Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Exceptionally What?

I admit that I have not been paying much attention to the whole "Obama denies American exceptionalism" stuff that has become the meat of GOP messaging.  I discounted it because I think it was utter crap, but that does not stop it from becoming covered and repeated and rinsed.  Richard Cohen has a pretty good take on it at the Washington Post. He notes the origins that focused on the opposition to socialism among the working class in the US, distinguishing the US from Europe.  He goes on to argue that there is lot that is exceptional about the US (meaning different, not better) such as a high murder rate, and then argues that the right wing is infusing the term with religious overtones:
Therein lies the danger of American exceptionalism. It discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.
 Obama upsets these guys for so many reasons, including his recognition that the US is flawed--that we must strive to perfect the Union even if the goal of a perfect Union is never reached. 

What drives me crazy is a different element of the narcissism--that we cannot and should not learn from the experiences of others  One of the things that drives me the craziest about the Canadians is that they only compare their health care system to that of the US, which means that they completely ignore better models elsewhere.  Well, the idea of American exceptionalism implies that the US is so different that we can learn little from elsewhere.  But the US is not the only Presidential system, it is not the only Federal system, it is not the only Great Power to have overextended itself, it is not the only country where immigration is at the center of its history, the US is not the only country to have a winning record when it comes to war (although the post WWII record has put a dent into that), the US is not the only country with a death penalty that is combined with an uneven justice system, and so on.

Yes, there are key differences, such as the US spending way more on defense spending than the remaining major powers combine, that the US military has far more reach than any other, that US consumers (even through this recession) are far more willing to buy foreign goods (which gives the US power), and so on.

But we can and should learn from other countries as the US does not have a monopoly on good ideas about governance, about accountability, about democracy, about regulating markets, etc.  The cry of American exceptionalism is an effort to do two things--return the US to an idealized past that never existed (yes, minorities must have loved the 1950's so much, before the Civil Rights movement, just to name one element) and that we cannot import ideas from elsewhere. 

This is really quite funny since I believe that Locke and the other philosophers who influenced the founders of the US were not from America.  Ooops, the founders were largely not from the US either.  Perhaps that is what American exceptionalism is all about--the acceptance of immigrants not just into the society but into the power structures of the country.*

* But, of course, other countries have immigrants rising high as well, but perhaps not as quickly or as frequently.

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