Thursday, March 18, 2010

'American Exceptionalism' is back?

What does "American exceptionalism" mean? Where did it come back from?

But, most importantly, why did the Texas State Board of Education deem it necessary last Friday for this phrase to be taught in their new social studies textbook? This means most state textbooks, including in Oregon, will adopt what Texas did, because it is the largest market outside California, which no one follows. There are many more outrages in the Texas board's re-write of history.

And you can watch what Stephen Colbert says about the Texas school board here.

According to Wikipedia, "American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States occupies a special niche among the nations of the world in terms of its national credo, historical evolution, political and religious institutions and unique origins. The roots of the belief are attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, who claimed that the then-50-year-old U.S. held a special place among nations, because it was country of immigrants and the first modern democracy."

Okay, de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, made this claim after touring the country in the mid-1800s. This was during slavery and before the Civil War.

It was before the end of our war on Native Americans, before the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and before McCarthyism of the 1950s.

Our supposed exceptionalism became the basis for our overthrow of various governments in Hawaii, Central and South America, in southeast Asia and the Middle East, all coming after de Tocqueville's comments. (For background, read "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq" by Stephen Kinzer).

It's one thing for a foreigner to proclaim "American exceptionalism," but it's an entirely different thing when we shout it ourselves.

When we do, it reeks of pomposity, arrogance, elitism and condescension, which are traits America shares with other powers, past and present, so it isn't all that exceptional.

Perhaps, the Texas board was inspired by native son George W. Bush, who foisted American arrogance upon on the world during his disastrous presidency and why much of the world despised us during his reign?

Perhaps the board should have looked at other nations that were "exceptional" in the past.

German exceptionalism, vis-a-vis the Third Reich, failed catastrophically in the 1930s and 1940s.

Japanese exceptionalism went up in two mushroom clouds.

French exceptionalism ended ignominiously with Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The French, though, didn't get the message and had to be beaten in Vietnam and Algeria before it conceded it was no longer exceptional.

British exceptionalism declined over time as its empire, from America to India, dissolved. It is now a shell of its former self.

Soviet exceptionalism came crashing down in 1989.

Those are just the most recent examples of "exceptional" countries failing to stay exceptional. Many more litter the dustbin of history.

Bush's Iraq war is the most extreme example of "American exceptionalism." And, most likely, Iraq will return to civil war once we leave.

Yes, America is a great country. Our culture and products, for better or worse, dominate the world. More people want to move here and study here than any other place on earth. That says something worth remembering.

It doesn't say, though, that we should bestow our way of life or government on others. Other countries must find their own way, much as the U.S. found its way.

We can have influence, to be sure, but, unless it is tempered, we will end up the same way all the other imperial powers have - in decline.

Real exceptional countries don't have to say it, teach it or force it on others. They just know it.

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