Clifford May - American exceptionalism and its discontents

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In May 2011, The Washington Post's Richard Cohen, a columnist I admire, wrote an opinion piece titled "The myth of American exceptionalism." In it, he opined that the "problem of the 21st century is the problem of culture," in particular the "culture of smugness," the emblem of which "is the term 'American exceptionalism.' It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God."

I wrote a rebuttal, contending that exceptionalism means nothing of the sort, and that no one on the right that I was aware of -- and no one, evidently, that Cohen was aware of since he quoted no one to substantiate his thesis -- would define exceptionalism as he had.

So I was particularly interested to see a recent "news analysis" by The New York Times' Scott Shane, a reporter I admire, titled "The Opiate of Exceptionalism."

In it, Shane defines exceptionalism differently than Cohen had -- but equally incorrectly. He opines -- excuse me, analyzes -- that American voters "demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary."

He goes on to assert that Americans want their presidents to be "cheerleaders," and that this is a "national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism."

No, no and no. American exceptionalism does not imply that -- nor is it an assertion of "American greatness," as Shane also claims. It is something simpler and humbler: recognition that America is, as James Madison said, the "hope of liberty throughout the world," and that America is different than other nations in ways that are consequential for the world. Let me briefly mention three.

Most nations are founded on blood. America, by contrast, was founded on ideas. This is why anyone from anywhere can move to America and become American. Couldn't one just as easily move to Japan and become Japanese? Are you kidding? Nor can one simply become Ukrainian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Portuguese or Egyptian.

For those who do become Americans -- and especially for their children -- anything is possible. Consider such all-Americans as Colin Powell, Jeremy Lin, Bobby Jindal, Tiger Woods and, of course, Barack Obama. When I was a student in Russia years ago, I had friends from Africa and some married Russian girls. Does anyone seriously believe that the children of these couples can hope to succeed Vladimir Putin?

A second way America is exceptional: The ideas on which this nation is based were revolutionary in the 18th century -- and still are today. All men are created equal? Governments derive their powers only from the consent of the governed? We are endowed by our Creator with rights and freedoms that no one can take away? China is nowhere close to embracing such principles. The Middle East, Latin America and Africa have a long way to go. And in Europe, I fear, the commitment to individual liberty has only been weakening.

Finally, there is leadership. If America does not accept the responsibility -- and that's how it should be seen, not as a privilege or entitlement -- what nation will? There are those who would empower the United Nations as a transnational government. They don't see why it would be disastrous to be ruled by a security council on which Russia and China have vetoes, or a general assembly dominated by despotic regimes.

Shane writes that exceptionalism "has recently been championed by conservatives, who accuse President Obama of paying the notion insufficient respect."

The issue is not respect, but comprehension. Curiously, Shane does not quote Obama's most famous statement on exceptionalism. At a NATO summit in France in 2009, the president said: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

This is a clever way of saying that no nation is exceptional, that are all, as Garrison Keillor might put it, "above average."

But it was America that began the modern democratic experiment. And if America does not fight for the survival of that experiment, what other nation will?

A half century ago, Ronald Reagan said: "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." Today, freedom is under sustained assault by totalitarians, terrorists and tyrants. It is America's exceptional burden to defend those who live in liberty, and support those who aspire to be free. This should be obvious. But, as Shane wrote in another context, too many of us "would rather avert our eyes."

(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.)

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