Thoughts on American Exceptionality


by Mark Anthony Signorelli (January 2012)

To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.
– Edmund Burke, Reflections

In 1880, at the ceremonies surrounding the unveiling of a monument to Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky delivered a speech on the greatness of the poet. This greatness lay, according to Dostoyevsky, in Pushkin’s embodiment of the “prophetic” mission of the Russian people, a mission to create “the universal brotherhood of peoples.” In the height of his oratorical rapture, Dostoyevsky maintained that this historical duty fell upon the Russian people because of their preeminent sanctity: “Our land may be impoverished, but Christ himself in slavish garb traversed this impoverished land and gave it His blessing! Why may we not contain His ultimate word?” 

The Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren, who lived in the thirteenth century, was highly critical of the various schools of Buddhism popular in his time. As an alternative, he taught a new brand of Buddhism which consisted in an exclusive devotion to a text called The Lotus Sutra. Nicheren was convinced that this new teaching would lead to the spiritual revival of humanity, and that his native country of Japan was thus destined to take the lead in man’s moral regeneration.

In his famous Funeral Oration, the Athenian leader Pericles declared that the city of Athens had become “the school of Hellas,” which on account of its democratic government and enlightened culture served as a model to the other city-states of Greece. The individual Athenian was, in himself, a consummation of Greek arête: “I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.” Pericles admonished his listeners to contemplate the greatness of their city, so that they might fight in her defense with that much more vigor and determination, being unwilling to surrender a polity so evidently exceptional.

In each of the examples above, we find a conviction in the greatness of one’s country expressed. The frequency with which such sentiments have arisen in men’s hearts over the centuries ought to convince us of their natural, and perhaps even benign, origins. There is clearly something in our human makeup which inclines us towards a love of our nation, towards those who share with us a basic cultural orientation; this affection, in its excess, oftentimes persuades men that those attributes upon which they base their esteem are so remarkable or so rare, they could only be the mark of some special role in the unfolding of history. The testimony of the three figures cited above would seem to offer proof that this belief often guides the reflections of some of the best minds. So the habitualness with which the American people at the present time entertain notions of their own exceptionality appears perfectly natural and maybe even a little bit salutary. On the other hand, the historical commonness of these kind of beliefs ought to chasten our reflexive faith in our own exceptionality, by reminding us that there are other candidates for the part of history’s chosen people. It is by no means as obvious to the rest of the world, as it is to us, that the American people have played the indispensable part in the long progressive march of the human race.

In fact, I think the typical attitude of American exceptionality needs a great deal of tempering. For one, these sentiments have clearly grown more ardent in recent years as the lethal fissures in our society have grown more evident, and the term of our military and economic hegemony has appeared closer and closer. This alone should make us suspect an element of fantasy or embittered nostalgia in all of this apparent patriotism. The love of one’s country is ennobling only insofar as it is directed towards noble things, and results in noble actions. There is good reason to fear that, in America, affection for country is directed towards those very features in our national character in most need of correction, and commonly results not in any extraordinary feats, but in complacency and self-satisfaction. So I will state my opinion frankly: the belief that the American people at the present time – with our worthless schools, our degraded “arts,” our imbecile politics, and our universal economic corruption – should be esteemed before all other peoples that ever were, or that they can, in their present condition, serve as any kind of model to foreign peoples, is one of the most ludicrous opinions that could ever take hold of the human mind. Moreover, while this opinion is laughable at the moment, it could very easily, and very quickly, turn malign and dangerous under the pressure of a real political crisis.

