Exceptionalism

Posted: October 29, 2012 in Uncategorized
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It’s been a while since I have heard the word, then the phrase: Exceptionalism, American Exceptionalism. Politically speaking, the revival of that language comes from the direction of the Neo-Cons, a reclamation of an old idea.

At first hearing, I paused to comprehend the rhetorical meaning. What exactly are they saying? That is exactly the question I would like to pose to the next person who uses that phrase: “Would you please define American Exceptionalism for me, specifically?” People are afraid to ask that, I think, as though they may be seen as unpatriotic. Challenge the idea of American Exceptionalism, whatever it is? Such questions sound treasonous.

In its simple meaning the phrase is used to describe just how different, unique, and yes exceptional our country actually is. In the best sense, it captures a sense of positive pride. These things we value, appreciate and find, yes, exceptional among the nations. That doesn’t seem so bad. For the tribe, it fosters pride of belonging, safety and hope.

But that is neither the only meaning nor the only way it is employed. It also harkens back to an early religious interpretation, one grounded in Calvinism, “manifest destiny.” Plainly put, the providence of God has determined the exceptional domination of a continent by an exceptional people. It’s ours because God made it so. It is God’s will.

Such a sense of God’s providence and a people’s destiny makes them bold. But boldness, turned ninety degrees, may become invasion, domination, possession, genocide, and slavery. For those who believe it is their destiny the outcome is prosperity. The ones who were trampled on the way to it, however, are the vanquished, owned, controlled.

And that is the dark side of the idea of Manifest Destiny, and yes, American Exceptionalism. They become mottos that authorize whatever benefits those who claim them. Why should we, can we do that? Because we are exceptional. Because God provides it for us, not others. Because we are just that much better and, yes, even morally superior.

No wonder that self-description is so resented around the rest of the world. It leads to invasion, colonization, exploitation. All under the banner of the good. How else could we be, but good? Exceptional.

The recent movie, Argo, provides a historically accurate representation of the deposition of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the revolutionary Islamic movement. The American embassy is stormed and its personnel taken and held captive for more than a year.  The story focuses on the six Americans who escaped and were sheltered by Canadians until they fled the country in a spellbinding way.

The simple introduction to the film was very effective. It chronicled the way that the centuries old reign of the Shahs, a series of kings, was replaced by a democratically elected leader – who nationalized Iran’s assets – especially oil – so that its benefits did not drain off to international concerns. This was not acceptable, and a coup was precipitated, one that in no little measure was aided and abetted by the intelligence services of the United States. The Shah of Iran was put into power – a regime friendly to Western concerns. And we kept him in place, he and his brutal police state, living opulently while the masses starved. When the revolution came, and it did with fury, the Shah went and so did American influence.

Terrible things took place as a result of that revolution. The terror and violence and Islamic totalitarianism strangled as much as liberated. But it is only one blinded by their own exceptionalism who cannot see that our actions, the decisions and actions that propped up the Shah in the first place, directly led to later consequences, including the explosiveness of the revolution and the American hostage crisis.

That’s the worst that American Exceptionalism can engender. Of course, it can also engender the best impulses, the most benevolent, what we want portrayed in war zones – helping kids with supplies out of the back of military vehicles and rebuilding schools. That, however, is not the primary picture war or conquest presents. Quite to the contrary.

Perhaps the best way is not to claim American Exceptionalism as a kind of backstage pass that authorizes one to do anything and everything under the banner of freedom, another term bandied about; we are free to do anything we like because we are, after all, exceptional. Wouldn’t the high road demand proving that we are exceptional – in character, love, justice, beneficence? Show me you are exceptional. But don’t claim it as a native, endowed right. Because if you do, I may be your next collateral damage.

So the next time someone tosses off the phrase, American Exceptionalism, in a cavalier, knowing, confident way, ask them what they mean by that. Of course, they may have no idea because it’s just a phrase they are parroting. But they may actually mean something by it. Find out what it is. Because American Exceptionalism can be the stuff of angels or demons.

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