Posts Tagged ‘American Exceptionalism’

MISGUIDED EXCEPTIONALISM

Who among us does not feel special? See himself or herself at the center of the universe? Think that if everyone does what I do, the world will be a better place? The answer: precious few. Which explains why not only individuals but also nations often come to grief.

The belief that I or “we” are different and thus better seems near universal. In “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Stephen Kotkin of Princeton, and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains that “Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission — an attitude often traced to Byzantium, which Russia claims as an inheritance.” Essentially, God made Russia spiritually greater than its neighbors. Russian dominance of Eurasia represents the natural order.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, plays a limited role on the world stage. (For my earlier take on Russia, see “Irrelevance.”) According to Kotkin, Russia shares much with England and France—once great powers—as well as Germany and Japan. The former pair came to terms with the erosion of their prominence. The latter “had their exceptionalism bombed out of them.”

America and China also claim heavenly mandates. This, I propose, is based on ego fostered by historic power. Now, don’t get me wrong. While I oppose the idea of American exceptionalism—which often translates to “we can do no wrong”—I believe that America is an exceptional country. Although exceptional is not a synonym for perfect.

The United States, unlike its European forebears, never saw itself as a tribal or ethnic state. True, some people define real Americans as white Protestants. But the nation ultimately opened its doors to everyone and defined American as citizen. Yes, our history of slavery and racism is shameful. Still, America evolved under the rule of law. If the law has not always been adhered to, it nonetheless has offered great protection to citizens and non-citizens alike. Lack of perfection does not negate great accomplishment.

Exceptionalism can also be claimed on the religious front. I wrote in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters with God in the Hebrew Bible that Christianity and Islam often see themselves as universalistic religions of a particularistic God. Translation: there is only one way to believe, and God loves only adherents of whichever specific faith makes such a claim.

Judaism takes a different stance. It sees its exceptionalism not in being chosen for privilege but for responsibility. Performing the 613 commandments (many impossible since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) does no more to earn a Jew a place in the World to Come (of which there are multiple concepts) than a monotheist who follows the seven Noahide commandments established by the Sages. Judaism thus stands as a particularistic religion—only Jews need follow all 613 commandments—of a universalistic God not concerned about which religion people follow, as long as it’s monotheistic.

During the presidential campaign to come—or at least its final segment—I hope both major candidates will refrain from references to American exceptionalism. Flag waving often conceals a bent for tyranny. Of course, humility is not a trait that impels individuals to seek the White House or voters to put them there. Still, downplaying exceptionalism could help the winner be a better president.

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The post will take off on May 13 and return on May 20.

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QUESTIONS

The election is over. We can all take a breath. But that breath better be short. Because looking back—and forward—a lot of questions come to mind.

1. If the nation is as bad off as so many people believe, why did President Obama win? Discontent should have swept Mitt Romney into the Oval Office as it did Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he trounced Jimmy Carter. Granted, Mr. Obama won on a narrow popular-vote basis. Do those who voted for him know something about this nation that Romney supporters don’t? (Thursday’s report of first-time state jobless claims dropped to 355,000, a continuing sign that employment is slowly expanding.) Can Republicans learn something from this election?

2. If the Republican Party is a party of “old white men,” how did Mr. Romney come so close? The GOP seems trapped within a narrowing demographic. Yet many disaffected voters who aren’t “old white men” almost put Mitt Romney in the White House. The ideologues on the right opposed Obama from day one. But many Americans who voted for Obama in 2008 or didn’t take to Romney demonstrated disappointment with the President’s  record. What did they think Obama should have done? What does Obama believe he should do differently? Can Democrats learn something from this election?

3. Will Congressional leaders choose patriotism over power? House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi face re-election every two years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who elevated making Mr. Obama a one-term president to the top of his priority list in 2008—also faces re-election in 2014. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has until 2016. All want to be re-elected. Have they and other Congressional leaders the courage to move to the center and end Washington’s gridlock? Or will they keep pandering to their political bases and hold the nation hostage to their ambitions? Can Congress learn something from this election?

4. Will the American people face reality? Many Americans believe that the President and Congress can control both the domestic economy and global economy. Washington can regulate pragmatically to help prevent the kind of economic bubble that led to the Great Recession. It also can encourage the building of infrastructure, from roads and bridges to better schools. But what assurances can it make of success? Will Americans continue to believe that the economy can be controlled like a dancing bear in a circus? On the geopolitical front, the U.S. can help foster positive outcomes. But do we really believe that “American Exceptionalism”—and this indeed is a great nation—grants us not only the right to recreate the world in our image but also the unfettered ability to do so? What lessons have we taken from Iraq and Afghanistan? Can the American people learn something from this election?

America in 2012 is not the America of 1952… or 1972… or 1992. The rest of the world has changed even more. One of our great strengths is flexibility. Will we use it? Or will holdouts on the edges of the right and left look backward?

I believe that Americans can look forward to better times. But we will never provide suitable answers to our extensive challenges until we start asking suitable questions.

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