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The Myth of American Exceptionalism Hardcover – January 27, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (January 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300125704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300125702
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #597,232 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The notion of America as the divinely anointed homeland of freedom, bravery, democracy and economic opportunity, with everything to teach the world and nothing to learn from it, is so entrenched that this perceptive portrait of America the Ordinary seems downright radical. Hodgson (Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand) situates America as an outpost of Europe, always a part (and not always the most advanced part) of an evolving progressive, liberal, capitalist civilization spanning the Atlantic. American history, he contends, has its share of class conflict, bloody and sometimes losing struggles against hierarchy, and institutional dysfunction. Much of its success, he argues, stems from historical and geographical happenstance rather than ideological genius, and its recent performance, in everything from fighting poverty to health care to political corruption, stacks up poorly against other nations'. The author's nuanced, wide-ranging treatment isn't hostile to the United States, but he deplores a new missionary exceptionalism—visible in the confused and delusional U.S. policy in Iraq. Hodgson's thoughtful critique injects a much-needed shot of perspective and common sense into the debate over America's place in the world. (Feb.)
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Review

"The idea of 'American exceptionalism,' once a concept dear to the sectarian Left, long ago evolved into a shibboleth of the Republican Right. Godfrey Hodgson has trained his formidable intelligence against the second of these—and written a provocative exploration of American history as well as American myth."—Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

(Sean Wilentz)

“Some of Hodgson’s historical judgments warrant challenge, but this timely and deeply felt, independent-minded polemic offers powerful evidence that a belief in American exceptionalism hinders clear thinking about the nation and world.”—Thomas Bender, author of A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History
(Thomas Bender)

“A brilliant history, from the Puritans to the present, of our belief in our exceptionalism—political, economic, and moral—and how it has lately come to support inequality and hubris.”—Walter Nugent, author of Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion  
(Walter Nugent)

"Godfrey Hodgson has always been a sympathetic and insightful friend of the United States.  This is what makes his dismay toward those who use the idea of American innocence to project American power so compelling."—Alan Wolfe, author of The Future of Liberalism
 
(Alan Wolfe)

“This survey is informed by Hodgson’s wide learning and powerful sense that Americans are somewhat deluded in their reading of their national experience as exceptional and have allowed that belief to warp their interactions with the world.”—Mark Lytle, Bard College
(Mark Lytle)

“[The Myth of American Exceptionalism] is interesting and lucid as it examines the errors and exaggerations in the national self-image.” - Clive Cook, Financial Times
(Clive Cook Financial Times 2009-03-16)

"Godfrey Hodgson provides readers with a grand tour through American history that offers a friendly but stern hand to explain our sense of exceptionalism in the world."  —America
(America 2009-07-06)

"[A] nuanced, wide-ranging treatment."  —Publishers Weekly
(Publishers Weekly 2008-12-22)

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Customer Reviews

It really provides a lot of light on recent history.
C. P. Anderson
Couldn't our interventions in places like Guatemala, Chile, Grenada, and the like be explained simply as geo-political hardball that in hindsight seems excessive?
J. Grattan
At the end of World War II, this country had the means to conquer the world but it didn't.
RHarrisonScott

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By C. P. Anderson on July 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Hodgson basically has two theses. One is that the US is not quite so unique as we would like to believe. He points to things like early involvement in European disputes (i.e., the French and Indian War as just a part of the Seven Years War) and ideas (the Pilgrims as simply part of the Reformation and the debt the Founding Fathers owe to the Enlightenment), increased industrialization (and the consequent laissez-faire capitalism) in the 19th century, the idea of the frontier (in Russia, for example, but also through colonialism for the rest of Europe), and (recently at least) immigration.

The second is that, these days at least, there are some things that make the US unique - but not in a good way. These include the long list of things - education, medical care, income distribution, capital punishment, incarceration rates, the decline of manufacturing - that have already been discussed in other reviews. The most interesting thing about these is Hodgson's making the point that "it wasn't always so." As an example, we actually have rather a strong history of anti-militarism. In fact, just as recently as the start of WWII, our army was similar in size to Bulgaria's!

This second idea is probably the more important one, as Hodgson does seem to be an admirer of the US and does see some real, admirable examples of exceptionalism in our early history. More than anything, he seems to be asking "where did you go wrong?" There are, of course, many factors, but exceptionalism is definitely an important one.

I am familiar with a lot of the ideas in the book, but am really impressed with how Hodgson ties them altogether, the excellent arguments he makes, and his stinging-but-never-smarmy style.

My only objections were a somewhat wandering first chapter and a rather repetitious last one. All in all, though, this is an excellent read. It really provides a lot of light on recent history.
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34 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Michael Caracappa on March 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In the first two-thirds of the book, Hodgson takes the reader on an entertaining and knowledgeable ride through American history, and highlights those qualities that many Americans believe set themselves apart from the rest of the world when, in fact, those qualities are found in many other countries and often even originated outside the U.S. For instance, other countries have experienced peaceful, large-scale immigration. People in other countries love freedom. People in other countries respect the rule of law. People in other countries donate money to worthy causes. People in other countries are patriotic. Those positive qualities are not unique to Americans.

In the last third of the book, Hodgson details the areas where America truly is exceptional among industrial nations: last in health care, near last in educational achievement, first in incarceration rates, first in violent crime, last in intercity train service and public transit, first in income inequality, first in the amount spent on the military, first in allowing lobbyists and money to influence the democratic process.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on May 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In many respects this British author recognizes the uniqueness, even exceptionalness, of America, especially up to the Civil War. But that is tempered by the fact that the early settlers, whether they were religious separatists or investors, regarded themselves as Englishmen and a part of European traditions and reform movements, including, later on, Enlightenment ideas - not exceptional Americans. The author's concern is that in recent decades, American have come to believe that our superiority entitles us to spread our political and economic systems and values around the world with military force if need be. That is counterpoised to the actual fact that in several key social and economic indicators, America is not only not exceptional but actual lags behind much of the advanced industrial world.

Without really exploring the forming of the American psyche, the author credits the American Revolution as being the first of its kind. No where in the world had liberty, especially religious freedom, the right to vote, and egalitarianism been achieved to that degree. America was admired worldwide as a place of unparalleled economic opportunity. American exceptionalism had some basis in fact. The author correctly notes the lack of a feudal past and the vast Western frontier as key factors in the growth of an American "classless" society with all of its opportunities. His point of western lands being acquired as a fallout from European intrigues seems beside the point. It needs to be noted, for those inclined to idealize America's past, that dissenters in early colonial societies were dealt with very harshly.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Terrific summary of American History by a sympathetic but honest intelligent British Journalist. Accurate description of America and Americans over time. Spares no punches. Should be assigned reading in all High Schools.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Disappointing, after all the references I had seen to it. That may be because I took references to the phenomenon as references to the book. In any case, Hodgson's two key points -- that U.S. citizens and policy makers tend to see us as "special" with high motives and ideals and a mission to share these, and that this conviction has had pernicious effects -- is not entirely new news. Bachevich's "Limits of Power" and "Washington Rules" are more challenging and perceptive works, I think.

Also, it should be noted out of fairness to us that most countries have or have had their periods of exceptionalism, at least those that were big and powerful enough to get away with it for a while. Consider the Whig version of history so brilliantly satirized in "1066 and All That", or la gloire francaise, or German Kultur --- or go all the way back to the Greeks, who used the word "barbaros" for anyone who did not speak Greek. Exceptionalism may be some sort of human instinct, as pernicious as it is in the modern world.
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