Sun May 20th, 2007 at 10:29:26 AM EST
Closely tied to the notion of American innocence is a sense of our exceptional character. We believe we are an exceptional people, as George Will is often at pains to point out, we're the only country founded on an ideal--actually a series of ideals. G. K. Chesterton put it this way:
"America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence."
Seymour Lipset has noted that this 'Creed' is really "liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings". It was "essentially the rebellion . . . against the monarchical and aristocratic state--against hereditary privilege, against restrictions on bargains." He argues, that the spirit of America was essentially--and exceptionally -- anarchistic.
"It was anti-State."
The mistake Lipset makes, along with many conservatives, is conflating a rebellion against Monarchism with a rebellion against the concept of the modern state (which didn't even exists at that point!). Among other things, he seems to forget the words in the Declaration of Independence form an up close and personal j'accuse against the monarchy, represented by another aloof boor named George. The articulation in our constitution and declaration is hardly 'anti-state'; it is anti-monarchical. In fact, the vision of our founding fathers was to create a separate category of nation state altogether. Surely they would not have gone to all the trouble of devising a three branch ruling body, with its checks and balances carefully worked out, if they, in fact, favored anarchy. Me thinks Lipset is letting his own anti-socialist and libertarian prejudices slip through.
But the main point holds: the creation of the United States was a rebellion against the Monarchism that came before it and out of which it was borne. Alexander Tocqueville also finds the roots of our exceptionalism in that rebellion, and in the material expansive of the country and the acquisitive nature of the individual. Unlike Europe, American pioneers found a vast expanse of open land, inhabited by Indians who were successfully ignored, or pushed back. Most of the Europeans who arrived early enough could own their own land or work towards ownership. Tocqueville called this industriousness and desire to amass one's personal fortune a "middling" of values, neither aristocratic in its desire for `the idealized good' (and it's consideration of mere money making as banal) nor plebian with its foreclosure of future hopes entirely. The devotion to these `middling' values, individualism and self made industriousness, was what set America apart from Europe and made it `exceptional'. This is often referred to with the short hand, " the American Dream", a 'dream' which might also explain why Americans have never embraced socialism as Europe has--the belief in America was that with sufficient `middling' effort, one could acquire a fortune of one's own.
One off shoot of this is that Americans also tended to suspect intellectual and intellectual elites--the refinements of aristocracy were conflated with the leisure of contemplative thought and so both were frequently tossed overboard, unless the egg head could also prove himself industrious and useful to some extent. Inventors were welcome, theoreticians, not so much. Tocqueville asserted such `natural elites' were the lone virtuous members of American society, but they could not enjoy much share in the political sphere as a result of the middling values system inherent in America. Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power to defer to intellectual superiors as it were. He called this leveling of leadership "a middling mediocrity." We've all seen examples of this, from the lowering of the national discourse around election times, to the daily embarassments that passes for entertainment and news on American television and radio. Our Presidents are especially emblematic of this 'middling': Relatively taciturn leaders like Coolidge, unable or unwilling to speak much to anyone, folksy inarticulate Presidents like Eisenhower or Reagan with his sweeping folksy rhetoric but little or nothing in the way of insightful policy intelligence...all the way to the acme of inarticulate: George W. Bush, an incoherent, drawling good ole' boy who has worked very hard to make himself the anti-thesis of the intellectual. Tocqueville wouldn't roll in his grave, he'd just nod and roll his eyes.
But there is another aspect to the notion of American exceptionalism, that is not so much how we ourselves act among ourselves, but how we act toward the rest of the world. The idea, as Howard Zinn has put it,
"is that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary"
The zealotry for redefining the world in our image probably started as early as 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Governor John Winthrop uttered the words that centuries later would be quoted by Ronald Reagan. Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a "city upon a hill." Reagan embellished a little, calling it a "shining city on a hill."
Of course, just a few years after Governor Winthrop waxed eloquent about our shining city on the hill, individuals from that same city participated in the massacre of the Pequot Indians that some historians have suggested was the event that marked our first Thanksgiving.
One of the consequences of American exceptionalism in combination with our firm believe in our own innocence--put another way, our inability to do wrong-- is that the U.S. government considers itself exempt from legal and moral standards accepted by other nations in the world. Zinn notes,
There is a long list of such self-exemptions: the refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty regulating the pollution of the environment, the refusal to strengthen the convention on biological weapons. The failure to join the hundred-plus nations that have agreed to ban land mines, in spite of the appalling statistics about amputations performed on children mutilated by those mines. The refusal to ban the use of napalm and cluster bombs. Our insistence that we must not be subject, as are other countries, to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
This brand of anti-internationalism runs deep in the American political tradition, as any casual student of history knows, and its persistence is to be expected. More surprising is the respectability that the movement is winning among academics and policy analysts. What's most dangerous is that this thinking is not simple Patrick Buchanan isolationism at its core. No - this school does not oppose international engagement per se and thus cannot be classified simply as isolationist. Rather, it holds that the United States can pick and choose the international conventions and laws that serve its purpose and reject those that do not. Call it international law a la carte; exceptionalism with teeth.