At the heart of my objection to the creed of American exceptionality lies an aversion to self-praise. Far more often than not, the assertion of our exceptional character has a sound to my ears of self-praise. It takes little ability to praise Athenians in Athens, and it takes equally little talent to persuade Americans of America’s excellence. But the consequences of thus flattering ourselves are inevitably detrimental. There are few habits more morally corrosive than the habit of self-praise. A good man is one who is constantly displeased with himself, just as a great artist is one who is never fully pleased with his work. Satisfaction and complacency are the fatal enemies of moral and artistic striving; outstanding achievement requires relentless dissatisfaction. Far too often, when we hear our fellow Americans talk about our exceptionality, I suspect that they are cultivating our satisfaction and complacency. It seems clear to me that the creed of American exceptionality represents the victory, on a national scale, of the cult of self-esteem. Nothing has done more damage to the character of the American people over the last several decades than the triumph of this perverse mental tendency, the tendency to laud ourselves without regard to accomplishment or virtue; a tendency which has been systematically insinuated among the minds of the American people by our schools, our churches, and our popular culture (particularly by that most pernicious of women, Oprah). When this tendency manifests in a habit of praising ourselves indirectly, in the praising of our country, it is no less ugly or degrading than the habit of praising ourselves directly.

In this light, consider the fate of that popular phrase, “a city on a hill.”  The Biblical image was first introduced into our political discourse by John Winthrop, in a sermon delivered to the Pilgrim settlers in 1630. Winthrop wrote, “Consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world.” The image was meant to signify the notoriety of the new settlement. If the Pilgrim’s enterprise failed, the whole world would know of it; that was Winthrop’s point. Far from encouraging the complacency of his congregation, Winthrop emphasized the perilous state they were in: “But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods our pleasures and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land we pass over this vast sea to possess it.” The image of a city on a hill was used by Winthrop to remind his flock of the great moral responsibility that lay upon them in the American wilderness.

Compare Winthrop’s usage of the image to that of Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address of 1989:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was eight years ago.

The tone and the shift in emphasis has clearly changed, from moral urgency to moral complacency, from an image of national responsibility to an image of national self-congratulation. The history of this image suggests a deterioration in the substance of American patriotism, from a beating impulse to make our nation into the greatest the world had ever seen, to an unquestioning, even dogmatic, confidence that our nation was the greatest the world had ever seen. 

The consequence of this deterioration is that we now demand so little of ourselves as a people. Only think about the wretched state of the arts in this country; I am convinced  most Americans recognize that what we produce under the headings of literature, music, or architecture does not stand comparison for a moment with the classic works of ages past. Yet we all simply accept this state of affairs; we never demand more of ourselves in the arts, never admit that the dreck passing under the title of art among us is entirely unworthy of a civilized nation. Would any “great” people act this way? Would any truly “indispensable nation” evince such universal insouciance towards their dramatic failure, in an arena of civilized life so crucial to the flourishing of man? What is worse, oftentimes Americans speak of these failures in vaunting fashion, as when we hear people boast that America is “the birthplace of rock and roll.” As though it were a point of pride to be the people that killed music. This is the sort of self-satisfaction I am referring to, and it should be evident how it stands as a formidable mental barrier to the pursuit of excellence. When patriotism becomes conflated with such complacency, its danger to the spiritual health of a people is extreme.

I suspect also that the grounds for asserting our exceptionality is, in the minds of too many Americans, simply the enormous military and economic power we presently enjoy. We have unquestionably had more influence over the course of history since World War II than any other nation, and we have very frequently – perhaps, for the greater part – wielded that influence in honorable fashion. So it is quite natural that we would pride ourselves on the possession of such power. Such pride, however, is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, if the exceptionality of a nation is to be gauged primarily by its dominion over international affairs, we must account the Huns and the Mongols exceptional peoples. This cannot be the kind of historical company we wish to keep. More seriously, the current prospects for the duration of our vast power are not promising; everything points to a diminution in our economic clout and military expanse in the near future. What will become of an affection based primarily on these things? Will Americans who love their country because of her benign hegemony still love their country after that hegemony is gone away?

