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Gamble on the “Vanity of American Exceptionalism”

Richard Gamble discusses [1] the “vanity of American exceptionalism” in his review of a short book by Charles Murray:

On a return visit, Tocqueville would find 21st century Americans still seeking flattery from others and flattering themselves. This appetite for praise was not a credit to the American character in the 1830s. Nor is it now. Our preoccupation with being exceptional, with figuring out just how exceptional we are, and then constantly reminding ourselves and insisting to the world on the indubitable truth of that exceptionalism is not attractive. Like all vanity, it impedes self-knowledge. And it forgets its indebtedness to the past.

It is one thing to acknowledge and value America’s constitutional system and political principles, and something else entirely to treat these things as a cause for endless self-congratulation and justification for whatever it is that the U.S. happens to be doing around the world. As Gamble notes, this has a corrupting effect at home and is obnoxious to everyone else. Unfortunately, when people refer to “American exceptionalism” now, it is often done to praise ourselves and then to dictate to other nations on the grounds that we are uniquely suited to do so.

This is familiar territory for Prof. Gamble. He wrote a TAC article [2] on the same subject last year, and wrote In Search of the City on a Hill: the Making and Unmaking of an American Myth [3] to investigate the origins and uses of the “city on a hill” rhetoric that now regularly crops up in appeals to American exceptionalism. As he wrote in his article last year, there are two competing traditions of American exceptionalism:

The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world.

As we have seen once again in the last few weeks, Americans have no appetite for such adventurism. That doesn’t mean that they reject all forms of American exceptionalism, but rather that they have started rejecting the warped version of the concept that exploits Americans’ admiration for our country’s good qualities into a mission to meddle in the affairs of other nations all over the world. If the new exceptionalism is one that vainly seeks praise and power, the old one prizes modesty and humility in our conduct in the world.

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11 Comments To "Gamble on the “Vanity of American Exceptionalism”"

#1 Comment By HyperIon On September 20, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

Wow. That Gamble guy really nails it.

Thanks for a post that is NOT another instance of “X writes something really stupid”.

#2 Comment By James Canning On September 20, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

Many who promote American “exceptionalism” in fact want the American public to back foolish American military adventures in the Middle East.

#3 Comment By Henri James On September 20, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

I always thought it was really weird that the big republican complaint against Obama was that he didn’t believe dogmatically enough in American Exceptionalism.

#4 Comment By Gordon Hanson On September 20, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

I am totally with you, Hyperlon. Great comment. And yes, James, American exceptionalism has long meant a tropism toward a hyperinterventionist US foreign policy.

#5 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 20, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

Heresy! The sun shines out of our behinds.

#6 Comment By May On September 20, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

Most of the world knows what that means: claiming license to be a rogue state and getting away with it. In foreign countries people even write articles about why America is addicted to war.

The Constitution didn’t help the country to function properly properly by even 1800s. That was why there were progressive era reforms. If America has muddled along since then it is because of these reforms. Otherwise it would have become a flailing banana republic long ago. And it has only muddled along. The present condition of the country reveals muddling along is nearing its sell by date. Country needs huge reforms to function even under current living standards in future with demographic and economic changes.

The use of the term “exceptionalism” by people indicates such people have no clue what is really transpiring today. These people are out of touch with reality and are living in some bubble.

#7 Comment By Brooklyn Blue Dog On September 20, 2013 @ 8:26 pm

I’ve always found this whole idea of American Exceptionalism to be kind of bizarre. Of course we’re exceptional. And so is Canada. And France. And Germany. And Great Britain. Heck, every Japanese bookstore has an entire row of bookcases dedicated to “Nihonjinron,” which translates as “[The study of] The Theory of Japanese-ness.” And guess who is obsessed with those books? Small-minded Japanese right-wingers who never want to leave the country, and, if they have to, eat only at Japanese restaurants when overseas. Nationalism and the obsession with one’s own national distinctiveness (and implied superiority) is little more than a right-wing form of mental illness. (The left’s own particular version of this disease is the “our country never has and never will do anything right” disease. Just two sides of the same simple-minded coin.)

#8 Comment By John Drake On September 21, 2013 @ 9:50 am

VANITY — that’s a good way to describe it. So is IDOLATRY.

#9 Comment By James Canning On September 21, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

I think the notion of American “exceptionalism” is used as cover for pushing foolish policies in the Middle East.

#10 Comment By Ron Beasley On September 22, 2013 @ 1:19 am

American “Exceptionalism” is like a religious cult most of which is based on lies. Our Constitution is said to come from God himself although our government is totally dysfunctional. Our foreign policy is based on what is most profitable for the military industrial complex. Our infrastructure is falling apart and our health care system ranks 37th. We have more people in prison than any country in the world – not per capita but numbers. Doesn’t look like it’s all that exceptional to me.

#11 Comment By James Canning On September 22, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

@Ron Beasley – – American business interests would gain hugely from normal relations between the US and Iran, an end to sanctions, etc.

Israel lobby is the primary distorting factor, in the perverting of American foreign policy in the ME.