Saturday, August 8, 2015

American Exceptionalism: Values, Not Wealth or Power

The concept of "American Exceptionalism" is often misconstrued.

This country was founded on certain fundamental ideals -- chief among them the inherent equality of all human beings, each endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the course of our history we have sought to achieve those ideals ... always falling short, but always committing and recommitting ourselves to them. The gay rights movement is merely the most recent manifestation of what we have chosen to be our destiny -- our dedication to liberty and equality.

American exceptionalism is not racial or ethnic superiority over the other peoples of the earth. How could it be? We are composed of people from everywhere on earth. We are what they are. America celebrates other cultures. We enjoy foods eaten by the people of far-off lands, dance to their music, and welcome their children into our families. Our diversity makes us exceptional -- tribalism and racial pride are anathema to a diverse people.

American exceptionalism is not to be found in our wealth. The people of many other countries are, on average, living far more comfortably than we are. A higher proportion of Americans live in poverty than the people of almost every other western industrialized nation. Until we find a way to distribute our great wealth more equitably we cannot claim to be exceptional in this regard.

Nor is American exceptionalism an excuse for conquest and empire, as it was for Spain and the Netherlands in the 1700s or France and Britain in the 1800s or Germany and Japan in the 1900s and as it is for certain countries today. Occupation and ethnic cleansing are not only evil, they are stupid. For example, is Russia more prosperous since it began its campaign to conquer eastern Ukraine? Does Russia really need more land?

This was the delusion that drove the architects of the Iraq War. The Project for a New American Century, founded by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and William Kristol, wanted the Untied States to use its military might to conquer the world -- in particular, to invade and occupy Iraq in order to control the world's oil supply. As one director of the Project stated,
We have no choice but to re-instill in our foes and friends the fear that attaches to any great power .... Only a war against Saddam Hussein will decisively restore the awe that protects American interests abroad and citizens at home.
Is that what America stands for? Is that what makes us exceptional? Is that our purpose? To instill fear in others and awe among our own citizens?

No. That is the thinking of Napoleon and Mussolini, not Jefferson and Lincoln. American exceptionalism condemns and opposes aggressive war.

The goal of American exceptionalism is that the values of liberty and equality should become universal -- that democracy and respect for human rights will spread throughout the world. We have a ways to go, but we are winning. Under America's example and leadership the monarchies and dictatorships have disappeared from western and most of eastern Europe. Germany and Japan, the empires we fought in World War II, are now shining beacons of democracy. There has been significant progress in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Even Russia and China are beginning to grope towards government of, by and for the people.

Ultimately, the purpose of American exceptionalism is that we should not be at all exceptional -- that we will be simply one country among many, at peace with free and democratic nations around the world.

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