American Exceptionalism?

One principle that I reject as an historian, though it permeates our culture, is the belief in American exceptionalism. Especially during election time, politicians of all parties proclaim that the United States is the greatest nation on the world, with an exceptional past based on exceptional values held by exceptional men and women. I reject this belief on several grounds. It is empirically unprovable, dangerously parochial, explains nothing in term of history, and is lazy.

The United States is a unique nation in some respects, but this uniqueness is not unique. In the twentieth century, the nation has enjoyed spectacular economic growth and unprecedented military power. There are reasons embedded in history that explain these dynamics. At times, this power has been used for good, at other times is has been wielded to the detriment of Americans and others around the world. This does not make the nation any more exceptional than other world powers such as Greece, Rome, and Great Britain. Those powers fell into decline, and while it is debatable whether the same is happening to the United States right now, the current economic crisis, coupled with indices (and here) of where the United States ranks relative to other nations point toward its inevitable decline and the concurrent rise of other nations.

American history is much more interesting, less linear, more complex, and less a morality play if we can situate it within the proper context. By rejecting the notion of American exceptionalism, we can try to experience history without hindsight, without an untenable thesis to prove, without an explicit political or theological agenda, and without arrogance. We can see other possible alternatives, view other nations and peoples as equals, and learn more accurately the wisdom that the past contains. I want to conclude with the words of James Baldwin, a great American intellectual, whose poetry and prose challenged Americans to confront racism and inequality:

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

For another take on this theme, I thank Dr. Reina Pennington for sending me this.


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