Ron Rosenbaum

"American Exceptionalism" and the Sin of Pride

Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I honor those who sacrificed and still sacrifice to protect and defend our freedoms.

And unlike most liberals, I actually listen to conservative talk radio. I think El Rush has a good b.s. detector (as well as a good b.s. projector) and I’ll take Imus’ word that Sean Hannity is a nice guy, although his prideful sense of his own righteousness rivals that of the Spanish Inquisition.

In fact, the sin of pride (aka self-righteousness) is what I’m here to talk about today. I’ve noticed a new meme developing particularly on Hannity’s show. Not the old meme in which everyone who calls in gets praised as “a great American” even though Hannity has no idea if he’s talking to a serial killer or an al-Qaeda mole. So long as the serial killer calls Sean “a great American” he must have the superb discernment to be a great American. No pride there. I just feel a guy who needs to be called “a great American” every five minutes might have … some kind of problem. Don’t church-going listeners find this embarrassing and deplorable, by the way? Isn’t pride one of the seven deadly sins? One of the deadliest?

No, the meme I’m talking about is the one where everyone is called upon to pledge allegiance to the doctrine of “American exceptionalism.” Frankly I don’t think many of the callers (and I’m not sure of Hannity himself) know what they’re talking about when they use the word “exceptionalism.” It’s actually a subject I’ve given considerable thought — and study — to in both my book on Hitler and the one on Shakespeare. Was Hitler on the continuum of evil-doers, just at the far outer edge? Or was he off the grid, off the charts, in a realm of “radical evil,” as the exceptionalists argue? It’s not an easy question. Nor is the one about Shakespeare: was he just a very, very great writer or was he off in some realm of sublimity all his own beyond all other great writers, as some exceptionalists argue? Again, not an easy question.

But American exceptionalism? These days, on Hannity’s show at least, it’s mainly used in a simple-minded, dumbed-down, loutish “we’re number one!,” Freddie Mercury “we are the champions of the world,” boastful, sin of pride way. (Remind me all you “values” types: isn’t humility supposed to be one of the cardinal virtues?)

But recently “American exceptionalism” has been used to club Obama, who, when asked (I’m paraphrasing) whether he believed in American exceptionalism, replied something like, “sure, just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism … etc.” Something like that. In a low key way, but a remarkable instance of intellectual integrity not submitting to the demand for jingoist blather.

In a quietly courageous way, knowing it would be misinterpreted by ignoramuses. He was agreeing he felt pride in his nation. But he could understand others feeling pride in theirs. Does he really expect other nations to bow down and worship the Golden Calf of our pridefulness? And oh, how the historically oblivious tried to turn it against him!

Because let’s look at the definition of American exceptionalism and see if it’s a doctrine anyone who has studied history can take seriously as anything but jingoistic boasting. (Outta my way, lesser nations, I’m cutting to the head of the line ’cause I’m an American and we’re exceptional.)

Here’s a recent neutral definition from a Princeton University Press anthology on the question: American exceptionalism “is based on a self-perception that America ‘differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution and distinctive political and religious institutions. One consequence (as a commentator on that definition put it) can be that the United States, ‘assumes its national values and practices are universally valid and its policy positions are moral and proper and not just expedient.’ This gives it a right or more accurately a duty, many administrations have believed, to enforce and interpret the rules of global order that others are expected to obey.”

Or as Hannity and his acolytes might put it: “We got nothin’ to apologize for.” A nation founded on the genocide of the native population (using biological warfare–smallpox-infected blankets), whose initial prosperity was based on the cruel and murderous and arguably genocidal practice of slavery, blessed by our Constitution, which made women voteless, second-class citizens for most of its history — hey, we’re number one!

Again, don’t get me wrong. I think America’s great strength has been its admirable ability to evolve democratically (with the help of an “activist” Supreme Court) into a far more just and beneficent society at home. And one that — while often serving corporate imperialism abroad (viz. virtually the entire history of our involvement in South and Central America which put us on the side of torturers and murderous neofascist dictators) — nonetheless showed itself bravely willing to sacrifice to defeat fascism and communism.

So sure, America is great in many, many ways. But to say that its history is an exception from all the flaws of the old world is bunk. European settlers brought the diseases of the old world with them. We were not immune, unflawed, unlike any national entity that’s ever come before.

In other words, “American exceptionalism” is just a phrase for parochial self-righteousness. Bunk for historical ignoramuses. We don’t need to get better; we don’t need to acknowledge any flaws in the past. We already are, always were, the best, so shut up, get outta the way and we’ll tell the rest of the world what’s right and what’s wrong.

How’s that working out for us? Not so good, I think. Not everyone else on the planet is willing to cede moral superiority to us in all respects. This is not moral relativism. I think we are far superior to many nations, but that superiority comes from a recognition of flaws and a willingness to mend them. Not from some exception to the history of mankind.

What’s great about America, though not exceptional, is that we evolved, we reformed, and we listened to radical liberal abolitionists (yes, I know, most of them were Republicans at the time, all the more shame for the current GOP’s “Southern strategy.”)

But other countries have started off with horrid things in their past and evolved and improved and ameliorated, too. Without having to boast all the time that they are the best country that ever was and ever will be. Only the historically ignorant are unaware of this or latch onto “American exceptionalism” as an all-purpose excuse for everything selfish we’ve ever done. And never having to say we’re sorry. Again, where is the virtue of humility in this disdain for apology? Just because a lot of other nations have a lot more to apologize for doesn’t discredit the self-recognition of imperfection. But noooooo … God was always on our side. Kind of presumptuous to speak for Him, no?

Doesn’t that define the sin of pride?