Exceptionalism Means Shouting “Best Ever!” and “Complete Genius!”
Or so thinks the anti-anti-exceptionalist right. Others (well, mostly just Larison) have already done a good deal of talking about American exceptionalism and Republican rhetoric of late, so I’m going to be brief. Andrew notes that Obama has taken a lot of flack for saying this:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
He’s perfectly right to want to put the lines in their fuller context. For my purposes, the next line alone will suffice: “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”
At least by Andrew’s reckoning, there’s an impressive number of pundits who have taken swings at Obama for insinuating that America is just as exceptional as Greece or Britain. But in talking about a nation’s contribution to political values and the idea and practice of liberty, these two nations aren’t shabby company. Sure, Britain’s empire is gone and Greece’s economy and politics are a shambles. But Obama, I suspect, was hinting at something entirely different, that requires giving the list of nations more than a cursory look.
Greece is the nation that gave us Plato, Aristotle, and gave birth to what we know as Western culture. (We won’t be getting into the messy questions of “what is Greece?”/”who is Greek?” here.) Britain is not only the nation which was home to the political theorists and philosophers from whom the deified Founders drew inspiration, and is not only a nation which illustrated the transition from monarchy to democracy, but it also, at the height of its empire, saw itself as the heir to a mantle which had previously belonged to Greece and Rome.
By putting us in the company of Greece and Britain, Obama is putting us on that same continuum. The much-maligned mentioning of other nations in the same breath as the United States was, on one level, meant to imply that we now carry that mantle — that it is our role to be the exemplar of Western society and values, and that the contributions of our Constitution are already as influential as those of Greece’s and Britain’s past heights.
Claiming that it is insulting, or anti-exceptionalism, to compare America to Greece or Britain turns exceptionalism into a sort of zero-sum competition. It ceases to be a point of pride, or a lofty obligation to fulfill, and becomes a quixotic undertaking not merely to be exceptional, but to remove the United States from the realm of history and nations. The United States cannot, then, admit a flaw; it cannot be properly compared to any other nation. This is not only wrong, and this is not only jingoistic. It is unserious and juvenile. Blathering on as if the United States of America is some sort of nation-state-Messiah leaves no room to consider what the proper course of action might be if we’re “merely” an exceptional nation.