I will be reminded – and very fairly so – that it is not just America’s possession of power, but her admirable use of that power which should be a point of pride for Americans. An article published recently by the conservative historian Andrew Roberts makes this case very plainly. Writing in the New Criterion, Roberts claimed, “(America) was proud of her exceptionalism, born of an identity that was not wracked with guilt about being a superpower, but was rightly jealous and suspicious of any state that aspired to supplant her, especially those that did not espouse her message of liberty.” With this assertion, we touch on a question of great importance regarding American exceptionality – has America been, and does it continue to be, a liberating force in the world?

Undoubtedly, America has served as such a liberating force, most obviously in her long struggles against the twin ideological monsters of the twentieth century, fascism and communism. Americans have every right to feel proud about our role in those conflicts. The unwillingness of many left-wing polemicists to acknowledge the legitimate grounds for that pride is what makes them so repulsive; I mean figures like Noam Chomsky, who would rather exonerate a cretin like Pol Pot of all his crimes than admit that the government of his native country acted a single time with a decent intention. Still, putting aside this kind of uncandid, doctrinaire denigration of our international policy, we must confess that our intervention in global affairs has not always resulted in greater freedom for foreign peoples. Our support of dictators like Pinochet and Mubarak must also be taken into account when considering the effects of our dominance. It will be said – and again, very correctly – that in these cases, assistance to dictators was only a means of preventing a greater tyranny from arising – the Communists on the one hand, the Islamists on the other. The righteous exertion of political influence in the affairs of foreign peoples is a murky and complex business. But this is very much my point: the wielding of power internationally is always such a morally ambiguous affair, that no reverence should ever be directed towards such power. If there is one facet of civilized life where cool judgment ought to prevail over emotional bluster, it is in weighing the effects of state power on the lives and destinies of millions of our fellow men. 

I think the best way to judge whether or not America is presently a liberating force in the world is simply to examine the sort of liberty we enjoy here at home. After all, we cannot export what we do not possess. If liberty here is vital and dignifying, then we have good cause to believe ourselves capable of spreading liberty to foreign lands. But if instead, liberty has decayed among us into something base, then our capacity to be the harbinger of liberty to foreign peoples should stand in doubt.

That said, can anybody really deny that the idea of liberty has degenerated among us into something base and demoralizing? I don’t mean always, and in the minds of everyone, but certainly it cannot escape notice that in our present culture, the word “liberty” is commonly thrown around as a justification for every sort of shameful and unsocial behavior imaginable. Based on current usage, it is very often impossible to distinguish the significance of the word “liberty” from that of the terms “insolence,” “solipsism,” or “deviance.” In the minds of the distinct majority of Americans, liberty simply means doing what one likes, which is what all the ancient moral thinkers would have referred to rather as “license.” Liberty with us generally refers to an uninhibited spontaneity of volition, a lack of external restraint upon our will, where what is external to our will is defined increasingly broadly, and includes traditions of practice and ethical dictums. In short, liberty almost always means to the American people liberal freedom, for liberalism is, at its heart, this unique and revolutionary concept of what human liberty entails. What Edmund Burke referred to as a “manly, moral, regulated liberty,” the antithesis of liberal freedom, is almost never to be found in either the speculations or the political ordering of the American people. 

I cannot wish to see our false distortions of the concept of liberty spread around the world. I cannot revel in a hegemony whose prime import is an uncivil license, corrosive of the most fundamental tenets of ethical and political order. I cannot cheer the global triumph of habits of thought which I have deplored in their effects upon my native country. And I find it incredibly strange that self-declared conservatives are now among the loudest champions of that triumph, as evinced by the piece from Andrew Roberts quoted above; what this means is that conservatives are now among the brashest advocates of the international spread of liberal thought. This alone should make us wonder whether there is any more use in the world for what has come to be called the conservative movement.

