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Friday, June 5, 2015

Exceptionalism–From Lesotho To The United States All Countries Have It, But Only We Flaunt It

Lesotho is a small, landlocked country located in the middle of South Africa.  It gained sovereignty after wars with the Boers and the Orange Free State and conquests over neighboring enemy tribes and gained independence from Britain in 1966. There is nothing much to Lesotho, and settlements with the British left Basotho leaders with a small, arid, rocky land dependent on its wealthy neighbor for food, security, and jobs.  Most Basotho work in South African mines, and their families live on remittances sent from abroad.

Basotho

          www.hoberman.photoshelter.com

Lesotho is especially proud of one thing.  It is the highest country in the world.  That is, its lowest point is 4600’ and no other nation is any higher – not Nepal, because even 29,000’ Everest cannot offset the Kanchan Kalan valley at 230’. Pakistan, Argentina, Chile and the United States, home of the Himalayas, the Rockies, and the Andes all have seacoasts. Switzerland’s Lago Maggiore, its lowest point, is at 600’. Lesotho alone can claim being The Highest Country in the World.

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               www.lakesidepress.com

Lesotho is a very poor country with no agriculture to speak of, no industry, and no skilled labor. The migrant laborers are for the most part unskilled and uneducated; and the country for all intents and purposes is a client state of South Africa.  It has neither the ability nor the resources to expand its territory or geopolitical influence.  It is a threat to no one and of interest to few.

It is exceptional in only one way – its elevation – and it is proud of it.

This is all by way of saying that even the smallest, most insignificant country considers itself exceptional in some way.  Nationhood may be a Western construct, and eventually the map of the world may revert to tribal, ethnic, and religious boundaries; but until it does, each nation has a certain national integrity and character. 

France has a lot to crow about.  It considers itself to be la fille aînée de l'Eglise Catholique because if it hadn’t been for Roland who held off the Saracens at Roncesvalles, Europe might be Muslim. Taking this legacy seriously, France became the arbiter for Western, Christian culture. Art, literature, fashion, and ideas became its hallmark exports.

Image result for images roland at roncesvalles

              www.omdurman.org

French was the language of diplomacy, and even during the Napoleonic Wars the Russian aristocracy still looked to France as its cultural home. France has always considered itself exceptional and has never looked kindly upon upstarts like the United States whose fight for independence was nothing compared to the French Revolution which reversed centuries of autocratic, divine rule and replaced it with popular, secular democracy.

India has a much longer history, and can claim a spiritual and philosophical exceptionalism that few other countries can.  Five thousand years of cultural history have produced a sophisticated religion; a complex multi-tiered social structure designed by the early Aryans to facilitate spiritual evolution and regulate secular activity, and a musical and artistic tradition which is perfectly integrated within the overall spiritual and secular fabric of the country.

Image result for siva bronze images

         www.lotussculpture.com

Canada, despite its proximity to and influence of the United States, resents any suggestion that it is a watered-down version of America.  It is proud of its multi-culturalism, its rugged voyageur past, its practical pacifism, and its social moderation. Mexico is fiercely patriotic, resents the attempted hegemony of El Norte, remembers the Alamo far more angrily than Americans do, and considers Mexico City the cultural equal of Buenos Aires.

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I am sure that Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and Nauru as well as Russia and China all consider themselves special and exceptional in some way. Russia certainly does and with good reason.  Imperial Russia extended over a vast territory. Its Slavic Orthodox culture was as sophisticated as that of France; and the current government has made no secret about wishing to restore the country to its past glory.  China, like India, calculates its history in millennia, and believes that its Confucian, Buddhist, and Mandarin traditions give it the social order, discipline, and enterprise that will make it once again a mighty world power.

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                  Tuvalu, www.dxnews.com

Exceptionalism, however, has been almost exclusively applied to the Unites States; but has been done so critically.  America is not that exceptional say its critics, but only thinks it is. Because of its determination to spread American morality, economic principles, and its peculiar brand of representative democracy – all of which have fading relevance in a radically changing world – its exceptionalism seems ignorant and arrogant.  America is a nation whose social and economic inequality, endemic racism, violence, and environmental diffidence qualify it for exclusion rather than acclaim and reverence, they say. It is that peculiar American obtuseness, inability to understand history, myopia concerning social, ethnic, and religious complexity, and ham-handed diplomacy which make it a subject for ridicule.

“Jealousy”, shout American patriots. “Just look at all the people who want to come here”. For all America’s blowhard self-righteousness, it is still a popular destination for tourists and immigrants.  Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans could care less about The Shining City on a Hill.  They only want jobs and a refuge from the dysfunction of their own countries.  If America were to open its doors to all comers, the country would be flooded with Syrians, Iraqis, Malians, and Somalis.

Image result for ronald reagan shining city on a hill images

Exceptionalism is a cultural expression of patriotism; which in turn is an outgrowth of nationhood.  Human societies whether categorized by secular boundaries, religion, or ethnicity all require clearly identifiable markers – something which distinguishes them from The Other and gives them visible credibility if not influence over friends and enemies.  Nations are just large social groupings.

If history has taught us anything, it is that small social groupings always evolve into larger, more powerful entities. Empires have grown and ruled since the Pharaohs, Persepolis, the Xia Dynasty, and the Mauryans.  Ancient Greece and Hellenism maintained an influence throughout the East for a millennia.  The Roman Empire ruled more of the world than any other. Empires come and go, each politically and culturally hegemonic; and each exceptional and anxious to spread its influence as widely as possible.

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                        www.ryot.org

America’s exceptionalism is ridiculed because the American Empire is coming to an end after a very short run of less than 100 years. The Middle East is being radically transformed from the old Western, American ideal of the nation-state to a multi-polar ethnic and religious one.  Russia has laughed at the idea of ‘Ukraine’, an artificially-bordered country with no real reason for territorial integrity. China is expansionist, autocratic, and implacable. The EU is facing the worst kind of multi-culturalism – an unwelcome influx of conservative Muslims who place God over country and religion over state.

American democracy is in gridlock; and some say it is simply in its Baroque phase. It is a country without a moral and philosophical core.  It is resting on its laurels, gob-smacked by revolutions in world order which it never saw coming, and unsure how to use its still considerable power.

“America has never had a culture”, a French aristocrat told me recently, “unless you count entrepreneurial capitalism, an economic system, a process, a means to an end, not an end in itself. French culture is substantive, permanent, and visible.

“How can a country be exceptional on the basis of process?”, he asked.

This is the way empires end.  Unsubstantiated exceptionalism leads to ill-advised political and military interventions, unnecessary confrontations, world-unsettling conflict, and ultimately humiliating defeat. 

“It is far better”, said Monsieur de la Rochefocauld, “to have artists on one’s currency rather than presidents”.

Image result for images french 100 franc note

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