The Washington Post recently touched on the fascinating topic of American Exceptionalism, since it appears to be increasingly used as a distinction in American politics as to who is a patriot and who isn’t (which of course is hardly a new battle). It certainly is comical to see some people drape themselves in it as if it were a good thing. To wit, the WaPo article starts off with:
Is this a great country or what?
“American exceptionalism” is a phrase that, until recently, was rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals and university history departments.
But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world’s other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012. (…)
That the average American thinks their country is the greatest country in the world shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has encountered one either in cyberspace or in real life. It’s greatness (or superiority) is extolled remarkably often even in casual conversation, even though, as is claimed in the introduction to the concept in Wikipedia, some would argue that is not meant to express superiority:
American exceptionalism refers to the opinion that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Its exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation”, and developing a unique American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire”. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional”. Although the term does not imply superiority, some writers have used it in that sense. To them, the United States is a “shining city on a hill”, and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.
In the 1960s “postnationalist” scholars rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the United States had not broken from European history, and had retained class inequities, imperialism and war. Furthermore, they saw every nation as subscribing to some form of exceptionalism. (…)
Certainly some rather notorious examples of other nations with very similar thinking (i.e. that their particular god was on their side and/or had a special purpose for their nation) aren’t very difficult to find in history.
But to expound upon the concept and history a little bit more, I’ll leave the reader with two videos to watch on the subject. The first is a lecture by Howard Zinn, who needs to introduction, from a few years ago, and the second a more recent talk at the Center for Inquiry’s 30th Anniversary Conference on The State of Church and State, by Shadia Drury, who is the Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at the University of Regina and a Free Inquiry columnist. Drury is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the author of books including The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche, and Aquinas and Modernity: The Lost Promise of Natural Law (2008).
Shadia Drury on American Exceptionalism (fast forward to 00:18:00):
Update20101204: Empire as a state of being (Le Monde Diplomatique)
Appeals to national greatness have always been part of American political discourse in times of perceived decline or ascent. But coming from a cosmopolitan president with multicultural sensitivity, this language of national power and primacy is a troubling reflection of the weight of history on the shaping of worldviews and policy. (…)
The persistence of imperial self-conceptions should be traced back to a remoter past. Underlying the idea of the “American century” is a set of axiomatic assumptions about historical purpose, world order and international hierarchy, an imperial cosmology that crystallised well before the mid-20th century. The notion that the present world order is a necessary one derives from historical experience of nearly continuous expansion and ascent. Erected on the debris of the 19th century European imperial order, the post-1945 American pax was the outcome of a long movement of formal and informal expansion that shaped the American historical imagination of world-empire as destiny.
Update20111012: The Myth of American Exceptionalism – By Stephen M. Walt (Foreign Policy)