Matthew Arnold employs an effective analogy between liberty and machinery in his Culture and Anarchy. To Arnold, neither the one thing or the other is to be valued in and of itself, but only insofar as it is used towards admirable purposes. When liberty is worshipped as an end in itself, it results in the vulgarizing inclination to do as one likes:

“May not every man in England say what he likes?” – Mr. Roebuck perpetually asks; and that, he thinks, is quite sufficient, and when every man may say what he likes, our aspirations ought to be satisfied. But the aspirations of culture, which is the study of perfection, are not satisfied, unless what men say, when they may say what they like, is worth saying – has good in it, and more good than bad.

Arnold makes it clear that this reverence of liberty as machinery – as an end in itself – is akin to the worship of power and wealth, which are also qualified goods, goods which are to be valued only in regards to their use. The worship of power and wealth, as constitutive of national greatness, is for Arnold, one of the abiding vices of modern democratic society. It encourages a people to pride themselves on matters external to their good character, which good character is, in the end, the only true basis for national greatness:

Our coal, thousands of people were saying, is the real basis of our national greatness; if our coal runs short, there is an end to the greatness of England.  But what is greatness? – culture makes us ask.  Greatness is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest, and admiration, and the outward proof of possessing greatness is that we excite love, interest, and admiration…what an unsound habit of mind it must be which makes us talk of things like coal or iron as constituting the greatness of England…

Consider, in light of this passage from Arnold, a recent article entitled “’Exceptional’ America” by Victor Davis Hanson, published at the website of the Hoover Institution. Hanson’s chief goal is to assure Americans that the key components of their exceptionality are still in place, awaiting their proper exploitation. Among these components are the stability of our political system, which “reminds investors that their money is safer in the United States, and translates into fewer economic losses due to social unrest.” Our military capacity is another key component of national greatness for Hanson: “In every category of military technology – armor, artillery, aircraft, ships, missiles, drones, robotics, small arms, and space – America remains far ahead of both its allies and rivals.” Furthermore, “the world’s largest corporations…remain American.” And like the Englishmen that Arnold mocks for accounting coal deposits as the grounds of national greatness, Hanson celebrates our abundance of natural resources: “The United States still possesses vast timber, agriculture, and mineral resources. In the last five years, its known fossil fuel reserves…and the ability to exploit them seem to have expanded twofold.” I must make the point again: Hanson is one of the most prominent conservative pundits writing today, but if conservatism has nothing more to offer the world but such naked, unimpressive Philistinism, what is it good for anymore?

For Arnold, the antidote to the worship of liberty and power as ends in themselves is culture, which he famously defined as “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” Arnold makes it clear that culture is by no means just a matter of book learning, but a spiritual discipline which has its fruits in right action; it is “not merely an endeavor to see and learn” but “the endeavor also, to make (culture) prevail.”  Culture chastens the pride of wealth and power, and instills in men’s minds that salutary discontent so crucial to moral striving:

Never did people believe anything more firmly, than nine Englishmen out of ten at the present day believe that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being so very rich…Culture says: “Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their voice; look at them attentively; observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure, the words which come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?” And thus culture begets a dissatisfaction which is of the highest possible value in stemming the common tide of men’s thoughts in a wealthy and industrial community…

In its essence, “culture…is a study of perfection, and of harmonious perfection, general perfection, and perfection which consists in becoming something rather than in having something, in an inward condition of the mind and spirit, not in an outward set of circumstances.”

