the danger of exceptional thinking: american arrogance

Exceptionality is central to the American identity, both past and present.  It is foundational to the concept of the American Dream, and it fits nicely, although not without cramming and shoving, alongside the Protestant work ethic (boot straps and all that) we like to prize.  It is, and always has been, important to our domestic and foreign policies, and it is crucial to our idea that we are the most powerful nation on earth.  However, left unchecked, our commitment to our exceptionality not only allows us to succeed where all others surely fail, it demands that we boldly defend our actions and absolve our motives as separate from and better than the rest of the world’s intentions.  In my view, the ideas behind American Exceptionalism are the ideas that prevent us from participating in our global and local societies in constructive ways.  From raising our children to condescend to others, to a stubborn unilateral approach to global conflict, the notion of our exceptionality is ruining America.

Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

We come by our commitment to exceptionality honestly.  Christopher Columbus’ journey was meant to expand not only the Empire he represented, but also Christendom.  The church endorsed the colonial endeavor with a blasphemous mix of greed and zeal for evangelism.  The church codified the ideas that the spread of Empire honored God, that the rape, pillaging and killing of native lands and people was perhaps deserved, and that the abused savages were rehabilitated, gratefully, into Christ through the process.  In other words, the myth of the discovery of America was achieved through exceptional (and, importantly, Christian) motives.

Our love affair with exceptionality continued as America survived the Revolutionary War, quickly rising to become a stable economic powerhouse.  We were exceptional as the only formerly colonized space that moved from protest, to military revolt, to stable world power.  These claims of exceptionality of course downplay the help of the French, and completely ignore the fact that our new country would have been crushed by its revolutionary war debt if it weren’t for the money-producing institution of slavery. 

In the last 170 years, evolving notions of American identity are best understood through our exceptionality.  In the mid-19th century, patriots were consumed with ideas of Manifest Destiny; indeed our nation soon spread from coast to coast.  Americans were specifically destined to steal land from Native people, Mexicans and even Cubans in order to fulfill God’s plan for His New Israel.  Add to that growing wealth, brilliant production innovations, and interventions in both World Wars, and you begin to see that America’s identity was founded on the idea that we are exceptional. 

There are many problems with this self-conception, and for the next few weeks I will explore how the notion of exceptionalism dominates habits and policies in parenting, gentrification and the way we think about immigration.  For now, I will close with a few of the dangers in grounding American identity in our exceptionality.

One, it reflects bad historiography.  One can only claim we are exceptional, with all the righteous moral goodness assumed therein, if we ignore historical accounts of our many failures.  Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

  •  We endorse a narrative of the genocide and violent displacement of native peoples by saying native leaders and pioneering pilgrims worked together (“While we did steal everything from them, they taught us to plant corn because we were friends.  While Andrew Jackson did force the Trail of Tears, he was fun and spunky and exceptionally nice—he even adopted a little savage into his own home!”).  
  • We endorse a paternalistic view of slavery (“While we did have slaves, we were the good kind of owners and our slaves loved and appreciated us”).
  • We endorse a narrative of wise and heroic military intervention (“We always stepped in to save the world and make it a better place; no need to really explore the fallout of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan”).  

Two, this bad historiography means we struggle to talk about our mistakes, and instead paint everything in a positive light.  This leads to us celebrate Columbus Day and Thanksgiving but bestow no national honor on the millions of Native Americans whose lives and legacies were destroyed by our arrogance.  This leads us to honor Confederate leaders in town squares.  This leads us to attribute the racialized wealth gap to work ethic or laziness instead of to Jim Crow laws, and racist systems, like redlining and the GI Bill.  This leads us both to think we are beacons of freedom and hope in the world while we drastically reduce our number of refugees and build walls.  Our commitment to being exceptional keeps us from learning from our mistakes.

Third, our primary understanding of ourselves as exceptional leads to a weak knowledge of self, and can make us selfish bullies.  If our only understanding of how we function in the world is based on our living out the righteous choices destined for us as exceptionally good Americans, we are beholden only to our own opinions.  We are exceptional, and therefore correct, so we do not need teammates, advisors or multilateral cooperation.  We should look out not for the interests of others, but only of ourselves, because we are exceptional. 

I’m afraid we traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach. 

