It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.
In the nearly two weeks since Vladimir Putin penned those words in an editorial advising America against taking military action in Syria, which was published by the New York Times on September 11, 2013, American opinion columnists have fallen all over themselves to answer the question of whether America is exceptional. Any guess as to their answer? Amazingly, viewed from every imaginable political perspective, America really is exceptional, or is according to American opinion columnists writing columns for Americans. Whodda thunk?
Robert J Samuelson, writing for the Washington Post, explains that American history is exceptional, while recognizing that, at least according to surveys, no more Americans today believe their culture to be innately superior to others than Germans and Spaniards believe theirs to be. How exactly a nation’s exceptionalism can be delimited or not according to surveys of what the people within the culture think about the culture is beyond me. Members of a group are not often the best judges of the group’s character, and are particularly biased when their group is being compared to other groups, but nobody ever said that logic necessarily constrained the views of opinion columnists.
The Wall Street Journal didn’t send out any particular journalist or writer to declaim Putin’s error, as the idea of American Exceptionalism is basically de rigueur for the Journal’s editorial pages. The Journal’s Review and Outlook column, the collective work of the editorial staff, is basically a manifesto of American Exceptionalism.
Not so the New York Times, perhaps explaining in some measure why it agreed to allow Putin, the sly Machiavellian, to work his diplomatic magic through allowing him space on its editorial page. Charles M Blow wrote a column in August 2011 titled Decline of American Exceptionalism where he obviously presumed America exceptionalism as he spilled ink bemoaning its decline. Just after running Putin’s article, the Times posed a question to its opinion blog asking whether belief in American exceptionalism helps or hurts the US, particularly in the conduct of its affairs internationally. Of the four think-tank, intelligentsia-type guests specifically invited to debate the question, none questioned the existence of American exceptionalism and only one questioned its value. The New York Times represents the most deeply Romantic strain of US journalism, so it is no surprise that it recognizes the existence and virtue of American exceptionalism in the past, but like a Confederate colonel might wistfully have remembered his antebellum greatness years after its loss in the war, pines for this bygone era when America really was exceptional.
And then of course there’s Bloomberg. Just yesterday (September, 23,2013), Cass Sunstein, a former White House official and now Harvard Law professor, dug up the Federalist papers to claim America’s idea of its exceptional self has roots in its founding, as the founders all seemed to believe in uniqueness of the American project in the annals of history, which is all well and good, but what person founding a new country, business, church, etc., would not necessarily believe in its exceptionalism at its inception? Does anyone found a huge and risky new venture with the idea that it starts with mediocrity, dreaming that it might live up to it?
But none of these news outlets answered the question pregnant in Putin’s assertion: Whether or not a belief in exceptionalism is a good thing or bad, preferring instead to answer whether America itself is exceptional or not, perfectly illustrating an instance where she is not. A truly exceptional polity would have stopped to reason and consider whether belief in one’s exceptionalism is bad, before attempting to explain whether or not such a designation applied to them.
Is it dangerous to encourage people to believe in their culture’s exceptionalism? History is fraught with examples of nefarious outcomes when a people are told, and internalize, the idea of their culture’s exceptionalism. The Third Reich in Germany quickly comes to mind. As do the ancient Hebrews, who were told their people were chosen by God to possess Canaan. The Jews during Hitler’s reign and the Canaanites during Joshua’s would probably point to their antagonists’ belief in their cultural exceptionalism as the latent cause of the carnage to which they were subjected.
It may well be that some cultures do good by believing themselves exceptional, but Putin’s observation seems correct; that it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. Once a people have been convinced of their exceptionality, the ordinary bar to collective idiocy has been greatly diminished. All an exceptionalism-believing people need after internalizing the belief is to suffer the leadership of a particularly crafty and selfish leader capable of exploiting their beliefs. When they believe the ordinary rules of behavior no longer apply to them, their only constraint in their exercise of power is the ability of other peoples to oppose them. Thus the idea of exceptionalism is exactly as Putin observes as applied to America, quite a dangerous thing in this mainly unipolar world. With Putin’s observation more or less affirmed as correct, particularly as it applies to America, the question of America’s exceptionalism remains.
American Exceptionalism could be considered a successor to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the notion held during the colonization and settlement of America that it was ordained by God that the European races should subjugate and conquer the whole of the North American continent. Manifest Destiny propelled the young nation forward in its settlement and exploitation of the continent’s bounty of resources, but it also served as an excuse to strip the native inhabitants of their possessions and lives. Perhaps the God of the Europeans ordained that they should rule this land. It is doubtful that the God of the Iroquois, Creek, Seminole, Apache, etc., agreed. But of course, since the Europeans ultimately prevailed, their God must have been correct. And America must thereby be exceptional, or so plays the idea in the heads of the people who today claim to be North America’s native population (i.e., Americans of European ancestry).
