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.
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.
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.
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.