America loves our origin story.  We love knowing that we succeeded where so many others failed.  That said, America still signifies hope and compassion in some parts of the world (and in our own country).  We are remarkably kind, and brave and willing to work on the idea that a government can exist by and for and of the people.  Even Bono, a great critic of ours, believes that the “idea” of America has the power to lift and unite others for a common good.  However, I’m afraid we have traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach.  This kind of thinking can lead us to think patriotism means never acknowledging our mistakes, and this will destroy our ability to become the country of people we hope we have been and still are. 

Would we lose our essence as Americans if we humbly believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion?

The idea of America was born out of two conflicting myths, and understanding them provides context for the fraught times in which we live.  Are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, shining the light of democracy for all to follow as we lead with compassion, or are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, better than everyone else and committed to hoarding our wealth and excluding others?  Would we lose our essence as Americans if we instead believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion? That each of us is worthy of a vote, and each of us can learn from each other as we correct our missteps in an effort to form a more perfect union?  I invite you to observe the evidence of our idolatrous arrogance, of our obsession with being exceptional.  Think with me about the place exceptionality plays in our collective thinking and acting, and next week I will tackle social concerns from this perspective.

let’s talk about race: how did we get here?

Part I

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  We all know the rhyme; we all know the story.  I want to suggest, however, that the stories we know about how the Americas came to be, the stories we tell ourselves about how race and culture and ethnicity affected us then and continue to affect power dynamics now, are grounded in little more than nursery rhymes.  In fact, much of our collective consciousness around black and white and value and relationships are rooted in a history that is no history at all.

Long before the days of Manifest Destiny, Columbus and crew sailed with the assurance that the world was theirs for the taking.  They had conquered or co-opted much of the known world; in their eyes, they had earned their cultural dominance.  Even more importantly, they sailed with the full endorsement of the Catholic Church.  In this early Imperial Age, the church was very much in bed with the monarchies with whom they mostly shared power.  The church advanced the cause of Empire in order to expand their own power, and, crucially, they justified such expansion because it saved souls.  They were merely taking the Great Commission of Christ literally.  Or so they say.

The church advanced the cause of Empire in order to expand their own power, and, crucially, they justified such expansion because it saved souls.

What are the lasting impacts of the Church’s endorsement of the colonial endeavor?  Certainly Catholic, and later Protestant churches were established all over the developing world.  Perhaps they even expanded the Kingdom of God.  The greatest legacy of their work, however, in my view, is what we now call the “us” and “them” mentality.  It is all the rage to call this we and they paradigm out for what it is:

Toxic.

Divisive.

Exclusive.

Self-serving. 

The playthings of those with power.  The antithesis of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to earth to establish and charged us with advancing. 

Here is the dirty little secret of the way America came to be: The entire Colonial system, in which European empires dominated most of every other continent on earth, was only viable because the Church endorsed an “us” and “them” mentality.

Conquering a land and controlling its people is dirty business.  For the Church and Empire to successfully invade, dominate, and colonize another land and people group, much violence is required.  Subjugating other human beings is difficult to rationalize.  Unless—and here is the genius and the devastation of colonialism, and racism during and after it—the conqueror creates distance between himself and the conquered by dehumanizing them. 

They don’t have religious rituals with which I am familiar.  In that case we can enslave them.

They don’t wear clothes like I do.  In that case we can enslave them.

They don’t communicate in ways I understand.  In that case we can enslave them.

They don’t participate in culture, government or social structure in ways that are familiar to me.  In that case we can enslave them.

The colonial endeavor demanded such differentiation.  Prosperous colonization requires invading peoples to view pre-existing peoples as, essentially and ultimately, “Other.”  These assumptions are found in nearly every recorded episode of colonization in our global history.

This type of thinking dehumanized vulnerable people groups, and allowed systems like slavery to prosper.  The raping and pillaging of another person’s land was easy once its inhabitants were contained.  This same sort of thinking, perhaps best captured by the phrase white cultural normativity, continues in 2017 to marginalize people of color whose cultures and habits fall outside what majority culture has deemed normal, and therefore safe and productive for society.  This thinking has led to widespread cultural racism, to the criminalization of brown skin, and to the undervaluing of black lives as contributing, creative, compassionate leaders in our society.