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Aug 21, 2010 11:01 pm

What is "American Exceptionalism"?

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Food for Thought

FOX News

Acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches at Princeton University, has derided the notion that there is a distinctly American idea, one that is distinguishable from the core concepts that have animated Europeans, Scandinavians, and other cultures.

"[T]ravel to any foreign country," Oates wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in November 2007,"and the consensus is: The American idea has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose bodybuilder luridly bulked up on steroids...deranged and myopic, dangerous."...

Andrew Roberts, a British historian and author of the best-selling Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, has endorsed American exceptionalism in his own writings. Asked about Oates's comments, Roberts told Fox News it was evidence of a"psychiatric disorder" among liberal American intellectuals.

"For postmodernists, whereby everything has to be related to something else and nothing is truly exceptional, it's a disgusting concept that America could stand above and away from the normal ruck of history," Roberts said."And of course, it also feeds in very much to Auropean anti-Americanism, especially at this time of the war against terror."

America, Roberts said,"is not like any other country. It wasn't born like other countries. It didn't come to prominence like other countries. It's not holding its imperium like other countries....It probably won't lose its supremacy like other countries. And so in that sense it is completely exceptional."...

Eric Foner of Columbia University, a leading historian of the colonial and Civil War periods -- his The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, due out in October, will be his twenty-second book -- told Fox News he finds some strains of American exceptionalism"parochial" and" chauvinistic."

"It causes problems because it has, at various points in our history, led us to interventions abroad...claiming to bring the benefits of American life to people who sometimes aren't all that anxious to receive it," Foner told Fox News."So it leads to this kind of imperial frame of mind that we know best for everybody, we know that our system is better -- and of course sometimes other people aren't as convinced of that.

"To think about oursleves as exceptional really is a very narrow vision in a world which is becoming more and more globalized every day," Foner added."Throughout our history, many of the processes which have shaped American history -- industrialization, urbanization, things like that -- are not purely national phenomena. And yet we sometimes think that the only way to understand American history is to think about it within the United States...[the pushing Westward of] the frontier, or things that are indigenous to the United States."...

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/22/2010

American Exceptionalism might be better defined as our nation's normally very good luck.

We were lucky that England and France had their hands full fighting each other, plus uprisings in France and Ireland, when we were getting started in the 18th century.

We were lucky George Washington could assemble such an extraordinary team to launch the republic. For that matter, we were lucky he won the war.
And we were especially lucky Hamilton was chosen to organize the Treasury Department, and that Gallatin took it over under Jefferson.

We were lucky John Adams selected John Marshall for Chief Justice just before he left office, and that Marshall served 35 years.

We were lucky when Napoleon needed money badly enough to sell us the Louisiana Purchase.

We were lucky Polk had the presence of mind to snatch California an Oregon in the aftermath of the Mexican War.

We were lucky in our presidents from Lincoln through Wilson, who sustained the "Guilded Age" when our industrial power was built. It was also lucky that Lincoln passed the Homestead Act to settle the fruited plain in a hurry. (Except for Cleveland, a very conservative Democrat, and Andrew Johnson, briefly, these presidents were all Republicans. But the elections of Hayes, Garfield and Benjamin Harrison were as close as could be, and it was just pure blind luck that all three of those men won.)

And so forth, right down to the present day. We were lucky Gen. Petraeus came along and that Bush elevated him. We were extremely lucky George W. Bush prevailed in the election of 2000, which could have gone either way.

(Gore would have prescribed precisely the wrong fiscal medicine after 9-ll).

Now we are very lucky the bloom is off Barack Obama much sooner than might have been expected. At most critical times in our history we have been very lucky, and it is not hard to understand how it is easy to constru this as American "exceptionalism." For years and years we were the world's "Can Do" engineers, builders, inventors and investors. There was such a thing as "American Know-how," admired worldwide. Most of the latter has been stultified now by bad schools bloated government, high taxes, legal extremism and environmental insanity, but it may return when those things are corrected.

ssn699vet - 6/7/2010

Please, seek God's face on the matter. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ will clear the mud from anyones eyes.

james butler - 6/2/2010

"Europe's socialistic governments", I was pacing outside a doctor's office today when I saw a bumper sticker on a Volvo wagon, "Socialist Enemy",it read, with some tea party stuff on the opposite flank. I've seen it there before, my mom has glaucoma I have to drive her everywhere, I imagine the wagon's driver is a medical professional. (Or her mom has glaucoma.)