According to Foreign Affairs:
"This "New Sovereigntist" vision explains the continuing U.S. refusal to participate in a broad array of international regimes, some of them now nearly universally accepted by other nations. It drove the Senate's recent rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Clinton administration's refusal to sign on to the Land Mines Convention and the Rome Treaty establishing an international criminal court, and the U.S. failure to submit the Kyoto Protocol on global warming for Senate approval. It also explains Washington's persistent refusal to conform U.S. practices to international human rights regimes....Only the free-trade agreements -- provided they are limited to trade and do not include the environment, labor issues, or human rights -- pass muster under New Sovereigntism because they are thought to serve American interests."
This brings up yet another way in which we might think of ourselves as exceptional--our economic might, our wealth. Being one of the wealthiest nations on earth, we might also expect our country to be equally generous. Certainly many a rightwing pundits from Bill O'Reilly to Glenn Reynolds seem to suffer under the delusion that we are exceptionally generous, even disastrously so. Unfortunately, this isn't born out by the facts. USA's aid, in terms of percentage of their GNP is already lowest of any industrialized nation in the world. See the following table:
Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 2000 to 2003
ODA in U.S. Dollars (Millions) ODA as GNP Percentage
ODA in U.S. Dollars (Millions) ODA as GNP Percentage
2000 2001 2002 2003 2000 2001 2002 2003
- Norway 1,264 1,346 1,746 2,043 0.8 0.83 0.91 0.92
- Denmark 1,664 1,599 1,632 1,747 1.06 1.01 0.96 0.84
- Netherlands 3,075 3,155 3,377 4,059 0.82 0.82 0.82 0.81
- Luxembourg 116 142 143 189 0.7 0.8 0.78 0.8
- Sweden 1,813 1,576 1,754 2,100 0.81 0.76 0.74 0.7
- Belgium 812 866 1,061 1,887 0.36 0.37 0.42 0.61
- Ireland 239 285 397 510 0.3 0.33 0.41 0.41
- France 4,221 4,293 5,182 7,337 0.33 0.34 0.36 0.41
- Switzerland 888 908 933 1,297 0.34 0.34 0.32 0.38
- U. K. 4,458 4,659 4,749 6,166 0.31 0.32 0.3 0.34
- Finland 371 389 466 556 0.31 0.33 0.35 0.34
- Germany 5,034 4,879 5,359 6,694 0.27 0.27 0.27 0.28
- Canada 1,722 1,572 2,013 2,209 0.25 0.23 0.28 0.26
- Spain 1,321 1,748 1,608 2,030 0.24 0.3 0.25 0.25
- Australia 995 852 962 1,237 0.27 0.25 0.25 0.25
- New Zealand 116 111 124 169 0.26 0.25 0.23 0.23
- Portugal 261 267 282 298 0.26 0.25 0.24 0.21
- Greece 216 194 295 356 0.19 0.19 0.22 0.21
- Japan 13,062 9,678 9,220 8,911 0.27 0.23 0.23 0.2
- Austria 461 457 475 503 0.25 0.25 0.23 0.2
- Italy 1,368 1,493 2,313 2,393 0.13 0.14 0.2 0.16
- U. S. 9,581 10,884 12,900 15,791 0.1 0.11 0.12 0.14
Note that Canada is number 13 and France is number 8. The US is way down at the end, number 22. The main point to note above is that out of the 22 richest countries in the world, we are dead last in terms of GNP spending. This might explain why people don't consider us exceptionally generous. The US is actually the cheapest donors of first world nations that bother to donate to the third world countries. We also, by the way, were the richest of all the rich countries .... (As of 2006, we were the seventh richest of all the rich countries--hat tip to retrograde for the up to date stat).
But really, it's worse than the numbers indicate, rather like J.P. Morgan asking Steven Jobs to take up his slack. They're both rich, sure, but Morgan, as a banker with control over billions that may not necessarily be his own could direct that money via investment plans, etc.. In short, the U.S. as economic leader has a heckuvalot more financial power at their command and more latitude in how invested funds are spent (and others spend it) then what the raw dollar amount of our GNP would even indicate. We have obviously fallen short as an economic leader, due precisely to the 'middling' of values that Tocqueville noted. Our bottom line since at least the Marshall Plan has always been the disease of the CEO class--the short term strategic interest, the short term buck. We eviscerate domestic industries through offshoring and outsourcing with the promise of short term profits for corporate leaders and maybe opening up markets in China. Ultimately we end up destroying our own middle class at the behest of multinationals who now have more real power than any Senator, Governor or Mayor.
We are exceptional in one material area, however. According to data collected by the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, more than $4 billion in small arms sales are made each year. The United States, responsible for 18% of that market share, has the dubious honor of being the largest exporter, with $741.4 million in sales in 2003--at a time when most governments would have noted that arming the world after invading two countries and suffering a massive terrorist attack on our own land might not be the most rational course on earth. In arming the world at such a dangerous time in the pursuit of easy profit, those `middling' values that Tocqueville promised would level our leaders, we are exceptional, indeed.
Americanism, Part I - American Innocence
Americanism, Part II- American Militarism
Next diary, Americanism, Part IV - American Religiosity
(Cross posted at DailyKos, ProgressiveHistorians, DelicateMonster)