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Thursday, June 30, 2011


[The next few paragraphs are excerpted from chapter two of Autobiography of an Ex-White Man]

Freedom is the theme of the story told by these historians surveying the American experience. Their central analytical idea is Exceptionalism, an idea first given expression by Alexis de Tocqueville. Exceptionalism has served as the guiding thread of both scholarly explications and patriotic invocations for more than a century and a half. America, it is said, is the exception to the generalizations of historians, political scientists, and sociologists, to the time-tested laws of historical evolution defining and constraining men and women and nations in the Old World. America is unique. There has never been anywhere like America, and there never will be again.

Unlike all other nations that have ever existed, according to this story, America is founded upon an idea, the Idea of Freedom. There is no Idea that Great Britain embodies, even though the British, in Magna Carta, in their Common Law, and in their Parliament, have created traditions of liberty. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité was the great war cry of the French Revolution, but France itself was not founded on these ideals. Rome, Russia, China, Italy -- none is the actual embodiment of an Idea consciously embraced by a noble band of Founding Fathers. Even ancient Greece, celebrated among Western intellectuals as the birthplace of democracy, loses its origins in the mists of legend. Only America, or so the story goes, actually embodies an Idea.

Thus, everything that happens in America is to be measured and understood in relation to that Idea. When we Americans succeed in making actual some degree of liberty, then we are fulfilling our founding Idea. When we fail for a time to accord that liberty to everyone, then we must understand ourselves as having not yet completely realized our Idea. Because an Idea lies at the heart of the American Experiment, America promises what no other nation can -- the achievement of an ideal society that can serve as a model and a hope for all humanity. It is in this vein that John Winthrop wrote in 1630, while still on the Atlantic aboard the Arabella: For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

America is the Great Exception in other ways as well, the historians tell us. Alone among all the great nations of the world, America was established in an empty land, a land without the constrictions and constraints of immemorial custom. Save for those few savages so easily displaced or eliminated, the New World stood waiting for the Colonists exactly as God had created it. For just this one time in human history, a community of men and women found themselves in a true state of nature, able to build a republic of liberty and equality that bid fair to realize their cherished ideals. Thanks to the bountifulness of Providence and the vast emptiness of the North American continent, this availability of untouched land continued to define the American experience well into the nineteenth century. First the fertile Atlantic coastline, then the forests inland, then the great Western plains, and finally the lush valleys beyond the Rocky Mountains stood waiting for brave, adventuresome settlers ready to build a nation by the sweat of their brows.

And finally, because America was "started from scratch," as Bailey says, it had no hereditary rulers, no class system, no lords and peasants, no First, Second, and Third Estates. From the outset, American society has been a society of equals, free of the inherited resentments and badges of inferiority that divided the nations of the Old World. No American has been forced to bend his knee or doff his cap to the lord of the manor. Any American, no matter how modest his background or poor his beginnings, can aspire to land, to wealth, and to independence if he is willing to work hard, to save, and to seize the opportunities offered by the New World.

This celebratory self-congratulation is not merely the stuff of political speeches and Fourth of July oratory. It was, until very recently, the considered judgment of serious scholars, honored in the Academy and inscribed in the professional monographs on which generations of secondary and college textbooks drew for their account of the American story. But heart-warming as this story is, at least if you have not the misfortune to be a Native American or the descendant of a slave, it is simply not true.

Let me be clear about what I am asserting, because the truly revolutionary thrust of Afro-American Studies can be lost through misunderstanding. The traditional story is partial, to be sure, in its slighting of the doings of women, of working-class people, of Native Americans, and of people of color. But that failing can easily be rectified, if one is willing to add some pages to one's narrative. A quick look at the most recent edition of Bailey's text is suggestive. The franchise is now managed by two extremely distinguished professional historians: Lizabeth Cohen, the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard and David M. Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History at Stanford. In an effort to be unimpeachably inclusive, these authors have expanded the text to 1248 pages. The book [which surely no student is actually expected to read all the way through] begins not with the arrival of the pilgrims or even with Columbus' voyage of exploration, but with a chapter entitled "New World Beginnings: 33,000 B.C.E. - 1769 C.E." Everyone, including the mastodons now extinct, will get at least a passing mention!

If lack of inclusiveness were the central problem, then in an age more sensitive to the feelings of subaltern populations [as it has now become fashionable to say] the difficulty could be rectified by textbook chapters, courses, or entire programs devoted to the Black experience, the Native American experience, the Latino/a experience, the Woman's experience, the Asian-American experience, the LGBT experience, and even the German-American, Polish-American, Italian-American, Swedish-American, and Hmong-American experience. If budgetary constraints preclude the creation of a separate administrative unit devoted to the study of each of these fractions of the American experience, then as a compromise a Department of Ethnic Studies can be brought into existence, with care taken not to recreate in Academia the experience of ghettoization.

But the story told by our historians upon a hill is not incomplete. It is wrong, through and through. America is not exceptional. It was not founded to be the embodiment of an Idea. And it is not Liberty but a complex, dare I say dialectical, relationship between bound labor and free labor that has defined America's nature from the seventeenth century to the present day. These are provocative claims, to be sure, and they will require a good deal of explanation and defense. The mission of Afro-American Studies, since it burst upon the academic scene in the nineteen-sixties, has been to expose these myths and set the record straight. That is why, during its entire half century career, it has been a site of struggle within the Academy, in a way that Diasporic Studies, Cultural Studies, and Africana Studies have not been.

