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On The Claim of Exceptionalism

American exceptionalismAin't We Great?

Everyone wants to be exceptional, to be special, to be great at something. Parents spend a lot of time assuring their children that they are indeed exceptional, even though they often know that the their offspring will spend their working lives selling mattresses or cars. So they leave aside the fact that the child is not exactly an A student, and stick to: “You’re cute as a button.” “You have such a winning smile.” “You’re good at sports.” “You really have a nice singing voice,” “You can bench press that much!” etc. When it comes to individuals there is a very wide range of achievements that can make you stand out. Everyone can be exceptional in some way or other.

Yet it is not only individuals who need to feel themselves exceptional or great. It seems that entire nations, working at some level of collective consciousness, yearn for this status as well. This is particularly true of the citizenry of the USA, who are often told by their politicians that their country is exceptional, special, great – the most talented child in the family of nations. It presently being the political campaign season, one gets these assertions almost daily. Here are some examples:

1. Mitt Romney:God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world….”

You know back in the 1960s, when citizens’ ears were more attuned to the country’s sins,  the first part of this statement would have suggested God’s complicity in genocide. After all, just how was America “created”?  Well, over the dead bodies of innumerable Indians. Yet here Mr. Romney is looking in the wrong direction for American specialness. Colonial massacres were not at all exceptional.

2. Mitt Romney, part II:I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am your President.”

Making such a statement begs the question of just what it takes to assure that the U.S. is the “strongest nation on Earth.” Well the man from Massachusetts gives the recipe in his 2010 book, No Apology: the Case for American Greatness. The recipe: “expand American military programs and their funding. He recommends adding a minimum of 100,000 soldiers to the Marines and Army specifically. He writes as well about updating America’s nuclear stockpile, building a missile defense system and researching into cyber-warfare.”  Want to be great?  Muscle up.  As we will see this is a very traditional position.

3. Rick Santorum: To assure that American exceptionalism is recognized and promoted, American leaders must a) never suggest that any past policy could have been wrong b) never apologize for anything and c) never suggest that anyone can possibly be as exceptional as we are.

Having gotten that straight, Santorum also goes the muscle up route. American greatness is dependent on recruiting more soldiers because “America is in a war” with evil, which we must learn to recognize for “what it is” like, among other things, “Sharia law.”

It is said that Santorum is “selling himself as a conservative crusader.” However, he sounds like a spoiled child to me: “I won’t say I’m wrong!” I won’t apologize!” I am definitely better than you are!” And if you push me, I’ll call you evil and beat you up!” How great is that?

4. Newt Gingrich:What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God to each one of you.” That means, “in America no politician, no bureaucrat, no judge can take those rights away.” Oh boy. I don’t know about his rights, but someone should definitely take Newt’s Ph.D. away from him.

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s hyperbole in the Declaration of Independence, rights most definitely come from the state via the Constitution. As far as I know Habeas Corpus appears nowhere in the Bible. The fact that rights come from the state and not God means that, by making up new categories such as “enemy combatants,” the state can, and indeed has, taken rights away from citizens as well as others. Newt must have been out to lunch when this happened.

As for the assertion that it is only Americans who claim that God directly sends them “power” in the form of rights, it is just plain wrong. Among others, Muslims make this claim. God is always with the Muslim. He is “closer to you than your own veins” (Quran 50.16). Allah has delivered rights and obligations to all and, if you heed them, they will put you on the “straight path” to salvation.

5. President Obama also believes in American exceptionalism. He finds it in the nation’s “unmatched military capability,” the great size of its economy, and “a set of core values” such as free speech that are “enshrined in its Constitution, laws and democratic practices.”

Actually, what makes Obama different than his political foes is not only leaving God out of this, but also his willingness to concede that other countries have exceptional qualities too and that, on occasion, Americans do stupid things for which they should apologize. Maybe coming from an African American background has something to do with these insights.

Historically, Why Are Nations Thought To Be Great?

Historically, there has been one major definition for national greatness (or exceptionalism) and that is great military power. As we see, all the mentioned politicians pick up on this theme and those challenging Obama want more troops, more missiles, more nukes. It has long been this way. Why were the Romans great? Conquest. Why was France under Napoleon exceptional? Conquest. Why was the British Empire great? Conquest. And why is America exceptional? The alleged capacity to force most of the world to its will. Oh, there are other things people sometimes mention: Roman law and great architecture; the Napoleonic Code and freeing the Jews from their ghettos; England making the seas safe from pirates and introducing the world to Indian food; and finally, when it comes to the U.S., there is that multifaceted thing called “freedom.” But all that is really secondary. The first and foremost historical criterion for national greatness is: going out, hitting your neighbor over the head and stealing his stuff. That is why “great powers” are great.

Alternative Criteria For Greatness

Here are some achievements other than military might and conquest that ought to have a higher claim on national greatness or exceptionalism:

1. The ability to eliminate hunger among citizens.

2. The ability to provide decent housing for all citizens.

3. The ability to provide health care for all citizens.

4. The ability to provide affordable education for all citizens.

5. The ability to provide citizens with productive work at a living wage.

The nation that can provide these primary needs for its people is well on its way to greatness. Indeed, the other things that Americans so value, such as freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, or even the very right to vote, are only fully convincing as “inalienable rights” when you are not chronically hungry and your kids aren't dying of curable diseases. That doesn't mean that they are not important and should not be fought for, it just means that rights come in the form of an hierarchical package and the American package is incomplete.


The sound bite versions of greatness or exceptionalism that come from our politicians are so superficial and decontextualized as to be meaningless. They are the verbal equivalent of that little hammer doctors use to make your lower leg jump forward. Sure, they get a response, but you really don’t know what it all means.  Then again many Americans just can’t see beyond the big army, big navy (ah, those navy seals), and big air force. Guns, guns, guns, that is the traditional, historical road to greatness. Just read a bit of history. All the rest is fluff.

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