Blogs > Cliopatria > except....

Apr 14, 2006 1:32 pm


Both Oscar Chamberlain and eb have pushed me on my offhand use of the word"exceptional". Which they should have done. But as I said yesterday, I'm writing these posts in between things and you shouldn't expect coherence, oh no. Also, in a book soon appearing, these arguments are laid out with premeditated elegance begot of many drafts by quarrelsome referees, and have passed under the scrutiny of all sorts of argus eyes. Wouldn't you rather read 'em there? Also: illustrations!

But I will nevertheless say the following things.

I think about exceptionalism the same way I do those other -ismsI mentioned yesterday: the many ways it's used makes my head hurt. So I want to define it sensibly and precisely. Let's pretend to be Donald Rumsfeld:

Q: Do I think the U.S. is somehow exempt from the trends governing human history? Providentially guided, say?

A: No. My ancestors exiled people who thought that kind of thing from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whereupon they would be eaten by wolves. At the very least, I would say I have a healthy respect for wolves.

Q: Do I think the drivers of U.S. history are somehow exceptional, as in they are not to be found driving other nations?

A: No. There is nothing categorical you can say about the U.S. story that does not elsewhere apply. Frontiers? Other countries got 'em.

Q: Do I think exceptionalism, if by that term we mean the practice of talking about the U.S. as following a different path from other nations, has good consequences?

A: No. The more we talk about the U.S. as different, let alone exceptional, the more we feed the idea that it ought to be different in these ways, and the further, pernicious idea that if we somehow don't want it to be different, that's un-American. BUT....

... I don't think we should let our squeamishness about that sort of thing prevent us from observing some useful truths.

Specifically, I would say this:

(1) if you can say of the U.S. that it does not, in meaningful ways—let's say, proportion of GDP allocated to (a) total government spending (b) government spending on particular policies—look like other countries;

(2) if you can discern rules that govern the patterns followed by other countries, but not the U.S.;

(3) then you are licensed in describing the U.S. as an exception to the rule, and you might out of curiosity go find the reasons for this exception.

Are all countries, in this sense, exceptions at one time or another? Of course. But even though all countries have their exceptions, and lots of countries have their exceptionalisms (i.e., their ideologies by which they justify and glorify their exceptions),

(1) Just now, and for the last let's say hundred years, the ways in which America has exhibited exceptional behavior have been of dramatic, life-or-death concern to the people of the planet. So this subject demands particular attention.

(2) As a rule, world history tends to disabuse countries of their myths of exceptionalism. As I indicated before, the workings of transnational forces during the recent history of the world have acted to reinforce American myths of exceptionalism in ways that, as I say are of pressing interest to the world's people.

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