I have heard over the past couple of days several people talking about “American exceptionalism.” I have remained quiet as I have listened to these people tenaciously defend the concept, one person saying that anyone who didn’t believe in American exceptionalism was not a true American.
The concept of American exceptionalism holds basically that America was chosen by God to be a beacon of light to the entire world. In an article which appeared on the CNN website this weekend, CNN Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff wrote that “the Puritans saw themselves as the last, best hope for purifying Christianity and for saving the world.” (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/30/despite-fights-about-its-merits-idea-of-american-exceptionalism-a-powerful-force-through-history/?hpt=hp_bn1)
Gilgoff writes that “America’s exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.” The Pilgrims, Gilgoff writes, formed a theocracy which they thought would be a model for English Christianity.” I guess that means that the Pilgrims believed that they had to create something better than the Christianity in England from which they had fled.
Boston, America…were to be the “New Israel,” the “New Jerusalem.” But for whom?
Gilgoff’s article makes me lean toward believing that the first Americans really wanted an egalitarian society. Democracy, he writes, meant that everyone had rights, but everyone also had responsibilities. That is a delicious, democratic thought, at least as I have always interpreted “democracy” to mean.
But the reality was that by the time the United States Constitution was written, the notion of egalitarianism was gone. Howard Zinn makes the point, which I had never thought about until I studied him, that the Founding Fathers only meant for men of means, property holders, to be exact, to be included in the definition of “all men being created equal.”
That revelation broke my heart…
As America grew, it was clear that there was no intent for the government to make everyone equal politically and economically. America did become the symbol of economic opportunity, and really did allow (and does allow) more economic freedom than I have read exists in other countries.
But America has also sorely neglected many of her own people. Native Americans, African-Americans, women…are amongst those who were never intended to be granted equal rights. So, the notion of Independence Day, a day where “everyone” in this nation is free, has at times left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Americans.
A nation, it seems, cannot be “exceptional” if it neglects its own, even if it is helping people in other countries. There is a strange disconnect when a family can ignore its own while it reaches out to others. Today I heard someone on NPR said that “big business and big government should work together.” For whom and for what?
I wonder how American exceptionalism will play out, or if it will have a role or will be thought about, as this nation wrestles with its economic situation. I have heard some Americans call us a “welfare state,” the disdain unmistakable. I have heard people criticize entitlements, programs put in place by government to help more people live a decent life in this country. At the end of the day, will “exceptional” America cast its poor to the wind, drastically cutting programs and funds for the most needy?
Don’t get me wrong. We need our economy to get a whole lot better…but can a nation which calls itself “exceptional” really feel OK about perhaps going after programs that make life more bearable for millions of people?
It seems to me that that’s kind of impossible…but maybe that’s just me…
A candid observation…
8 thoughts on “America Exceptional?”
Well said. You can’t bring up American problems without people calling you a traitor or at least getting really uncomfortable. There is no doubt we are a racist, reactionary, greedy, cut throat society founded through an unjust, unnecessary war. That is not to say we are worse than other countries. We also have many good qualities. However, by overlooking the bad we think we are better than others and thus don’t have to work for a peaceful, prosperous world. On the other hand we could own our faults (much as Germany has done) and in doing so commit to work for a better tomorrow as a member of the global community. i love America and that’s why we have to talk about our faults. Thanks for this posts.
Thank you for reading the post and commenting. It’s really troubling to me that we as Americans cannot really talk about the things that are wrong here without being labeled. We will not be all we can be unless and until we look our issues in the face.
Thank you again.
American Exceptionalism has carried different meanings to different people, and not always in a positive light; however, I think it’s fair to point out that there comes a point where Americans of today cannot take responsibility for previous people in a position of authority that abused their powers–in the same way that present-day Germany should take responsibility for Hitler. We should embrace the ideal of our country in the promotion of its freedoms while enforcing laws and not tolerating any abuses. To your point of taking care of / ignoring the poor, we also need to ask ourselves how did people who were unable to get government assistance, food stamps or welfare manage to survive? Simple–they relied upon their own resourcefulness or family members, or even churches for support. A society that has pulled away from self-reliance, families and churches has no other choice than to look to the government as a means to the end, and a country like the USA that has helped other nations in the past with resources can no longer afford to be nearly as benevolent with its debilitating debt and dependence to others. The American Exceptionalism that I think of is slowly disappearing because we have lost our focus on what is most important.
Thank you for your input. I too think we have lost our focus on what is most important. We are so materialistic and all of us, wealthy or poor, seem to crave more “stuff” for ourselves. No amount that we have is ever enough. So, the poor and rich (think of banks! look to the government to “bail them out” so they can repeat behaviors, based on the desire for more money and more “stuff.” Greed and poor money management knows no economic class; the rich just have more resources to help them out of the messes they make for themselves. Being in the cycle of greed makes us no more exceptional than any other nation. It seems that we have fallen into the bad habits that the Pilgrims/Puritans fled from that were present in England. It’s all very troubling.
Thank you again for your input.
I think America needs to get over itself. I am an American, however, I think the idea of America being the beacon of light for the rest of the world is crazy, as if we’re the saviors of the world. You’re right, I don’t think a nation can call itself exceptional with so many of its people disenfranchised, and so many of its wealthy unconcerned.
Thank you for sharing. America is a great nation, but would be greater if she would admit and own her shortcomings. Only when we identify our weaknesses can we grow stronger.