Smiles and Socialism. America's self-reliant character is praise worthy. "Willing to put others first" is the bedrock of Christianity. I believe in it, and it seems, you do too. Do insurance companies believe in it......?

This is where you and I part company. If you believe in the status quo, insurance company profits before individual smiles, you believe in all-American profiteering. Why shouldn't I live in a 13,000 sq,foot McManse with a servant and three wheels(I've done it). Darwin smiles beneficitly.

Your "unique strongly held individualism" + smiles (I smile a lot, here and over there, and I voted for Nader) implies that Americans lose something when we vote anything other than Republican, Tea Party, Ayn Rand. Without Mr. Govt I wilt in the sun. This is silly. Government should be a tool for the little guy(this smiling citizen) to face the big guy (that corporate entity) fair and square.

Joanne, if you think private corporations are the best that America can do, you believe that Nike, Coke, and BP, put you and me first.

I wholeheartedly believe that America benefits from the power,kindness, and smiles of ordinary citizens. I want our government to recognize the beauty of all our smiles not just those whose grins have been enhanced with $$$$$.

Dale R Streeter - 5/28/2010

I hope you're a better lawyer than you are a historian. Try reading something by a reputable American historian (Bernard Bailyn for a start) instead of Howard Zinn.

Lawyer With HistoryMA - 5/27/2010

It was "the Left" that was responsible for the abolition of slavery. ... an event that the Right greatly regretted then and greatly regrets now.

American Exceptionalism should be viewed as the psychopathological phenomenon that it is, hyperpatriotic and ignorant of those stubborn things we call "historical facts", embraced by the ignorant and terminally insecure.

John K Cotter - 5/27/2010

Now turning from Roberts' silliness to the broader topic . . . A/Ex has the indigenous people that the Europeans found here being "savages," "uncivilized races," and "terrists" . . . who somehow deserved to be killed or at least "removed" (Trail of Tears and its Jacksonian predecessor expulsions, and the later slaughters and removals).

And somehow the fact that slavery was legally protected until finally abolished by constitutional amendment is simply ignored by the RWers (chief exponents of American Exceptionalism). Hint: Contrary to RW beliefs, slavery is morally WRONG.

John K Cotter - 5/27/2010

American Exceptionalism, complete with the Holy Spirit making a personal appearance at the Constitutional Convention, is the ahistorical version of "history" that people of my generation (mid-stream Baby Boomers) grew up with in grammar school and high school. ... no surprise that Faux News clings to this extraordinarily childish, nationalist, religious view of US history. That a RW Brit (and one claiming to be an "historian" !) could be found to parrot this line is not too tough, since what people like Roberts are really doing is validating the BRITISH Empire through the proxy of the US (its successor).

If you bother getting Roberts' garbage pseudo-historical account of the British Empire (it was discounted 80% when I bought it), you find that all those brown people weren't actually "conquered" . . . and they should just be groveling in the dust with their gratitude. Roberts' book is a polemic only, and gives only tertiary attention to stubborn things like "facts".

Typical Faux News, though. And typical Roberts.

William Glade - 5/27/2010

American exceptionalism is broadly defined along three distinct American values. We question the meaning of these values because over the past few generations, Americans have forgotten the values that have made America distinctive and great. Even the "Greatest Generation" failed to communicate them.
They are the American Trinity: "In God we trust," "Liberty" and "E Pluribus Unum." The Left has successfully made war on all three -- substituting secularism for God and religion in as much of American life as possible; substituting equality (of result) for liberty; and multiculturalism is the opposite of "E Pluribus Unum."

james butler - 5/26/2010

We were the city on the hill but that ended not long after the revolution. That was the end of American distinction.

