Exceptionalism

Author: Gary Hart

From time to time Americans discuss our “exceptionalism”.  Aside from annoying our friends and allies, and confusing everyone else, there is nothing destructive in this discussion.  It all depends on what we mean when we think of being exceptional.

Some think it means being better than others, both as people and as a nation.  The obvious danger in this is that it leads us to believe our actions, even wrong ones, are justified by this exceptionalism.  But the definition of “exceptional” is instructive.  In addition to meaning remarkable or exceptionally good, it also means abnormal, odd, anomalous, peculiar, aberrant, and deviant.  So, care should be taken when tossing a word like “exceptional” around.

Though not an “America right or wrong” exceptionalist, it seems to me we are different.  But our difference from others should make us humble not proud or arrogant.  Because our difference rests in our founding principles, ideals, and beliefs.  They are embodied in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.  These principles spring from deep religious beliefs, from enlightenment ideals, and from centuries of progressive civilization.  They arise from the very reasons our nation was created in the first place.

These principles are universal, catholic, and undying.  They are the ultimate in human aspirations.  But, the reason for us to be humble is that we do not always live up to them.  The people of the world judge us always by the degree to which we live and embody these principles and ideals on a daily basis in dealing with each other and with them.  We are considered exceptional and admirable when we live according to our very highest principles.  We are considered hypocrites when we do not.

Our Founders knew very well what they were doing.  They created a nation whose ideals and aspirations were unique in world history.  They hoped those who followed would behave accordingly.  They knew that if we, their heirs, did not, we would be just like every other society and nation in history–without exception.

10 Responses to “Exceptionalism”

  1. Trevor Burrowes Says:

    Many thanks for this and other posts on HP. I enjoy reading them and can’t think of one that I wouldn’t endorse in its entirety. I was particularly struck with “Everyting is Related.” When will we evolve to systems-based governance?

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Some additional thoughts on this topice –http://neils3ds.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html

  3. GTommy Says:

    You, sir, have articulated what I have been trying to say for quite some time regarding how certain words can induce near stupefying pride and/or devotion to a concept or idea.

    Great for rallying behind a cause. Good for bringing people together, and having a ‘family-fying’ effect. But somehow these same phrases or other strings of words can also be non-conducive to open-mindedness and the “reasoning with the American people” that some politicians like to demand of other politicians, yet fail to do themselves.

    George Carlin had a bit about this topic in his final HBO special , It’s Bad For Ya, about overly-symbolic and overly-sentimental phrases. I recommend it, as it makes you think more than it makes you laugh, as per much of his work.

  4. Bouldergeist Says:

    Senator Hart:

    I would emend your statement by observing that we are so far from our ideals that we no longer justify harboring such conceit. Frankly — and I hold you personally responsible for a lot of it — we have become more like Suharto’s Indonesia than the beacon of liberty we pretend to be.

    The death of our Republic was predicted by Jefferson; the fatal infection was inflicted by Justice Chase in United States v. Callender, 25 F.Cas. 239 (D.Va. 1800). Specifically, he decided that only judges were qualified to interpret the Constitution, extinguishing the understanding in Georgia v. Brailsford, 3 U.S. 1, 3 (1794), that jurors were final arbiters of both law and fact in civil and criminal actions. Pursuant to that unconstitutional power-grab, federal judges have appointed themselves absolute dictators — in Justice Kagan’s words, “Platonic Guardians” — dispensing a personal brand of ad hoc, ex post facto justice under the guise of interpreting the law. This is “flagrant perversion of the judicial power,” Heiner v. Donnan, 285 U.S. 312, 331 (1932), constituting open “war against the Constitution.” Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1, 18 (1958).

    Our judiciary has done what judges invariably do when given the opportunity: They rewrote the law to serve their interests, as opposed to interpreting it without fear or favor. They granted broad immunities to both the government and themselves, extinguishing the ancient practice of private prosecution so that self-confessed war criminals like George W. Bush could flout “the law” with impunity. While whistle-blowers like Thomas Tamm and Julian Assange are hounded mercilessly, criminals in government service are given medals.

    Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”), 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (entered into force March 23, 1976) (ratified by the United States Sept. 8, 1992) abolished sovereign immunity, in requiring that signatory States must provide an effective remedy for rights violations committed by persons acting in an official capacity. In the Commmonwealth and EU, the ICCPR is law. In America … well, we are more like the Soviet Union than a civilized country: We only *SIGN* major human rights treaties, as opposed to adopting them.

    We live in a regime — a budding police-state, where the government can read our mail, listen to our telephone conversations, and lo-jack our cars. Our plutocrats have stolen the majority of our national wealth, and bankrupted the public commons. What is there really lefr for me to brag about when I am in Brisbane or Berne?

    It has to be said. The Bush family crime syndicate looted Silverado, and both Neil and George W. would have taken their rightful place in prison, had you not displayed an astounding lack of judgment in the 1988 presidential campaign. Sad but true, and we both know it.

  5. Sid Schwab Says:

    By coincidence, I posted about this on my own blog, this morning:

    http://sidschwab.blogspot.com/2010/01/exception-that-proves.html

    Or, if this site is HTML enabled, the link is here.

  6. L W Barron Says:

    Liberals — I proudly include myself in that group — can get upset at the appeal of “joe six-pack,” Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and the rest of the dishonest Faux News people but we have an additional obligation to win honestly the battle for hearts and minds. We can’t write off a big chunk of the American electorate as too lazy, or to poorly-informed. Liberal ideas or if you like progressive ideas are in the entire country’s best interest. It is our liberal, big hearted, progressive ideas that make us exceptional. It is our fearful, petty, small-minded, ignorant of the rest of the world, “I have what I want” mentality that makes it exceptionally easy to hate the US. Obama, Biden and the liberals reflect the best of America. Sarah Palin and her ilk reflect the exceptionally worst of America. We need to win the battle for ideas because our ideas are the better ideas.

  7. Michael Says:

    At a time when the US government is a freak show of incompetence and corruption, any talk of Exceptionalism in terms other than the most rank is delusional. True, we are not like every other society or nation on earth. Many other are actually living up to the ideals of our Founders.

  8. Jim Engelking Says:

    Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the USA has the power to become exceptional, rather than that it is so. The exercise of that power in the pursuit of that ideal objective requires much of each of us as citizens. We, each of us, have the power, as Howard Dean tried to remind us in 2004. We are all Americans, as Barack Obama tried to remind us later that year.

    It is up to each of us to work together to try to make this a more perfect union. Our collective failure to make or to keep America exceptional is a result of our individual failure to see each other as our brother or sister in our republic. But we retain the power to do so by the very nature of the government we have established.

    Are we up to the task? Are we willing to educate ourselves, to involve ourselves in civil society, to try to keep improving it? Or in the recent comments of Ed Rendell, have we become a nation of “wusses?”

    I believe that we as Americans continue to live in a post-Cold War funk. The walls came down all over Europe, and we lost a unifying national objective. We began to fight with each other, and it has not stopped but gotten worse. Minor political figures feel emboldened to yell out “You Lie” in the House Chamber, and no one imposes a sanction. Hundreds of “radio talkers” and TV talking heads” compete to make the most outrageous claims about others, all in the pursuit of ratings which raise the costs of selling soap on the networks of competing corporations. And we citizens do not demand civility, but choose one side of the phony battlement or the other.

    So now what? The John Roberts Five have declared corporations to be people, foreigners to be citizens, and we allow it at our peril, at the peril of our republic. The situation has existed for one year, and no one has done anything to challenge it, to rectify it. No one has exercised the power to keep America “exceptional” in the world. The failure to keep it, as Ben Franklin would remind us, is all on us, each of us.

  9. Pat Boice Says:

    “Mr. Bouldergeist” above seems to hold Sen. Hart responsible for poor judgement back in 1988, but whatever poor judgement was exhibited 22 years ago is way overshadowed by all the good judgement exhibited since then – including the blog by Senator Hart here on this site! Our country has gone downhill in the past decade especially and today exhibits the negative interpretation of the word “exceptional”. We must come together and work for the good of this country, not for the good of the party!

  10. What is American Exceptionalism? « Machimon Says:

    […] Gary Hart’s Blog, http://www.mattersofprinciple.com/?p=596 […]

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