Why the Fear of American Exceptionalism?


Talk of American exceptionalism  enrages some liberals.

For example, it drove Oliver Stone and American University professor Peter  Kuznick to pen a USA Today commentary  saying Washington should have a wall with “the names of all the Vietnamese,  Cambodians, Laotians, and others who died [in the Vietnam War].” That, they  said, would be “a fitting memorial to all the victims of ‘American  exceptionalism’  a perfect tombstone for that most dangerous of American  myths.”

New America Foundation’s Michael Lind, in a 2011 piece titled “The Case  Against ‘American Exceptionalism,’” dismissed the idea as “amusing, if it were not so dangerous.” American“exceptionalists,” he argued, are know-nothing boastful boobs “not allowed to  peep beyond [their] borders, to learn from the successes and mistakes of people  in other countries.” They “thump” The Federalist Papers as if it were the Bible,  trying to “deduce what Hamilton, Madison and Jay might have said about physician  reimbursement rates.”

Oh my. Stuff that straw man before you knock it down, Mr.  Lind.

Mr. Lind and Mr.  Stone miss the point completely. American exceptionalism is not about  nostalgic yahoos railing against “furriners.” Thomas  Jefferson staunchly believed that Americans had an exceptional destiny. His  entire worldview was informed by European philosophy. He took ideas from Swiss  natural law philosopher Emmerich de Vattel to write the Declaration of  Independence, and he was a great admirer of the French philosopher Voltaire.  Is Jefferson a know-nothing rube for  believing in American  exceptionalism?

Those who believe in American  exceptionalism don’t reject foreigners. They recognize what’s unique about our  history: a distinctive confluence of culture, government and economy, and an  ethos of personal responsibility that tamed the economy’s wild horses and  tempered the potentially anarchic tendencies of free people. These, not  government action, gave rise to the wealthiest and most powerful nation on  earth.

Some may think this country is better than others, but that’s not the central  claim of American exceptionalism.  It’s that our differences, especially from Europe, account for our  successes.

Each time an immigrant comes here to live the American  dream, it confirms this truth. Immigrants believe America is positively  different from countries they left behind, even if American  intellectuals don’t.

It also is confirmed by the unique role America has played since World War  II. It carried most of the military burden for the alliance of free nations that  contained the Soviet Union. Our allies trusted America because they knew it was  different from other powers victorious in war: It was a liberator, not a  conqueror.

If that’s not an exceptional story, I don’t know what is.

Were these just the feverish imaginings of a few intellectuals, there would  be no need to worry. But the campaign against traditional Americanism has  entered the ranks of the U.S. military. The journal Military Review recently ran  an article by three retired senior military officers calling the idea of American exceptionalism racist. They  likened it to the “psychological processes” of anti-Semitism, for good  measure.

What accounts for this venom? Progressives have been waging intellectual war  on American constitutionalism for  more than a century. Woodrow Wilson preferred German philosopher Georg Wilhelm  Friedrich Hegel, who inspired Karl Marx, to Jefferson and Madison. In this respect,  there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s also a bit of projecting their own  arrogance onto their opponents.

But a deeper anxiety is at play. Despite attempts to blame every problem on  the tea party, American liberals  sense something’s not quite right with their project. The welfare state in  Europe is failing. And while they are winning many elections in America, the  nation’s skyrocketing debt doesn’t bode well. At some point, the party of  spending ever more money to cover the cascading crises will end.

When that day comes, Americans will turn the other way. For intellectuals  steeped in self-hatred of America, this is a frightening prospect. It means not  only conceding the argument. Even more painfully, it means acknowledging that  the rubes may be smarter than they think.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times

Source material can be found at this site.

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