It's no surprise that many of Fox's strongest pro-American voices are Brits, like Roberts. Israel and Britain, our special friends, along with America, like to think of themselves; past, present and future, as civilizing catalysts. We spread democracy and prosperity in our wake.

In fact spread sheets, egos, and hegemony are what passes for American exceptionalism for the past 200 years. America still can't confess to its own original sin against Indians.

Of course any country which empowers individual citizens to the degree that America does without the cultural hurdles that so many other nations present is pretty excellent, but the idea that America is in any way blessed by him is nonsensical if he pays any attention to the past.

Jorge Banner - 5/25/2010

America is exceptional because it is the greatest, most glorious and Free Republic that ever existed and it was created that way.

The fact that Americans have decided to commit moral and political suicide does not deter one bit from the fact that for more than two hundred years America was the brightest star in the firmament of Freedom, sanity and decency.

The Stars and Strips symbolizes Freedom and Capitalism the world over and America is exceptional because no other country can make such a claim.

And if Americans decide to let go of the dream and let America perish, as long as decency breathes within at least one educated individual the American Dream will be the brightest beacon pointing towards Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

And if things come to be that way, when the last progressive worm dies of starvation he will die choking on the knowledge that despite his filthy infectious ideas, America existed and the dream was possible.

Barry Sax - 5/25/2010

I find it sad that some people, apparently not Liberals, chastise those who question the concept of American exceptionalism.
My problem is with the term itself. Are we exceptional just because we say we are, or is it necessary that other people agree that we are ececptional and treat us accordingly?
I too am just back from Europe abd discussed the concept with citizens of Austria,Germany, and the Netherlands. Almost unanimously, I found a favorable impression of the America that has traditionally led by example and effort, beginning with the Marshall after World War II, rather than ideology and boasts of self importance. So, exceptionalism is really in the eyes of those we are trying to impress, and not in those who are simple trying to impress others without putting their money where their mouths are. Obama is at least tentatively viewed positively, but Bush and the Republicana were/are often viewed as incompetent ideologues. If you don't think we should care what others think of us, why do we try to hard to convince them that we are exceptional and deserving of praise and obediemce.

Let's get back to leading by example. We have always done well doing it that way.

Dr. Minor - 5/24/2010

American exceptionalism no longer exists. Relativity killed it years ago. Everything is blue in this world.

Les Reed - 5/24/2010

American Exceptionalism is the modern Manifest Destiny, a mythical rationale to allow us to do whatever we want to do, because we can. It attempts to excuse acts of imperialism by elevating them to something vaguely noble. I'm not buying it.

Sara S. Frear, Ph.D. - 5/24/2010

Americans are unusual, perhaps unique, in our often religiously-rooted idealism, and this quality coexists uncomfortably with our genuine respect for diversity. The former quality can indeed lead to chauvinism, but it can also ennoble and inspire. The latter, at its best, can create a fruitful discourse across cultural boundaries. If we can nurture both values, it will be the best antidote to today's ideological shouting matches.

Joanne - 5/24/2010

On a recent trip to Europe, where we spent time in Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Greece and Turkey, we learned the trick of recognizing Americans on sight...except in Croatia. The secret? Americans often smile when they make eye-contact with others when walking down the sidewalk or boarding a bus. And when someone smiles at them, they almost always smile back. I suggest that the reason for Americans to be so naive as to smile at strangers is based on the very American exceptionalism liberals disown.

I wish I could end with a concise sentence or two that would explain our heritage and how it has effected the American personality. Perhaps one has to begin at the beginning of America's history before the westward migration and take a look at the Bill of Rights to get some understanding of the development of a unique, strongly-held individualism that is willing to put others first. (Compare the volunteer hours and private donations of Americans with other countries.)

Although there's not much for Europeans to smile about lately, I suspect their greater dependence on their governments and less faith in their own abilities contribute to the differences between them and most Americans. Holding on to our "exceptionalism" will not be easy if we continue to mirror Europe's socialistic governments.