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Friday, July 1, 2011


Sometimes, as I wrote my tutorials for this blog, I forget that the readership, however large or small it may be, is international. My overseas readers put up with my quite local commentary on the passing political scene with pretty good humor, I think, but every so often, I say something that really puzzles them, even though it may seem perfectly comprehensible to Americans. My discussion of the American belief that this nation was founded as the embodiment of an Idea is one such example. I imagine Americans are so accustomed to hearing this theme repeated in public speeches, school classrooms, and the media that they find nothing bizarre about it, even if [as I hope] they can be persuaded that it is false. But Marinus' reaction makes it clear that to the rest of the world, the notion may simply be incomprehensibly absurd.

Those of a philosophical bent might think to see the hand of an Idealist Hegelian working here, but that is not the source of the notion. Pretty clearly, its origins are religious. America, in the eyes of early settlers as well as subsequent inhabitants, is identified with The Promised Land of the Old Testament -- a land of milk and honey, promised by God to His chosen people. The secularization of this religious theme becomes the claim that America was founded as the embodiment of the Idea of Liberty.

One tends to forget how strong was the desire, in the early days of the Republic, for a New Beginning in a Virgin Land, unbeholden to the various European nations from which the White early settlers came. Indeed, as my former colleague Marc Shell has shown, at the time of the establishment of the United States, there were debates about what the national language should be. German had its partisans, along with Dutch, and of course English. There was a town that created an entirely new language, in the belief that the citizens of this new country should not even speak a language brought like baggage from the Old World.

To my foreign readers, I can only say: Trust me when I tell you that the alternative story I am going to spell out for you, developed by the new discipline of Afro-American Studies, even though it may strike you as self-evident, is so cognitively dissonant to Americans that it is almost impossible for it to get a sympathetic hearing even in politically progressive quarters. If I argue that America has not yet fulfilled its destiny by successfully embodying the Idea of Liberty in all of its institutions, progressives will nod sadly, while the rest of America will cross itself and mumble about socialism and Shariah Law. But if I say that America never was a country founded as the embodiment of the Idea of Liberty, even the most progressive listeners will recoil, convinced that I am somehow the enemy of progress and the fulfillment of the American dream, for if Freedom is not the essence of the American story, then on what basis can we fight for justice and equality?

"All politics are local," the great Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously observed. Perhaps all ideological delusions also are local.


Marinus said...

It's not that Americans see their country as having a special relationship with some idea that surprises me, though I take your point that perhaps this thought is much deeper ingrained into Americans than you're likely to find elsewhere. I'm mystified about what this relationship is supposed to be, if it's one that no other country is supposed to have. I gave examples of three types of relationships that the American nation might have to such an idea -- as a self-conception, a project or a narrative -- but lots of nations have such a relationship. What's supposed to be unique about the American one? I wouldn't be surprised if nobody could give a clear answer -- perhaps talking about the founding idea of the nation is an example of somethingh said out of piety, words mouthed without knowing what they mean (if anything), but having been invested with great importance nonetheless (exactly the type of talk which inspired Ayer to think of value judgements as emotive, contentless utterances). But the historians you quote are supposed to have a substantive idea of what this relationship is supposed to be. But this is the part that confuses me: what possibly could count as America's unique special relationship to its founding idea?!

Noumena said...

Marinus -

There are several different species of the general American Exceptionalist narrative: religious, expansionary, voluntaristic and anti-traditional, egalitarian, leader-of-the-free-world, and so on, not to mention combinations and conflations. Each of these is going to articulate the exceptionalist claim in radically different terms: in terms of the Kingdom of God on Earth; in terms of the frontier and `empty' continent; in terms of the absence of feudal antecedents; and so on. Some will talk about the exceptional history of America (narratives), some will talk about the exceptional character or institutions of America today (self-conceptions), and some will talk about the exceptional destiny of America (projects).

What makes these diverse claims *exceptionalist* claims is that they come bundled together with at least three further claims:
(1) Only America(ns) *can* realize the narrative in question (or the project, or whatever it is).
(2) America(ns) is (are) therefore essentially better than other nations (or their citizens).
(3) Other nations (or their citizens) also (should) accept (2).

Everyone else is supposed to look at us from down below (or across the Atlantic), in awe at how exceptional and amazing and superior we are. This, I take it, is somewhat unusual among nationalist sentiments: nationalists generally think that their nation is really great, but relatively infrequently think that *everyone else is supposed to think so, too*.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Noumena, nice analysis. I think the religious theme plays an especially important role here, connecting up with elements of the Old Testament [not, interestingly enough, the New, which is much more ecumenical and universalistic.]

imcdpe said...

American exceptionalism is yet another demonstration of the dangers of neglecting the study of history. Empires come and go. This one will eventually disappear as well.