Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is There an American Exceptionalism?

 “American Exceptionalism” is a phrase that is thrown about and discussed today, but frequently in a negative context. There are books, speeches, broadcasts and blogs that address the subject. But we generally can’t even agree on what that exceptionalism is or might be. The confusion or disagreement seems to come down to three main questions: 1) Is there (or ever was there) something that makes America a unique nation in the world’s history? 2) What elements or components make up that exceptionalism? And 3) if we have less liberty now than in the past, is this caused by changes to these elements?

Is There Any Such Thing?

Many times a book or a series of blog entries ends with a ‘Conclusion’ – and that is considered god form to retain the reader’s interest. But this blog isn’t intended to deceive or coax anyone into agreement, only to arrive at a common sense understanding of the questions involved. This isn’t a mystery novel, so to let you know where I am going this preview should be clear and not a mystery. My conclusion is that exceptionalism exists; that America and AMERICANS have been, and to a certain extent still ARE UNIQUE AMONG THE PEOPLES, SOCIETIES AND GOVERNMENTS ON EARTH. The phrase “American Exceptionalism” itself seems to date from the 1830s when the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville reported on his visit to America.

De Tocqueville found, more than anything else, that it was the attitudes of the Americans that were exceptional. Before we delve into these attitudes in later entries, you should be aware that their very existence is challenged by many, even though these challengers disagree about the content or nature of the exceptionalism they challenge. Let’s take a brief look at a couple of the recent challenges and at a few besides Tocqueville who support the idea. On both sides, I'm only presenting two or three of many available sources.

Many scholarly books and papers have addressed the subject, and denied its existence. Just as an example, in 2002 and American-Israeli professor named Arnon Gutfield published his views on the subject. Gutfield was raised in the west and studied at the University of Montana and at UCLA, but since the 1970’s he has been professor of American History at the University of Tel Aviv. His book was “American Exceptionalism: The Effects of Plenty on the American Experience”; (There is a short book review at on Library Things website). He concluded that there may have been such an attitude, but no substantial difference, and that the exception was caused by the tremendous resources available. Even if exceptionalism existed, it disappeared with the frontier in the early twentieth century. This type of study is very much pitched to academics, and many such studies have been published as History, Sociology, or Politics.

In 2005 an American academic named Howard Zinn pushed that same message. He gave a talk at MIT that also decried “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, and basically said that it didn’t exist except as an error in the minds of people. The talk was given on March 14, 2005 as a part of a presentation and discussion sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. It can be seen online at this link.

Last year my attention was grabbed and memory refreshed; when President Obama told a press conference that he believed in American Exceptionalism. Unfortunately his answer equated it with British and Greek exceptionalism, and effectively meant that while he could take pride in his country, he didn’t really mean that there are any superior or unique American values. The press conference held in Europe at NATO on April 4, 2009; and was broadcast on MSNBC, Fox, C-Span, and others. The specific question was asked by reporter Ed Luce of London’s Financial Times.

The Other Side of the Question

One recent and eloquent proponent of the existence of unique values has been radio and TV host Denis Prager. He takes all U.S. coins as a source for his summary of values, and extracts from them three fundamental values: “In God We Trust”, “E Pluribus Unum”, and “Liberty”. Prager’s brief statement is available as the first entry in ‘The Prager University’. I strongly recommend all his comments in the University, which can be seen on Youtube.

The political discussion and view of exceptionalism of course goes back many years. This preview uses only two examples from those views to demonstrate. The first was Rose Wilder Lane (of the “Little House on the Prairie” family) who raised herself by the bootstraps from a Marxist to a sort of Libertarian. She did quite a bit of thinking outside the box, and published her thoughts in 1943 as “The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority”. (The John Day Company published the 1943 book, but reprints are available today in paperback.) Though Lane was a widely popular author, this book was largely ignored since it was about history and political science and she had no academic credentials. Although Jay Nock had praised her work, historians panned it and pointed out some minor errors in the history that it contained. She herself was so disappointed in this result that she refused to reprint it, but she did give another writer permission to use it.

Wilder’s intellectual heir and my second example (that other writer) was a Detroit businessman named Henry Grady Weaver, a business executive after he rose from the ranks at General Motors. ‘Buck’ Weaver took her book as a primary source for his 1947 book “The Mainspring of Human Progress and How Not to Prevent It”. (The 1947 book has been reprinted by the Foundation for Economic Education.) Weaver tightened and somewhat reworded Lane’s work, then added his own views. He attributes a great deal of the invention and progress in transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and commerce to the free individuals and free markets in America.

In Weaver’s view of things, we can judge whether exceptionalism exists by its results. America's inventors and developers are not smarter, luckier, or better educated than those in the rest of the world, but in the course of a century and a half they gave us mass production, the broad use of petro-chemicals, electric and nuclear power, telegraph, telephones, radios and televisions, photographs and movies, airplanes, modern pharmaceuticals, etc., etc. We have had no famine in that time. The 140 years of the progress of America came after more than 5,000 (or 50,000) years of little or very slow progress, therefore something must be unique. One way to describe the uniqueness is “American Exceptionalism”.

So exceptionalism does exist, but what is it? That is for future blog entries…

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