Much criticism has been leveled at Arnold’s conception of culture over the years, some of it quite valid. But in his assertion that culture is “an inward condition of the mind and spirit,” and in his further contention that judgments of national greatness should rest primarily on this condition of mind and spirit, as it prevails generally among a people, he is certainly correct. And now we arrive at the heart of the matter. For if the authentic criteria of a people’s exceptionality is their “study of perfection,” if this judgment depends on the cultivation of an “inward condition of mind and spirit,” then we must ask ourselves how strenuously we have made such a study and such a cultivation. And the obvious answer is, not at all. To the contrary, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that exposure to American culture – to its music, its manners, its forms of discourse – is increasingly becoming a matter of thorough character deformation, of the slow, unconscious insinuation of habits of incivility and idiocy. One way to grasp how far short we fall of the attainment of that “inward condition of mind and spirit” which stems from a “study of perfection” is to realize that for Arnold, the twin pillars of culture, the two modes of thought which produced that inward condition most effectively, were poetry and religion. With us, poetry is non-existent and religion is largely a form of therapeutic ego-stroking, another branch of the cult of self-esteem. In this sense, it is not a question of us studying perfection poorly; we do not study it at all. Or consider the horrific portrait presented to us by Allan Bloom in his Closing of the American Mind, of American youth arriving at their college years stamped in the depths of their souls by cynicism, doctrinaire relativism, latitudinarianism, ignorance, near illiteracy, and all around nihilism. That book was published in 1987. What has been done by the American people in the intervening years to address this most momentous of cultural failings? Absolutely nothing. When economic growth slips below 2%, every politician and pundit in this country flails around in a panic, and demands that something be done immediately. But when the American people are convincingly informed about the stupendous cultural rot afflicting their minds and their children’s minds, they let out a big yawn and carry on just as before. Clearly, we are a people who do not give a damn about the “study of perfection” or about the “inward condition of their mind and spirit.”

Those who value America for her rise to wealth and prominence err gravely, for her riches and power – as with all riches and power – are valuable only on the basis of what ends they have served. We have been afforded, through our affluence, an unprecedented opportunity to improve the mind of humanity. And we have squandered it completely. We had the chance to achieve excellence in learning and the arts, in political deliberation and civil manners, and to shape our communities in accordance with the deepest wisdom we might have discovered. Instead, we invented reality television, reveled in political scandal, and ran up the largest debt in the history of the world. We have created no monuments of the intellect and the human spirit which might edify us in the present, or inspire posterity in the future. We have committed less energy and less interest to the exaltation of human nature than any other people in history similarly blessed by affluence and peace. For this reason, I repeat the assertion I made at the beginning of this essay: it is simply ludicrous to call ourselves an exceptional or a great people, for a people is great solely in proportion to how greatly their culture ennobles the mind of man. But we have not ennobled the mind of man. We haven’t even tried.

Honesty compels us to make this admission of our failure. But prudence compels us also. The years ahead hold awesome challenges for our country, and it is highly unlikely the global supremacy we have enjoyed these last few decades will endure far into the future. This decline in international predominance is likely to be accompanied at home by similar declines in standards of living and in civic order. It is of the first importance that we all acknowledge these impending calamities as the consequences of our cultural failings, the failure of us all to take adequate care for the state of our souls. A people convinced of its greatness, when confronted with some severe reversal of fortunes, will find it impossible to believe they have had any part in their own sufferings. Rather, they will look around for some culpable cabal, on whom they will lash out with a fury made all the greater by their faith in the purity of their own behavior. Our only hope for avoiding the sort of bloodletting sure to follow upon such fits of resentment is an occasion of national repentance, an honest and universal confession of the spiritual sins committed these many years by each and all. 

I have tried to state frankly why I do not give much credence to the common talk of American exceptionality. I understand that I have criticized a belief held with sincere passion by many of my readers, and as a result, have likely annoyed those readers greatly. So let me end on a conciliatory note by saying this: I wish to believe in American exceptionality too. I also wish to live in a country where a constant striving for greatness marks the people’s mentality. But then it must be a very different conception of national greatness than that which currently prevails among us. It must be a notion of excellence based on the outstanding cultivation of human nature, rather than on economic prosperity, military might, or diplomatic influence. It must be an exceptionality that inheres not just in freedom, but in the dignified use of freedom.  I sometimes indulge myself in the hope that I will live to see such greatness in my lifetime. I dream that I will live in a country where men never boast: “we are free to do what we please,” without adding: “and we are pleased to do what is decent and right.” I imagine a time when the people of the world will not say of America, “there they make the best cars,” or “there they make the best computers,” but rather, “there, in America, they make the best souls.”

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