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Monday, September 23, 2013

We Are Not Exceptional–We Only Think We Are

America is a crazy place, unlike any other; and there is no doubt that we are unique; but all countries are unique; and all believe that they are exceptional. 

We share liberal democracy with Europe, but our more fundamental core beliefs – rugged individualism, liberty, a government of the people – are far different from a region whose optimism has been tempered by a thousand years of war, beheadings, rising and falling empires, plague, famine, and brutality.

We are a free-for-all democracy like India, but we have little if anything in common with traditional Hindu beliefs. We do not believe in karma, dharma, spiritual evolution through reincarnation, and the importance of the caste system as a means of ordering the meaningless and illusory as a way to enlightenment.  Our focus on both individualism and community is far different from Hindu society which values individual spiritual attainment, not good works; and for which community is only part of a disciplined social structure, not the crucible for collective action.

We may share many things with other cultures – French food, Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, Chinese enterprise; but we are at heart fundamentally different. We come from different places, have our own particular history, and have moved along very distinct trajectories. And it is in this cultural difference that exceptionalism is born.

In many ways we are as crazily weird as Indians in our religious expression.  India has its festivals to honor Ganesh, Durga, Rama, Siva, and Krishna; and the Kumbh Mela held in Allahabad every eleven years is attended by tens of millions of pilgrims. In America churches of every possible denomination and stripe are filled to the gills every Sunday.  Hangar-size mega-churches are built every year by the thousands to catch those disaffected by traditional Christianity.   These new fundamentalist congregations are muscular and very American, combining ecstatic worship and political conservatism. Store-front churches are everywhere in the inner-city, preachers find their calling every day, and whooping and hollering can be heard for blocks.

Yet we are as different from India’s determinism, its views of social order and dynamics, and its positive fatalism as peanut butter is from pâté

We share little with China, with its own 5000 year history of dynasties, mandarins, authoritarian rule, and Confucianism.  While Chinese cities may now look like futuristic versions of American ones, there is something else cooking there other than home-grown, corn-fed, American enterprise.

We clearly share equally little with the Arab and Muslim worlds, and whatever similarities there may have been between monotheistic religions and the socio-philosophical belief structure which is derived from them, all bets are off.  We are at war with Islam, reject what we see as its medieval practices, and have no clue about a radical religious fundamentalism which can slaughter in the name of God.

The point is not that we are different – all nations are different, even Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – but that we think that our culture, philosophy, and world view are better than those of other nations; and that we are exceptional in that superiority.

On closer examination, however, most countries feel the same and feel exceptional. Indians have always been anxious to have America’s wealth, cars, money, and fast women; but are dismissive of the culture which produced them.  Given the context of India’s millennia-old history, Americans are rubes, babes-in-arms, naïve about the ways of the world, immature in our philosophy, and blissfully ignorant of the more universal truths of the universe. 

The Chinese have always known that it was only a matter of time before China became once again ascendant and powerful.  They see a historical determinism in China – an unbroken socio-political and philosophical system begun in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1675 BCE) remain today and strengthened by later thinkers like Confucius (551 BCE) who added an important social dimension.

France has always considered itself “la fille aînée de l'Eglise Catholique” – eldest daughter of the Catholic Church because of the early conversion of the Francs and because of its successful battle to keep the Muslim hordes out of Europe. In modern times it has adopted the role of protector of European civilization and felt that its intellectualism and patronage of the arts was sans pareil.

Russians are proud of their imperial history, their primus inter pares status in the Slavic world, their recent Soviet history of empire and dominance.  They, like the Chinese, know that they are exceptional and will once again rise to the ranks of the Czars.

Therefore Americans’ belief in their exceptionalism is no different from that of China, Russia, or India.  It is no surprise that our views are different from other countries. Robert Samuelson writing in the Washington Post (9.23.13) recounts results from recent surveys:

One standard question asks respondents to judge which is more important — “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference” or “state guarantees [that] nobody is in need.” By a 58 percent to 35 percent margin, Americans favored freedom over security, reported a 2011 Pew survey. In Europe, opinion was the opposite. Germans valued protections over freedom 62 percent to 36 percent. The results were similar for France, Britain and Spain.

Or take free will. Americans think they have it; many other nationalities dismiss it as a delusion. Another poll question asked respondents to agree or disagree that “success in life is determined by forces outside our control.” In the Pew survey, 72 percent agreed in Germany, 57 percent in France and 50 percent in Spain. By contrast, only 36 percent of Americans agreed in 2011,

I am sure that if you asked Germans about their need for order and regularity (think Angela Merkel) they would answer that it is important for social integration and strength.  If you asked the French about affirmative action, they would rail against PC assaults on French exceptionalism – one, indivisible France based on liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Or if you asked them about the role of art in public life, most would certainly be more in favor of government support of the arts than Americans.  If you asked Russians to choose between strong leadership (think Putin) and individual freedoms as elements of national progress, most would no doubt choose strength at the top.

So, what is the point? And why is it that the world criticizes us for such arrogance and naiveté and not the Chinese or Russians? As Samuelson says, “What rankles Putin (and many Americans, too) is that the United States has used this sense of moral superiority as a pretext to throw its weight around the world.”

It makes no difference that we come by our beliefs honestly. We are true to most of the precepts and principles of the Founding Fathers.  We are a nation built on 18th Century Enlightenment philosophy.  We are a nation of immigrants – risk takers par excellence in search of a better life.  We perhaps will always be more defined by the Wild West than the cultured East.  All countries come by their beliefs because of their history.

We are criticized because we blab about our exceptionalism. We simply cannot keep our mouths shut and our soldiers in their barracks because we have an almost Biblical faith in the rightness of our cause.  American-style democracy is not just a political system, but a philosophical one ordained by the God.   Democracy is not only the perfect system for making money, but, in its prizing of individual freedom, is the only one which facilitates man’s discovery of The Almighty.

Not only do we blab about it, but we use military might to promote it.  The Neo-Cons got us into the war in Iraq for many reasons, and the spreading of Democracy was certainly one.  Wolfowitz and his lackeys had an evangelical faith in spreading the Word; and felt an obligation to do so. Because the United States has gotten egg on its face for such naïve, exceptional adventurism (our history ever since Vietnam), no one takes us seriously, and likes to pick on us for our idealistic ignorance. We deserve it.  No one likes a bully, especially a sanctimonious one.

Our history of slavery and racial discrimination; our use of nuclear weapons in WWII; our carpet bombing of North Vietnam; our capital punishment; our slavish adherence to a laissez-faire capitalism which consigns millions to poverty, all should give us pause before we throw our weight around.  Because we don’t, people are pissed off.

Samuelson concludes that we have a right to be proud of a heritage which has enshrined the rights of man, embraced popular democracy, eschewed central authority, and found a place for religion in civic life; and that our exceptionalism has led to the spread of these ideas.  But all empires have spread ideas. The Romans built roads, bridges, and aqueducts; spread an education based on leadership, moral probity, and respect; and extended an administrative system which assured social order and individual expression.  The British did the same in South Asia.  Persia gave us monotheism (Mehabad, 9700 BC and Zoroaster), algebra, and trigonometry. 

At the same time, all empires have been less than saintly. Although nowhere near as brutal as Genghis Khan who spread his Mongolian empire from end to end of the known world through slaughter, all empires conquered because of self-interest – expanding the perimeter and realizing wealth from new lands.  This conquest was not always pretty.

So, all this flap about American exceptionalism is nothing more than a playground fight where the kids finally gang up on the bully.  The more important fact is that America is losing its international stature, and arrogant military exceptionalism is a big part of that decline.

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