Reader Steve C. recently wrote a very thoughtful comment in response to Who Are You? Who Who, Who Who? on the topic of American exceptionalism. In response, I promised this article, a collection of several lines of thought that have been rattling loosely around in my skull for some time.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed what has come to be called the Turner Thesis, or The Frontier Thesis, at an 1893 meeting of historians in Chicago. Turner suggested that America and Americans are unique among all nations and peoples, because unlike all other nations, we had a west to conquer. Through courage, determination, self-reliance, self-sacrifice, delayed gratification and hard work, Americans forged a national character that required and valued liberty, individualism, mobility, restless energy and optimism. Yet, an understanding of the dangers of the world, and the dangers of the whims of princes, have made Americans generous, accepting and apostles of individual freedom and national sovereignty.
Arguably, some substantial portions of the contemporary American populace seem determined to prove Turner wrong. Reliance on government, relentless pessimism, self-hatred, substituting reliance on self-anointed “experts” for self-reliance, and the substitution of political correctness for individual determinism, courage, honor and common sense seem to be the current way of things.
Can we—Americans—living in a nation where millions of Americans feel the need to apologize for America, as does our President, truly claim to be exceptional, or is American exceptionalism mere propaganda, a state of affairs that has never existed and never will?
We live a linear existence as we move though time, one event, one decision made or not made affecting everything that follows. It is a fascinating diversion, as explored by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, to imagine how life—even the world—would change if significant events, pivotal people–or a nation–did not happen or exist. In Capra’s universe, the absence of one good man, a man who embodied American’s best qualities, cheapened the lives of all and changed everything for the worse.
President Obama, in 2009, would have been happy indeed with a Pottersville world, just as long as he got to play Mr. Potter:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
The backlash against that comment has since caused him to give lip service to the uniquely American character, but as with so many statements emanating from Mr. Obama, there is more than sufficient reason to doubt he is telling the truth. Yet, people continue to vote with their feet. Millions would give anything, do anything, to have the opportunity to become Americans, for even the poor in America are far more fortunate, far more prosperous than the citizens of other nations. They know, even as some Americans would deny it, that class– accidents of birth–matters little or not at all in America.
Before the address, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had accused Obama of not loving his country. The president responded, essentially: I love my country enough to criticize it. To help make it better. To help it adapt to the times so that it will never perish.
This harkens back to 2008 when Mr. Obama frequently called America the greatest country in the world and then roused the rabble by telling adoring crowds they would help him fundamentally transform it. And there is a difference between constructive criticism–Americans do that primarily by fixing thing rather than rhetorical handwringing–and hatred.
In understanding exceptionalism, we must consider the effects of human nature. We often give lip service to the value, the necessity of excellence. We strive–sometimes in actuality–toward excellence, toward being exceptional, but in reality, it frightens us. When we find ourselves in the presence of the exceptional, of the truly excellent, we too often feel threatened. We see in them what we fear we can never be, and we feel diminished, uncomfortable. Their mere presence, their mere existence, somehow reflects poorly on us. This is, of course, backwards. Such people should inspire us to become more than we are.
Think about it: how many human beings are actually, honestly glad to have people far more dedicated, intelligent, attractive, generous, affable and capable working with them? How many actually appreciate and admire such people? How many recognize the actual value of having generally superior human beings working with them? Isn’t that what being exceptional is? Isn’t that excellence?
America is like that. Rather than being glad America exists, too many around the world take her advancements, her largess, her generosity, and sneer and deprecate behind her back, just as we tend to do with the truly exceptional. As a result, the merely competent are now lauded as being exceptional, and the incompetent are good. We see this in grade inflation in our universities, in race baiting, and above all, in all facets of politics.
Without the fact of America’s exceptionalism, the world would be in real trouble–as we are now beginning to understand–but human nature won’t let many people admit it, at least not openly. Privately, the more rational nations and leaders are worried as hell. They should be.
