Exceptionalism Means Shouting “Best Ever!” and “Complete Genius!”


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar kmd says:

    Unserious and juvenile? Yeah… well, um, my dad could beat up your dad!Report

  2. Britain is great, it has to be said.

    Greece? Pah.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to ScrubAssChump says:

      Greece is arguably the most exceptional civilization in the history of civilization itself.

      Not that we’re too shabby either, but it’s way, way too soon to tell whether we’ll have the kind of influence that the Greeks have had.Report

  3. Avatar CharleyCarp says:

    The point of the Exceptionalism exercise is not ‘my dad can beat up your dad.’ It’s ‘I’m not bound by your stupid rules (and not even my own rules, which I can break whenever I want to).’ I have no idea why Larison, who is generally awfully clear-eyed about these things, doesn’t seem to get this. We can torture to protect ourselves, even if it doesn’t actually protect anyone. No one else can do a thing like that. We can have high ranking members of our legislature — and Presidential candidates — call for initiating wars with any number of countries, with complete impunity. We can involve ourselves in the internal affairs of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, whenever it seems like it might advance our interests; a non-exceptional country, like Iran, has to refrain from “meddling.”

    This is a subspecies of the argument that because God seems (to those who would buy it) to have mandated the invasion of Iraq, it’s not just unnecessary to think about downside risks, but blasphemy. But cleaned up enough that decent people can actually argue about it.Report

    • Avatar mark boggs in reply to CharleyCarp says:


      I think you touch on an even bigger issue when you talk about the divine mandate to invade Iraq. To alot of folks, everything we do is a divine mandate, because the USA is the second son of God. First, there was Jesus. Then came the USA. Due to this, we are unable to do anything wrong, because questioning the US is tantamount to questioning God.

      I realize that’s a touch hyperbolic, but only by a little.Report

  4. Avatar MFarmer says:

    This is not as big of a problem as all the articles suggest. Perhaps there’s a vocal minority of exuberant patriots, but I hardly ever hear much talk about American exceptionalism except in these articles which are debunking American exceptionalism. It appears to be natural for the common person to love his/her nation, and I believe that the vast majority of Americans love their country, but the aren’t continously going on about it.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to MFarmer says:

      the vast majority of Americans love their country, but the aren’t continuously going on about it.

      Of course not. This is as fake an issue as flag lapel pins.Report

      • This “American exceptionalism” thing mainly is about pundits and spin. Click through to the Sullivan piece and you’ll see that quite a few conservative writers have attacked Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism; other writers are just responding.

        Marco Rubio said in his acceptance speech “Americans believe with all their heart — the vast majority of them, and the vast majority of Floridians — that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all humankind,” and got cheers, but that’s patriotic campaign rhetoric, not political philosophy.Report

  5. Avatar MFarmer says:

    I think Obama summed up most people’s sentiments “Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation – not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago.”Report

  6. Obama left out Rome for the Romans, Spain for the Spanish, and China for the Chinese. (Or Egypt for the Egyptians, the Ottoman Empire for the Turks, or Persia for the Persians; these probably quite deliberately.) But the point remains the same — the USA is appropriately considered one of history’s great nations.

    How this could possibly be interpreted as some kind of disparagement of the United States by someone who presumably attended and achieved at least a passing grade in high school world history class is beyond me.Report

    • America being exceptional is not enough. All other countries must also suck. Except Israel.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        America, the Larry Ellison of countries.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Who is saying all other countries suck? This kind of simplistic hyperbole is why a real conversation can’t take place. This kind of thinking about a large number of American citizens reveals a closedness, intolerance and small-mindedness which is troubling. I’m not completely sure what motivates such claims, but I would like to understand it.Report

        • Avatar JL Wall in reply to MFarmer says:

          I’m going to agree with you, and with what William said earlier in the comments — I don’t think it’s generally an “every country must suck” thing, but an, “America is the best ever.” And that can be felt sincerely — and I don’t think there’s an inherent problem with feeling that the country that you live in, that has, for a long time, been at the pinnacle of the era, is the most exceptional of all the exceptional nations.

          I was just aiming to point out that even an American exceptionalism of which people like Larison might still disapprove does not need to be a singular exceptionalism. The problem isn’t with people who think America is great; it’s with those who kill discussion of foreign policy options (and economic policy options) with something akin to, “Oh. So you don’t think America’s great?”Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to JL Wall says:

            I was mostly being glib. Then again, there really are those at the fringes (vanguard?) of punditry who believe this or who, more likely, simply use it as a particularly useful rhetorical weapon for drumming up war and such.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to MFarmer says:

          It’s not a large number of Americans — it’s a small number of pundits who have large megaphones.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Mike, that was my point earlier — not really a problem — a few big mouths are not a problem — they just add a little to the character of a diverse country — they aren’t leading any nationalstic movement.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to MFarmer says:

              “Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism” is simply “Obama is a Muslim terrorist” translated into National-Review-speak [1]. It’s very stupid, but (I think we agree) nothing to get overly exercised about.

              1. Except for Andrew McCarthy, who does say that he’s a Muslim terrorist.Report

    • Avatar RTod in reply to Transplanted Lawyer says:

      A good point, and I think it leads me to ask a question – partly in good humor, but partly in all seriousness…

      What could Obama say in a speech, or what could he act opon in office, that these same pundits wouldn’t react to negatively?Report

  7. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Okay, I agree with what people are saying here, but I’d like to suggest that maybe sometimes, when people claim to be offended by things Obama says, they’re being somewhat disingenuous.Report

    • That’s basically my take on all of this. I think any and all attacks have far more to do with belief in partisanship and winning elections than they have to do with any legitimately held beliefs. Questioning someone else’s patriotism is a win-win situation for the questioner. If the target is insufficiently patriotic, the gain is obvious. If the subject’s response is too patriotic, it jars with voter experience or sounds like posturing. It’s kind of like asking, “Do you still beat your wife?”, “Do you think we should have the death penalty for rapists?”, etc. Obama’s even voluntarily bringing up the concept seems like poor strategery.Report

  8. Avatar JL Wall says:

    I feel a little like the comments are taking one line of mine a little incorrectly: when I made a crack about America as a messianic nation-state, I didn’t mean to imply anything about people who believe in divine mandates. A messianic era means the end of history; if America is “messianic” its role is to bring about some sort of stable world-order — even if that stability is defined primarily by America on top and only a handful of other details (security of allies, access to resources, etc.). This can be completely secular.Report

  9. Avatar BobN says:

    As we slip lower and lower on every measure of nations, from public health to literacy rates, from economic upward mobility to manufacturing output, it’s increasingly important to point out We’re Number One!Report

  10. Avatar Matt says:

    Rand Paul’s victory speech contained the most interesting statement about American excpetionalism in recent memory; he said that America is indeed exceptional, but not inherently so.

    I don’t think it’s exaggeration to call that an insight.Report

  11. Avatar Richard Thomas says:

    Could this foreigner (British) make an observation that this talk of American exceptionalism does grate on our foreign untutored ears although in saying so, I fully recognise the high ideals which your country embodies – even if it does not necessarily always practice. The purpose of the intrusion is however to suggest a possible paradox as seen by an outsider in that those who talk loudest about exceptionalism in many cases also preach doctrines which, taken literally, will have a deleterious effect on the life of your country. I refer to such matters as the denial of global warming, the creationism, the degradation of your education system and what seems to an outsider as the perversion of your politics by wealth to the point that it now seems the case that you don’t actually have the best politicians money can buy.Report