh BTW? You weren’t. Nanny-nanny-boo-boo.”
Narcissism & Privilege
It’s all narcissism. Which is a problem, because one could make the argument that the entire reason our country was created, was to escape privilege and narcissism, to do away with the idea that “I am better than you, universally and irrevocably; and that gives me a right to deprive you of your rights.”
That’s what ‘privilege’ literally means. It’s from the Latin privus + lex: ‘private law.’ One law for me.
A lesser law for you. Our political ancestors founded this country to escape exactly that kind of ‘exceptionalism.’
There is simply no place in America for American Exceptionalism; unless, of course, we were to re-think the concept. Just as we re-designed government in 1776, we have the opportunity re-design exceptionalism. We touched on one reconsideration of our exceptionalism above when we looked at our role in leading the world to be like us.
There is an interesting story about the discussions in colonial Philadelphia, in which George Washington – who despite his many extraordinary talents, was given to aristocratic leanings – fretted that it would be very hard, after serving as President, to step down and resume life as a commoner.
To which some of the other Founders responded that leaving the presidency would not be a downward step, but an upward one. It would not be nearly so much a loss of privilege and honor, as the relief of burden and obligation. In the aristocratic Old World, the nation serves the king.
But in the New World, the President serves the nation.
The New World Guarantee
That’s what the United States was founded to guarantee, that there would be no Old World guarantees, or at least not guarantees of rank and privilege. Instead, there would only be the New World guarantee of opportunity. Because at the end of the day, what is equality but equal access and equal opportunity?
So in America, what you were yesterday, who your ancestors were, what your forebears accomplished, is nothing. To be exceptional in America, means we must strive to be exceptional, all the time.
Privilege vs Obligation
Our heritage is not a privilege or a sinecure; it is a tremendous burden. Every day we should awaken, not thinking of our exceptionalism as a badge and a boast, but as an eternally-unfulfilled obligation. Rather that ANNUIT CŒPTIS, our motto should probably read ‘What have you done for me lately?’
What have you done for all of us?
In this interpretation, American Exceptionalism does not exist, because it can never be achieved, it is never complete. It is simply a goal.
So the irony is, the day we think that American Exceptionalism applies to us, and once we think of our positions as a title and an entitlement, then we have abandoned our foundations.
Westward Ho! or Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, by Emanuel Leutze, courtesy of Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||See Iliad and Odyssey. One of my personal favorites is Thebes, which claimed to founded by Cadmus who brought the alphabet to the West; I like him because he was from Phoenicia, modern Lebanon, and therefor was one of my ancestors…|
|2.||↑||And even our superiors: the population of the USA is 323M, the EU, 508M.|