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November 13, 2013

Why the fear of American exceptionalism?


Talk of American exceptionalism enrages some liberals.

For example, it drove Oliver Stone and American University professor Peter Kuznick to pen a USA Today commentary saying Washington should have a wall with “the names of all the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and others who died [in the Vietnam War].” That, they said, would be “a fitting memorial to all the victims of ‘American exceptionalism’ a perfect tombstone for that most dangerous of American myths.”

New America Foundation’s Michael Lind, in a 2011 piece titled “The Case Against ‘American Exceptionalism,’” dismissed the idea as “amusing, if it were not so dangerous.” American “exceptionalists,” he argued, are know-nothing boastful boobs “not allowed to peep beyond [their] borders, to learn from the successes and mistakes of people in other countries.” They “thump” The Federalist Papers as if it were the Bible, trying to “deduce what Hamilton, Madison and Jay might have said about physician reimbursement rates.”

Oh my. Stuff that straw man before you knock it down, Mr. Lind.

Mr. Lind and Mr. Stone miss the point completely. American exceptionalism is not about nostalgic yahoos railing against “furriners.” Thomas Jefferson staunchly believed that Americans had an exceptional destiny. His entire worldview was informed by European philosophy. He took ideas from Swiss natural law philosopher Emmerich de Vattel to write the Declaration of Independence, and he was a great admirer of the French philosopher Voltaire. Is Jefferson a know-nothing rube for believing in American exceptionalism?

Those who believe in American exceptionalism don’t reject foreigners. They recognize what’s unique about our history: a distinctive confluence of culture, government and economy, and an ethos of personal responsibility that tamed the economy’s wild horses and tempered the potentially anarchic tendencies of free people. These, not government action, gave rise to the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.

Some may think this country is better than others, but that’s not the central claim of American exceptionalism. It’s that our differences, especially from Europe, account for our successes.

Each time an immigrant comes here to live the American dream, it confirms this truth. Immigrants believe America is positively different from countries they left behind, even if American intellectuals don’t.

It also is confirmed by the unique role America has played since World War II. It carried most of the military burden for the alliance of free nations that contained the Soviet Union. Our allies trusted America because they knew it was different from other powers victorious in war: It was a liberator, not a conqueror.

If that’s not an exceptional story, I don’t know what is.

Were these just the feverish imaginings of a few intellectuals, there would be no need to worry. But the campaign against traditional Americanism has entered the ranks of the U.S. military. The journal Military Review recently ran an article by three retired senior military officers calling the idea of American exceptionalism racist. They likened it to the “psychological processes” of anti-Semitism, for good measure.

What accounts for this venom? Progressives have been waging intellectual war on American constitutionalism for more than a century. Woodrow Wilson preferred German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who inspired Karl Marx, to Jefferson and Madison. In this respect, there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s also a bit of projecting their own arrogance onto their opponents.

But a deeper anxiety is at play. Despite attempts to blame every problem on the tea party, American liberals sense something’s not quite right with their project. The welfare state in Europe is failing. And while they are winning many elections in America, the nation’s skyrocketing debt doesn’t bode well. At some point, the party of spending ever more money to cover the cascading crises will end.

When that day comes, Americans will turn the other way. For intellectuals steeped in self-hatred of America, this is a frightening prospect. It means not only conceding the argument. Even more painfully, it means acknowledging that the rubes may be smarter than they think.

- Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former assistant secretary of state.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times.

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