I could spend several thousand words discoursing on the attitudes and acts that make America unquestionably exceptional. I could easily write a book, but I’ll try to keep this at least somewhat concise.
We saved the world twice, three times if one is of a mind to count the Cold War. We have always come to the rescue of individuals and nations, and asked nothing except sufficient space to bury our dead lost in those battles. When there is a massive and destructive disaster, around the world, among the first things survivors see when climbing out of the rubble is the helicopters, sailors and marines of the Navy and Marine Corps. We remain, to the greatest degree that it is humanly possible, a classless society. Though Mr. Obama has labored mightily to impose high walls of race, class and gender to divide us, we still, for the most part, resist it. We are the most generous, prosperous, technologically advanced nation in human history. The world looks to us for computers, fashion (particularly jeans and athletic shoes), movies, music, theater, food, you name it. The elite of the world still send their offspring to America for higher education. And there is no other nation to which so many hope to one day come, because even as we lose our ancient faith in our principles and ourselves, immigrants still believe that only in America can a pauper become a prince. Miraculously, that still occurs every day.
Name the nation or people that can match this. Many disparage America and Americans, but their citizens still long to move to America, and they still gladly accept our foreign aid and all manner of additional American generosity, including protecting their national sovereignty and very lives, which gives them the ability to live in unsustainable social welfare states, though that too is beginning to epically fail.
To truly understand what makes America and Americans exceptional, we must return to the founding, and particularly, Philadelphia in 1787: the Constitutional Convention. I’ll not go into the history of the Convention; that has been well explicated elsewhere and those interested can find not only Internet articles, but innumerable excellent books on the topic.
What is important is what was accomplished, for it not only defined the extraordinary, irreplaceable character of the men that wrote the Constitution, but it reflected, even foretold, the character of Americans. In a very real sense, it was the triumph of altruism, the willingness to sublimate ego and personal advantage to the greater good, a concept that seems impossible for contemporary politicians and our arrogant, poll-driven, self-interested Congress.
Those wishing to understand human nature and its effect on self-government can do little better than reading The Federalist Papers (1786-1800), the debate between those that believed in a strong federal government and those that favored strong and sovereign states. Throughout those essays, we see brilliant men drawing on the past and a clear-eyed view of the foibles of human beings in establishing a political framework that would provide the maximum personal liberty while having a chance to last.
Everything they forecast, all of the dangers and snares they foresaw, we are now caught up in, and what we do in the next several years will, in large part, determine whether the America they designed, that noble experiment to which they pledged the lives, liberty and sacred honor, will endure, or whether we will descend completely into a despotic, cult-of-personality worshipping nation of men, grubbing for whatever they can get for themselves.
What ultimately sets us apart? What makes America exceptional?
Limited Government: Our government draws its powers from the consent of the governed. It is designed to be strictly limited. The more we allow it unlimited power, the greater the danger to the republic’s survival.
The Rule of Law: Though this principle is being sorely tested, we are a nation of laws, not men. It is this principle from which virtually every other right dear to Americans comes. It is the law, fairly and equally applied, that allows us to buy and retain property. It makes possible life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It protects us from the whims of would-be tyrants. It goes a very long way toward making us a classless society. It makes true equality a reality.
The Second Amendment: Although one might categorize this a part of the rule of law, it speaks to a natural, human right that no other nation acknowledges to nearly the degree America does. It is this belief, that men have an unquestionable right to defend and preserve their own lives and the lives of those they love, indeed, even their fellow man, that separates Americans from the citizens of every other nation, that defines us.
Most importantly, it is this belief, put into daily practice, which warns would-be tyrants that Americans have the means and the will to destroy tyranny. This is why some politicians and their followers so hate firearms and those that own them. This is why some politicians will never stop trying to disarm Americans. This is why the peoples and politicians of many nations ridicule Americans for gun ownership, thinking us violent, uncivilized barbarians.
In reality, the ideals of liberty and life preserved by the American discipline of the gun make possible the lesser freedoms enjoyed by others around the world.
