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What American Exceptionalism Actually Means

A response to Justice Ginsburg on positive rights and the Constitution.

by
N.M. Guariglia

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February 28, 2012 - 12:00 am
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Some three years ago, just a few months into office, President Obama was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism.  He replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  It was a safe, inoffensive answer, though it left open the obvious retort: If we’re all exceptional, then none of us are exceptional.

Sure, most people around the world are patriotic and proud of their own country.  At least they should be.  Personally, I prefer it when a foreigner or an immigrant speaks positively — romantically, even — of their home country’s history and culture.  It’s attractive.  It makes for good listening.  It doesn’t offend me at all.

So it is a bit disappointing, this business of framing “American exceptionalism” as some sort of blindly jingoistic chauvinism.  As Americans, we shouldn’t be defensive over the notion. This is an exceptional country, we should humbly tell our foreign friends, and it’s exceptional for very specific, measurable, substantive reasons.  At the core of all these reasons is the U.S. Constitution.

But Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — whose job is to protect the U.S. Constitution — doesn’t seem to think so.  Ginsburg got in some hot water recently for telling Egypt’s TV station Al-Hayat that the Egyptian people, who are in the process of creating a new society, should not model their constitution on the American Constitution. “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution,” Ginsburg said, “if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”  She continued: “I might look at the constitution of South Africa,” and other more “recent” documents, like Canada’s constitution.

This is a common sentiment amongst so-called progressives: because the U.S. Constitution is “old,” it therefore isn’t applicable enough for modern society.  In 2001, Barack Obama, as an Illinois state senator and constitutional law professor, articulated this opinion on a Chicago radio show. “The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth,” said the young Obama, continuing:

The Warren Court… wasn’t that radical.  It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution… generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties; says what the states can’t do to you, says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf.

Obama went on to say in the interview that this was “one of the… tragedies of the civil rights movement,” that we lost focus on “redistributive change.”  His views don’t seem to have changed much.  Just recently, President Obama said to NBC, “Well, it turns out our Founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes.”

That’s the difference.  That’s the exceptionalism.  The United States was founded on the idea that it ought to be difficult to allow the government to “do things on our behalf.”  All of the Founders knew — from Washington and Franklin, to Paine and Jefferson, to Henry and Hancock, to John and Sam Adams — that rights must pertain to the individual, not the group, and that they must protect these individuals from the man-made entity we call “government.” The government cannot prevent your right to speech, religion, assembly, and so forth.

This is the philosophical logic for even “controversial” rights, such as the right to bear arms.  Man came before government.  Why would man create an entity with the authority to disarm him of the means to protect his family?  He wouldn’t.  He didn’t — at least in this country.  “The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation (where) the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms,” James Madison once said.  “A free people must be armed,” said George Washington, adding, “Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance… they are the peoples’ liberty’s teeth.”  It is no accident that all of the worst tyrannies throughout history — Nazi Germany, Stalin’s USSR, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s China, Amin’s Uganda, Saddam’s Iraq, Turkey just before the Armenian genocide, and many others — denied their populations the “negative right” to bear arms.

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