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American exceptionalism examined (3.5 *s)
on May 5, 2009
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.
The persistence of slavery was definitely a dissonant fact in American beliefs in exceptionalism, but the advent of thoroughgoing industrialism after the Civil War with its often deleterious effects on social and economic well-being really took the shine off of claims to exceptionalism. The formation of a working class, a "proletariat," the tenement slums in our large cities, the extravagant wealth of industrial titans - all of these developments are regarded by the author as the beginnings of the discrepancy between the myths and the realities of America. America did not stand apart from Europe: the "social problem" was highly prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic.
The author does acknowledge that beliefs in a virtuous America, obligated to do good and to contain evil, were at least part of the reason for our interventions in the two world wars of the 20th century. However, the reality of the United States being the foremost industrial nation in the world by the early 20th century, coupled with the potential for a huge breakdown of the world order, made our interventions inevitable - not a particularly moral decision.
This book really has two concerns: foremost is the newfound, American aggressiveness in foreign policy, but perhaps as important is an examination of the actual performance in several areas of American society. Is America really a superior nation?
America alone in the industrialized world has a private, for profit, health care system with serious consequences in terms of access, exclusions of treatments, longevity, infant mortality, and costs. Education systems are underperforming and becoming more exclusive and costly. Inequality in terms of income and wealth have skyrocketed with wages no longer keeping up with productivity gains. Democratic processes from elections to governing are dominated by those with money. The repair and improvement of our nation's infrastructure takes a back seat to massive defense spending that exceeds that of the entire world. Our incarceration rates are right at the highest in the world. However, if the myth of American superiority is repeated often enough, real examination of these institutions is precluded to the detriment of the American people and American credibility worldwide.
It's difficult to say whether the author's theme of inflated self-regard fully captures and explains the foreign policy aggressiveness of the neo-conservatives of the last fifteen years or for that matter our interventions to counter perceived Communistic threats since WWII. 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? There were no claims made about spreading democracy in those cases. In fact, self-determination was crushed. One wonders if the recent interventions in the Middle East, despite Messianic overtones and misrepresentation of facts, are not really more a reaction of a powerful nation that recognizes the precariousness and unsustainability of the distribution and usage of scarce natural resources, namely oil. That is not to say that there are not elements of arrogance and bullying that descend from and are a perversion of our original exceptionalism based on liberty, equality, and democracy.
While for the author, the global ramifications of a distorted and justifying view of American exceptionalism are most important; for Americans, the serious shortcomings of our key institutions are more disturbing - not the myth, the reality. Perhaps both situations are two sides of the same coin. Until Americans regain control of their own political, social, and economic order, there will doubtlessly be global leakage that reflects those shortcomings.
The book is not especially original. American hubris has long been noted. The approach is basically a brief historical look that compares America with Europe since our founding, which largely undermines uniqueness or exceptionalism. The book, though short, manages to be somewhat repetitious, perhaps reflecting that exceptionalism and/or its myth is really just a part of more complete histories. Nonetheless, an interesting take on American thought.