Tomorrow, we shall begin to explore these claims.


Marinus said...

As a foreigner, I never cease to be amazed by the beliefs Americans sometimes seem to hold about their nation embodying a particular idea. Exceptionalism is commonplace - omni-present, even, given how willing people are to believe that there is something special about them (something which should give people who flirt with exceptionalism reason to pause). But the idea that America is something like a city on the hill, the embodiment of an idea, it strikes me as simply and stupidly bizarre. Do people actually believe such a thing, or is it something said in piety without having real influence in their lives? Could anybody really be that stupid, being both so self-absorbed and simultaneously lack self-awareness to such an extent? I genuinely wonder how this belief is supposed to show itself, and whether anybody except the tragically fanatic actually believes it.

Marinus said...

Maybe I should try to be a little clearer, though the claim that any nation could be the embodiment of an idea is so strange and ethereal that it genuinely confuses me. I understand the people of a nation having a certain self-conception of what it means to be a member of that nation -- almost everybody has that. I understand what it is to have a national project -- America's 'manifest destiny' is a nice example, as is most every revolution you can think of (the Glorious, French and October revolutions all are examples with world-wide impact). I understand what it is to have a national narrative, which might be reducible to a self-conception and a project (or a history of such things) and maybe is something more. But most every nation on earth has all of these things. And you can't throw a dart at a map without hitting somewhere where there are people who believe that their conception, project, narrative or whatever is privileged in some important way. But the claim being made here is that America has some special relationship to an idea which no other nation has or has had. What could this relation possibly be, given it isn't a self-conception, project or narrative, and how could anybody possibly believe that except out of the profoundest ignorance? Why doesn't Switzerland count with its tradition of solidarity and independence which it was founded on and has never deviated from for more than 500 years? Or Taiwan as the haven of Chinese free enterprise (which, like America, came into existence by pushing aside the original inhabitants and studiously ignoring them)? Israel as a Zionist project? Or any of the other expansions into open territory spurred by some wide-ranging motivation, like the Boer Republics founded as expressions of self-reliance? How could somebody believe the American project is special except out of the basest ignorance? I'm genuinely confused.

Mikey said...

I'm somewhat surprised at your amazement and confusion. It seems uncontroversial to me that 1) Nations have national myths (or narratives as you put it) and 2) citizens of those nations often believe in those myths, that is, their nations' myths to the exclusion of others. You seem somewhat aware of this phenomena, indeed, some of the examples you cite are ones I might well use otherwise unprompted.

I doubt I would have much difficulty finding people who believe in British exceptionalism in England, French exceptionalism in France, Russian exceptionalism in Russia, Afrikaner exceptionalism in South Africa, and so on and on, each with their own particular set of stories and national myths, who may well be aware of the national narratives of other countries but could hardly care less.

I mean, is it really your contention that Zionists factor in American exceptionalism in their beliefs about Isreal? Really?

You mentioned the English (Glorious), American, French, and Russian Revolutions more or less together, and seem to consider them as constituting a single project, so I imagine you believe in an entirely different, though less nationalistic, narrative. Other people, often the residents of those countries, see and use those events in entirely different ways. That is, as I understand it so far, part of Prof. Wolff's point in this tutorial.

The history of the 20th century, and not just the 20th c., is in no small part the story of the horrible consequences of the deeply held belief in the exclusive exceptionalism of several different countries.

Not to put too fine a point on it, 60 years ago, your amazement would have been hopelessly naive.

With the Swiss ban on minarets; the French ban on the burka; the now all too common cry that "Multiculturalism has failed" by European leaders; and soccer, excuse me, football hooliganism; to say nothing about the most recent and current election cycles in the USA; just on the tip of the iceberg, I imagine such confusion is barely understandable now. I fear that within our lifetimes it will be every bit as naive as it was 60 years ago.

Marinus said...

Mikey, what I'm amazed at isn't that Americans see themselves has having some national self-conception, project or narrative, or that they think theirs is special in some way. Those are very common beliefs, indexed to whatever nation the believer happens to belong to. What amazes me is the idea that only Americans have a certain special relationship to the idea. How could anybody believe that except, to not put too fine a point on it, by having their heads up their ass?

Mikey said...

Marinus: What amazes me is the idea that only Americans have a certain special relationship to the idea.

Only that's not exactly what Prof. Wolff claimed Americans believe, is it?

Unlike all other nations that have ever existed, according to this story, America is founded upon an idea, the Idea of Freedom.

Emphasis mine.

I don't imagine anyone is going to claim that the Glorious or French Revolutions actually founded those nations.

The Russian Revolution, as you might imagine, has a few things going against it for Americans. Besides simple anti-Communism, it is both too recent and too far past to affect the story Prof. Wolff is telling: the story America's special founding was already well established by the fall of the Czars, and it's too long ago for most Americans to factor. Plus, recent events have made it somewhat less important.

For that matter, the Russian Revolution is being re-purposed, by Russians, as part of a nationalistic rather than ideological story. Heck, Papa Stalin started such himself in WWII, during the Battle of Stalingrad.

I could come up with reasons why every individual nation isn't included in this special relationship with freedom if you like, but I'm not actually arguing that Americans are anything like correct. I'm just saying that 1) we're not as obviously incorrect as you seem to think and 2) there's a lot of fairly sophisticated question-begging involved in maintaining this belief. As is part of Prof. Wolff's larger point, I believe.