Let’s not call it exceptionalism.


William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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9 Responses

  1. Avatar Will says:

    Excellent post, and I’d add one further thing: By investing so much in the American mythos, we risk whitewashing past crimes. I suspect it’s difficult to come to terms with American mistakes if you are committed to proving our moral infallibility over and over again.Report

  2. William: This is a tough response, especially since you clearly understood the point I was trying to make. One thing I would note, which I’ve also noted in the other thread, is that I fully acknowledge that other countries can and should seek to live up to their highest ideals; the difference with the US is that those ideals are even more important to the American system of governance because those ideals are at the very core of what it means to be an American. Other nations would not lose their identity if they ceased to be liberal democracies; the US would. So in this sense, I think living up to certain ideals is a particularly “special mission” for the US in a way it is not for other countries. I would further argue that when the US fails to live up to its ideals, it lowers the bar for the entire world by setting a poor example, providing justification for even worse injustice.

    Will: I think a proper investment in what I’ll call normative exceptionalism rather than positive or empirical exceptionalism directly confronts that problem. In fact, my post was in some ways intended specifically as a response to your comment along these lines to Sanchez’ post.

    I think if you view exceptionalism as something to strive for rather than as an inherent fact, then you have no choice but to re-evaluate, in depth, whether your country has acted in accordance with the ideals that you think make your country exceptional. If you conclude that it has not – and I think even if you think dropping the atomic bomb was ultimately justified and necessary, you have to conclude it was immoral – then you have to soberly evaluate whether that breach of ideals was worthwhile, and even if it was worthwhile, how you are going to rebuild that ideal. Just pretending as if the ideal was never breached, as is commonly done with the atomic bomb and as too many try to do with torture, does the greatest disservice to normative exceptionalism because it lowers the bar that is supposed to embody our ideals.Report

  3. William:

    Responding to your first points last:

    On your first point, I would say that we are talking about something that is (or should be) a more or less universal theory of justice and rights. However, as I say above, what makes that universal theory so exceptionally important in the case of the United States is that it is a theory that forms the very basis for the existence of a United States.

    Second, it was probably inappropriate of me to, err, appropriate that phrase in light of its religious connotations. I was trying to use it for purely secular purposes since it provided a good metaphor for my point and is so engrained in our political vernacular at this point (somewhere, there’s probably a post to be made about how the political use of religious imagery and vernacular has the effect of secularizing religion rather than reinforcing it). I’m not a particularly religious person (though I’m working on that), so my use of that metaphor was inexcusably tone-deaf.Report

  4. Avatar raft says:

    but why call your project exceptionalism at all? That’s such a loaded word with too much baggage. It would be like if I wanted to call isolationism “exceptionalism,” you know, like shogun Japan, and then advocate for this new concept of “isolationist exceptionalism.” But that would just be confusing and a lot of people wouldn’t understand what i was saying. I think William’s point is spot on.

    going back the last thread, there’s nothing wrong with striving to be better than you are, or better than other countries/societies/people. People like to be the best. That’s I think a perfectly laudable goal. I also think you’re right that this sort of idealistic striving is particularly important in the American context as a grounds for common identity and purpose. But in what sense is this definition of American idealism consistent with “exceptionalism” as it is understood in a historical and political sense, which doesn’t involve striving so much as it does an assertion of imperial superiority? Even liberal exceptionalism always had that imperial cast to it. So I question if you couldn’t just find a better word for what you mean. Like, well, progressivism (I suppose that’s taken).Report

  5. Raft: It’s a good question, and I don’t know that I can come up with a wholly satisfactory answer.

    I would say that exceptionalism is the proper name because it is rooted in pretty much the exact same set of beliefs as the common sort of exceptionalism. Indeed, the idea of a “shining city upon the hill” articulated by Winthrop, while obviously far more based in religion than I’m comfortable with, was very much an argument for a normative exceptionalism. To be sure, it began with a notion that Puritans were “the chosen people,” but the key to the statement was that the Puritans needed to lead by example.

    I guess what I’d say is that American exceptionalism, properly understood, consists of both an empirical and normative element. You do have to start with the notion that there is something special and unique about the foundations of the United States. The problem is that most exceptionalists pretty much stop there and don’t focus on the normative element, which is really the most important element because without it, the empirical element quickly falls apart.

    Admittedly, there’s still a bit of a problem in my argument, which is that I don’t think “special and unique” are synonymous with “better.” Instead, I just think “special and unique” means that these foundational ideals are far more essential to the notion of being American than they are to the notion of being some other nationality. This is a pretty big difference from traditional notions of exceptionalism of any variety, although arguably it has some support in Tocqueville (I must confess that I haven’t read Tocqueville in about a decade and a half, though, so I may be very wrong about that).Report

  6. From William:

    The problem with the latter account is the degree to which it depends on Europe destroying itself twice over in thirty years in wars that left our territory basically untouched. Which is to say: the U.S.A. got its hegemony by carefully taking advantage of others’ mistakes, not by some special historical dispensation.

    I really liked this point. It’s factually accurate and it describes our rise to power well. It also describes the rise of power of the USSR, which also capitalized on the destruction of Europe in WWII. What sets us apart is why were were in that position. We chose to step up and help Europe. Not once, but twice. And then again when we protected them during the Cold War. And so on, and so on.

    I don’t criticize Mark for his belief in American exceptionalism. He seems to base his belief on the uniqueness of our founding documents and the potential of our government. I base mine on our people. I don’t think we are beter than anyone else in the world, but at various times we have been…well…exceptional. Maybe it is because we have a culture built on Hollywood but I think every American believes that the world needs a hero. Maybe instead of Superman the world got Batman, with all his flaws and dark moments. Superman drops the bad guys off at the local jail…Batman hangs them by their legs from tall buildings until they talk. At the end of the day though, don’t we celebrate both because they chose to step up?Report

  7. Avatar William Brafford says:

    I guess the only thing to say for the time being is that I have a pretty complicated take on American identity, which in my case has a lot to do with being a Southerner. I’m one of those southerners who carries with him weird historical connections — for example, my great-great-great-grandfather was pastor of a church where Stonewall Jackson used to stop by during the Civil War — and so I think I’m much more inclined to view American identity as constituted by history, specifically including the bad parts, rather than by the ideals. Or maybe it’s better to say that for southerners like me, American identity is unavoidably mediated by the darker parts of American history. But I understand why this is not true for everyone.Report

  8. Avatar Mike says:

    I’m also a Southerner (though admittedly the Civil War history of Kentucky was a bit more complicated). I tend to view our dark moments as important because they are usually the precursor to some of our best moments.Report

  9. William: I hadn’t thought of it that way before, at least not in connection with this particular topic – I vaguely remember that you discussed this in much more depth in your initial post during our guest stint at Upturned Earth. There’s probably something to the notion that what one views as being the defining essence of America is heavily dependent on where you grew up and/or live, and how, when and why your ancestors settled here. There’s a lot more I’d like to say on this front, but I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts.Report