More noxiously, the idea of American Exceptionalism yields to the notion that this time is different. In a physical sense, it is true that every moment of time is exceptional in that it represents a unique configuration of matter and energy. But in a larger sense, in a world governed by the same eternal forces that outlast temporal human lives and civilizations, every time is the same. The sun, the sky, the earth and the moon keep cycling, taking no note of the puny activity of humans.
Was America exceptional at its founding? In some respects, yes, in that it represented a rare chance to write the covenant between a government and its people afresh, without the necessity of rooting out vested interests, which were latent on the continent from which it sprang, and whose only source of power was the accretion of their years. But it only took a short while for the vested interests to take root in the verdant soil of the American continent, and for the same ossification of power and wealth to obtain here as was always found elsewhere. America may have been founded on exceptional ideas—ideas culled and forged in the crucible of ten thousand years of human civilization—but even at its inception, it only gave the ideas lip service. When the new country proclaimed that all men were created equal, it meant, if meanings can only be truthfully ascertained by actions rather than words, that all pale-skinned men of European ancestry were created equal. America’s founders considered that the status of equal creation did not apply to the indigenous and slave populations in their midst. And even until today, it treats similarly situated people differently, based on the color of their skin or on their ancestry (affirmative action). There is nothing at all exceptional about this sort of bigotry in the annals of history.
But is America exceptional among the universe of empire, past and present? Can America do as she wills because things are different for empire this time, or because her empire is substantially different? Will America be the one empire that escapes oblivion? That would be a hard argument to make. The Romans, and the Greeks before them, and before them, the tiny Minoan Empire on the island of Crete that lasted some 2000 years; and the Mongol and Byzantine Empires after them, undoubtedly believed their empires timeless; that things were different for them. Or, perhaps not afflicted with the particular sort of hubris that seems unique (exceptional?) to Americans, maybe some of their wiser leaders well understood they would not last forever. There is something about the layering of technological advance accompanying empire in the modern era that seems to afflict its denizens with a belief that things are finally, conclusively different this time. But no matter what sort of technological advance obtains, human beings are substantially unchanged, unable to keep up genetically with the environments of their own technological devise. The same rules governing the life cycle of organisms and organization remains, and fells each individual human and each empire in turn. There is no reason to suspect the rules have been suspended for America. The life cycle of empire, which can be short or quite long, runs the same course. The youthful struggle for ascendancy that yields success breeds a mature complacency that eventually yields sclerosis, demise, defeat and failure. At best, the legacy of the empire’s greatness can survive if, like a fossil deposited in alluvial sands, the shell of its former self survives.
Particular things are always different, as the march of time means every moment represents a unique configuration of space. But the forces governing each particular moment do not change. In the short span of humanity’s existence, the forces to which man and the universe are subject have had insufficient time to yield anything substantially different in the human configuration. There is no reason to believe America’s empire is destined for eternity. If the lessons of history are any guide, it will one day fail like all the rest.
It takes a dispassionate, objective perspective to evaluate and understand history, and some measure of historical understanding is necessary to evaluating whether America’s empire is exceptional. But a people who believe that their empire is exceptional; that this time, things really are different, have no use for history. If plowing every furrow tills new soil, then nothing known of the old soil can be reliably applied to inform the new endeavor. History doesn’t matter. America’s leaders promote belief in America’s exceptionalism, hoping that belief yields a wholesale ignorance of history in the polity, making their exploitation and manipulation that much easier, while at the same time rather conclusively, if unwittingly, proving the ordinariness of America in the annals of history.
People have always been implored by their leaders and fellows to believe in the unique superiority, i.e., exceptionality, of the group to which they belong, and the implorations have always been warmly received. It is a principle of biology that like favors like. If a lion were asked which was the fiercest predator in Africa, he would undeniably answer it was lions; that hyenas made him laugh but little else, and that cheetahs, leopards and such are only faintly comparable to the feline greatness of lions. If he was further asked which lion pride was the greatest in all of Africa, he would undeniably answer his. Belief in the superiority of one’s group, i.e., in its exceptionality, is innate. Only humans have the capacity to reason through their instincts, and understand that what their emotional impulses tell them to believe is not necessarily and always true, explaining why political and social leaders would prefer that people remain ignorant and as beholden to emotional impulse as a lion stalking a wildebeest. Alone among animals, human reason can trump human instinct and it is human instinct that is so easily manipulated by political and social leaders.
Casting aside all biases, trying to peer through the veneer of self-interest that colors our every perception, the inescapable answer to the question of whether America is exceptional in the annals of human affairs is no. It is just the latest and greatest extant empire. It too shall pass. But you won’t hear as much from any political or social leaders, nor even from the scribes paid to evaluate their actions, so powerful is the instinct to believe in the superiority of one’s group that even those tasked with evaluating its exceptionality fail to see beyond their innate bias.