Underdogs: Unlike any other nation, we appreciate the underdog; we sympathize with them. But more importantly, we are generally willing to spend our blood and treasure to protect them, and we’ve done it over and over again. This is, in part, why we protect Israel. The other reason is:
The Judeo-Christian Tradition: America is, in every way that matters, a nation founded on Christian principles. It is those principles–and one need not be a professed, believing Christian to hold and act upon most of them–that help to define us. Proof? Note the conditions in nations where Christianity is a matter of lip service, where few, if any profess belief. It is not only appreciation of the underdog or self-interest that causes us to spend huge sums and the blood of patriots to willingly protect others.
It is no accident our democratic experiment continues to endure.
Optimism: One must understand and appreciate the past. Medieval barbarians are now destroying the accomplishments of great civilizations, and we are justly horrified. Yet, it is possible even for a nation, to live in the past, to trade on past accomplishments and glories. That is not America.
Americans are relentlessly optimistic. We believe that a better future, for ourselves and for our children, is always possible, and very often, it is. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that our history extends only a bit more than two centuries, but oh, what we’ve accomplished in that brief time.
Other nations think and speak of the accomplishments of their ancestors, and many were great indeed. Americans think and speak of what we are accomplishing and what we will accomplish.
The Conviction That We Are Exceptional: Americans have always been proud to be American. They recognize that being born American is the greatest stroke of luck, fate or destiny that can befall a human being. American citizenship is not only a blessing, but a responsibility.
It is for this reason so many Americans are enraged by those that demand unlimited immigration in the hope of creating a permanent voting majority. Being an American is rare and special. If the rule of law doesn’t matter, if anyone can, simply by crossing a border, gain most or all of the benefits of being an American while rejecting American values, refusing assimilation, and insulting America and all she is, then those who claim America is nothing special are right, and we will continue to turn America into the nations and people they fled to come here.
How can America be exceptional when we no longer expect immigrants to become Americans, to accept our ancient faith, or even to obey the law?
Without question, we live in perilous times. Our national debt threatens to bankrupt the nation. Our lack of national leadership threatens to engulf the nation in racial strife and the world in war and poverty.
Consider the “leaders” and the policies that have brought us to the brink of disaster, that threaten to turn America into just another social welfare state like most of Europe and Scandinavia. Those nations are, if anything, in worse shape than America. Our billions have supported them, allowed them to spend little or nothing on national defense, and those credit cards were maxed out long ago. Now that our previous guarantees of protection have been revealed to rely on the whim of a weak, vain and fundamentally dishonest man, the world is beginning to wake up. Perhaps it will not be too late.
And if it is not too late, it will be primarily because Americans still believe in our ancient faith, that faith for which the Founders were willing to risk their lives, the faith for which innumerable soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines gave their lives, the faith which swells in every patriotic American’s breast when they behold the flag, pledge allegiance, or sing the national anthem. Does that faith yet live? Will Americans still fight to preserve ideals written on yellowing pieces of paper in the late 1700s?
Isn’t it interesting that the enemies of America, foreign and domestic, labor ceaselessly to destroy the qualities and beliefs I’ve listed here? They strive to diminish individual liberty and to increase governmental power. They ignore the Constitution and try to make America a nation of the whims of powerful men. They do everything they can to disarm the law-abiding while doing nothing to disarm criminals, who are just another constituency to them. They attack our allies, exalt our most deadly enemies, and denigrate Christian/American values. They ruthlessly try to stamp out optimism, trying to convince us that Americans and America are bad, even evil, that our best days are behind us unless we accept their vision of government power and severely limited liberty. America, in their estimation, can never be exceptional, but they are, and only they can save us from ourselves.
We’ll know, before long, who is right: those, domestically and in foreign lands, who would see America decline into nothing more than their failed policies and states, or Americans who believe in each other, in the sacrifices of millions and in our ancient faith. Will we, as we have always done, make a prosperous, civilized world possible, or will the desires of those who think America nothing special plunge the world into a millennium of darkness?