American Exceptionalism is over. Was it really ever a thing?

Commentary

A Times’ newsletter gave me the opportunity to review my feelings about the concept of American Exceptionalism. What’s your take?

The subject of today’s New York Times’ “The Interpreter” newsletter is “American Exceptionalism.” In the newsletter, the authors, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub ponder, “Changing American attitudes about their country’s role in the world.”

Fisher and Taub write,

“We may, someday soon, look back with puzzlement at the time in which Americans believed their country was so innately superior, so ordained with special virtue — so exceptional — that it was their right and responsibility to dictate affairs overseas.

“There have been indications for years that belief in American exceptionalism is declining. Now, the latest report from a four-year study by the Eurasia Group Foundation, tracking American attitudes on foreign policy matters, suggests that exceptionalism could end outright — and, with it, perhaps even the era of America as global crusader.”

What is “American Exceptionalism?”

According to Fisher and Taub it is,

“…often mistold as beginning with Puritanism, World War II or the Cold War. In fact, as the historian James W. Ceasar documents in a comprehensive history, it originated around 1900 amid America’s war with Spain, as justification for seizing several Spanish colonies.

“Taking control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and others did not qualify as imperialism, a senator from Indiana named Albert Beveridge argued in a seminal speech, because God had ‘marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.’

“That ideology was solidified by the first world war. President Woodrow Wilson sold a skeptical public on intervening in what Americans saw as a messy European matter by saying that the U.S. had been ordained by God with a special mission to make the world ‘safe for democracy’ and to spread ‘the principles that gave her birth and happiness.’

“The back-to-back wars instilled what Mr. Ceasar called ‘America’s self-designation as a special nation endowed with a great historical task.’ The apocalyptic stakes of World War II and the ideological charge of the Cold War, in which U.S. leaders portrayed American hegemony as righteous and predestined, deepened this belief into something like a civic religion. By the 1990s, victory in the Cold War, and then against a handful of small countries such as Serbia and Panama, made exceptionalism’s provisions a matter of consensus.”

God? As I’ve most recently written, not on the subject of American Exceptionalism specifically, but more generally, “What’s God have to do with this?” Is God the rationale…or excuse…for everything we do?

Over the years I’ve been no stranger to the idea of “American Exceptionalism,” writing several columns critical of concept. So, with today’s newsletter as impetus, I decided to look back at some of those musings.

In April of last year, in a column I called, “We Live in the Worst Country in the World!”, (https://around-the-block.com/?s=worst+country+in+the+world), I wrote,

“…[there is an] evaluation on a set of principles and characteristics that define the United States of America. A definition that has labeled us “the leader of the free world;” “the country with longest continuous democracy in the world;” the country Ronald Reagan characterized as the “shining city on a hill;” the country called “the beacon of hope for the world;” the country summed up by two words, ‘American Exceptionalism’. In other words, a country that is different, superior, not ordinary but extraordinary. A country that knows better and knows how. Except when it isn’t extraordinary and when it doesn’t know better or know how.”

My evidence at the time? The Inspectors General Disgrace; Wisconsin Election Outrage; Trump’s Vote-by-Mail Lie; USS Theodore Roosevelt Indignation; Trump Hawking Hydroxychloroquine Mishigas (Yiddish for “craziness”); among others.

In June 2020, I headlined a story, “American Exceptionalism in action!” (https://around-the-block.com/?s=in+action), writing,

  • “America is exceptional because its citizens have been banned from traveling to the EU because the U.S. has so mis-handled the Coronavirus pandemic, it continues to see a high number of cases.”
  • “America is exceptional because its Coronavirus cases per capita are among the highest in the world, bested only by Peru, Singapore, Chile and Kuwait.”
  • “America is exceptional because we have a bi-cameral legislature in which one House, the Senate…the Upper House, is so politicized that dozens of bills passed by the Lower House, the house of the people, are not even brought to the floor for a vote.”
  • “America is exceptional because unlike other powerful countries, the United States has closer relationships with its foes than its friends.”
  • “America is exceptional because it is led by a man who is supposed to be the ultimate recipient of all U.S. intelligence, but who said he did not know that Russia had secretly offered Afghan militants bounties to kill U.S. Troops.”
  • “America is exceptional because of its devotion to memorializing, through monuments, statues and flags, enemies of the United States…people and symbols commemorating an unlawful insurrection, by rebels and traitors against their country and its Constitution. But even more exceptional is the fact that finally, as the movement to take down these symbols is in full swing, we have a president, from New York of all places, who is more fond of Robert E. Lee than Ulysses S. Grant!

In July 2020, I wrote, “Is it ‘American Exceptionalism’ or ‘American Except-tionalism.” (https://around-the-block.com/?s=Except-tionalism) The essay was subtitled, “Actually, both – While the coronavirus worsens in the U.S., other countries are opening up to foreign travelers. EXCEPT to Americans – due to our EXCEPTIONAL botching of the crisis.”

I concluded that story with a quote from a Sri Lankan essayist who opined,

“Welcome to the club. Post-colonial bullshit and racism have made my Sri Lankan passport worthless for years. Now the American passport is worse. America has crashed straight through the third world into the fourth.”

Or, in my words, “American Exceptionalism meet American Except-tionalism!”

Finally, in January 2021 in “A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol Siege” (https://around-the-block.com/2021/01/17/a-reporters-footage-from-inside-the-capitol-siege/), I opined,

“This is, I hate to say, who we are. It is, in fact, who we’ve always been. In our quest to believe the myth that America is the greatest country in history, in our belief in “American Exceptionalism” without really defining “exceptional,” we have been blind. We have overlooked our history.”

Perhaps it’s time for me to check in with Albert Beveridge’s God and find out, “What’s the deal with American Exceptionalism?”

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy.

4 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism is over. Was it really ever a thing?

  1. You are much more eloquent than I on this matter.  I’ve been saying the same thing for years. Go back to THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, for an example of a people who thought they were better than others through wars and leadership until it went to their heads ( no pun intended) and they disappeared. How about the rise of the BRITISH EMPIRE which ruled by having the greatest navy of its time and now is a second rate country, trying to bluff its way into a relevant position.   For a much shorter time the rise of Hitler’s Germany, who did the same thing until he was no more.  and now the USA – we rose and now are falling and – in my opinion – will disappear as just another country in the long history tale of failure.  How arrogant we are. Hy

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  2. but don’t most countries, tribes, cults all consider themselves exceptional…part of the human condition is to want to believe that one is exceptional…perhaps a function of ego…

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    1. Perhaps. But I don’t believe many of the other entities you list have had a term “coined” or have been as forward and vocal about their exceptionalism. Or have used that self-anointed exceptionalism to justify benign actions.

      OK, maybe Germany. I guess their exceptionalism was exemplified by “Deutschland über Alles.”

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