Taking exception to labeling United States
Feb. 13, 2011 at 3:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 12, 2011 at 8:13 p.m.
Even in the midst of serious shortfalls involving the economy, education, health care and military entanglements overseas, America remains truly exceptional in many ways. However, clinging to the phrase "American exceptionalism," and elevating it as yet another password for patriotism, only misappropriates the concept.
"They've refused to talk about American exceptionalism," said House Speaker John Boehner on CNN, referring to President Obama specifically and Democrats in general.
Asked why, Boehner offered: "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if they're afraid of it, whether they don't believe it. I don't know."
The term American exceptionalism has evolved over nearly two centuries from what was once a way of defining the nation's origins and founding principles, to what many fear is now just code for jingoism. When used in drawing international comparisons, exceptionalism may simply mean "different"; used in domestic political contexts it usually means "better."
In his State of the Union message, President Obama alluded to the uniqueness of the United States. "We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea," he declared, "the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny." He called the United States, "not just a place on a map, but the light to the world."
However, the president's failure to invoke the actual phrase "American exceptionalism" was enough to trigger Boehner's ire. Sarah Palin, in her latest book, is even more emphatic, stating bluntly that the president "doesn't believe in American exceptionalism at all." She writes, "He seems to think it is just a kind of irrational prejudice in favor of our way of life. To me, that is appalling."
As defined by the president's conservative critics, the concept of exceptionalism promotes the view that America is uniquely qualified to serve as an arbiter in global conflicts. It suggests that Americans are inherently superior, and that the nation's failures can be dismissed or rationalized merely by invoking a catch phrase.
Delivering the unofficial tea party response to the State of the Union, Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota emphasized her belief in "the exceptionalism of America." She added, "I believe America is the indispensable nation."
These conservative challenges date back to remarks the president made in London in 2009, in which he outlined America's strengths and values, which, he concluded, "though imperfect, are exceptional." The president said he saw "no contradiction" between believing that the United States has "an extraordinary role in leading the world" and recognizing that "we can't solve these problems alone."
In his book, "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," Andrew Bacevich of Boston University argues it is an "ethic of self-gratification" that threatens the foundation of U.S. exceptionalism. He summarizes, "As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means available to satisfy them."
These prerequisites, as Bacevich calls them, help create the modern condition in which American exceptionalism, in a material sense, fosters anti-Americanism in many parts of the world.
Kathleen Parker, the CNN host who questioned John Boehner about the word "exceptionalism," predicts, "We're going to be hearing it a lot in the coming months as Republicans try to out-exceptionalize each other for the presidential nomination."
A modest affirmation of America's exceptional qualities should not require a slogan, just as patriotism should not require a lapel pin, and religious conviction ought not be measured by the frequency of visits to church.
The nation is, as President Obama noted, both imperfect and exceptional. To dwell on phrases rather than principles only serves to underscore the imperfections.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker; he may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com, he's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com.