Saturday, October 06, 2012

Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism?

Walter McDougall
Familiar Photo

My old, paleoconservative history professor from UC Berkeley has posted an informative e-note on the origin of the familiar but puzzling concept "American Exceptionalism":
What does it mean to say the United States is exceptional? If it just means unique, then the claim is unexceptional because no two countries are exactly alike. If it just means that Americans have believed their country is special, then (as a British skeptic writes) there is "nothing exceptional about this exceptionalism. All great nations cherish national myths." If it means that the U.S.A. was exceptionally virtuous given its precocious dedication to civil and religious liberty, equality, justice, prosperity, social mobility, and peace and harmony with all nations, then ipso facto the U.S.A. is exceptionally vicious for falling so short of those ideals. If the term means rather that Americans are somehow exempted from the laws of entropy governing other nations -- that (as Bismarck reportedly quipped) "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America" -- then such exceptionalism can only be proven sub specie aeternitatis. Indeed, the very illusion that a nation is under divine dispensation may perversely inspire the pride that goeth before a fall ("thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God") or the many bad ends to which reckless adolescents are prone. Finally, if American Exceptionalism means that its power, values, and "indispensable" status render the United States exempt from the rules of behavior it makes and enforces on other nations, then enemies, neutrals, and allies alike are sure to push back.
One might get the impression that McDougall is skeptical of "American Exceptionalism." If so, one would be right!
For these reasons "exceptionalism" is more trouble and probably even more danger than it's worth: it either means nothing at all or altogether too much. But the principal reason to banish the term from historical discourse is that the icky, polysyllabic, Latinate moniker did not even exist until the mid-20th century! No Puritan colonist, no founding Patriot, no Civil War statesman, no 19th century poet, pastor, or propagandist employed the word. To be sure, most of them believed the United States to be an historic undertaking, even a "new order for the ages." But far from believing their nation to be an exception to the rules of nature governing other men and nations, they both hoped their example would transform the whole world and feared that a lack of republican virtue would doom their experiment. In neither case would Americans stand apart from the rest of the human race.
So . . . who coined this troubling, troublesome, risky expression? Not quite this guy:
Not until 1835 did a foreigner, Alexis de Tocqueville, catalogue the features of New World democracy and conclude: "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one." Note, however, that he applied the term to Americans' position rather than to the people themselves, and argued that American institutions and values were the very opposite of universal. In any event, his adjectival usage had no echo and inspired no noun -- no "ism" -- among Americans themselves. Exceptionalism as some sort of birthright is an anachronism!
One might argue that this exceptional position places Americans themselves in an exceptional role -- and thus of course the opposite of universal -- but never mind. Yet if not Tocqueville, who then applied it to the American people? Not this guy either:
Flash forward to 1906 when another foreigner, German sociologist Werner Sombart, asked why the United States seemed unique among industrial, urban societies in that its working classes showed no interest in the ideology or politics of Socialism. He identified many reasons why American workers seemed content with capitalism, but nowhere did Sombart employ any word that could be fairly translated as exceptionalism. He referred instead to the "idiosyncrasies of the spiritual culture" (Eigenart der geistigen Kultur) or "American popular soul" (die Eigenarten der amerikanische Volksseele). But what was the source of this spirit? Must one hypothesize that it just dropped from the heavens "on the chosen people" (auf das ausserwählte Volk)? Not at all, he insisted, because the same entrepreneurial spirit could be found in London or Berlin. It was just purer and far more pervasive in the United States thanks to such factors as the Protestant ethic, democratic consensus, two-party system, high standard of living, social mobility, and safety-valve of an open frontier. For Sombart Americans occupied an extreme on the sociological spectrum, but were not exceptional, not "off the charts."
Idiosyncratic, extreme . . . but not exceptional. Where, then, did the expression come from?
The real origins of the notion of an exceptional United States lurk in the recondite disputations of the two greatest transnational movements in the early twentieth century: the Catholic Church and the Communist International. Both had reason to fear that Americans might be immune to their presumptively universal appeals.
Good Lord! Or not:
Ever since 1784, when Bishop John Carroll set up the first Catholic diocese in the United States, the Vatican displayed confusion about how to grow a doctrinal, hierarchical church in a mostly Protestant land that enjoyed religious freedom and material plenty. A century later European prelates grew alarmed by reports from American bishops about the erosion of doctrine and obedience among Catholic immigrants and their children. (European rabbis were equally alarmed about Jewish immigrants.) In 1899 Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, that condemned a heresy called Americanism, a name to which "there is no reason to take exception." The encyclical attributed this Americanism to the nation's revolutionary origins, individualism, Anglo-Saxon culture, liberalism, egalitarianism, and separation of Church and State, all of which tempted American Catholics to stray from the straight and narrow path.
That's it? Seems rather too little to attribute the concept of "American Exceptionalism" to Catholicism. This Communist debate, however, seems much more likely as the source:
Finally, in the 1920s, the American Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone rendered a diagnosis of American society that echoed those of Sombart and the Vatican. His purpose was to explain why his comrades' agitation and propaganda had achieved so little by way of organizing the factory workers of Pittsburgh or Detroit. The reason was, argued Lovestone, that capitalism in the United States was exceptionally productive and stable, which made it hard to "raise their consciousness," which meant the proletarian revolution would take much longer than elsewhere to develop. The report engendered discreet discussion, mostly in Russian journals, until Soviet dictator Josef Stalin anathematized the theory as a form of deviationism. Then Wall Street crashed and the American Communist Party coined the term, in . . . April 1930, in the form of an obituary. "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States," it proclaimed, "blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism."
Hmmm . . . so there it is, a Communist coinage of the expression "American Exceptionalism." How ironic. I gather that in McDougall's view, "American Exceptionalism" was stillborn as a concept. But if so, how did this miscarriage of suchness come to be adopted by the mainstream?

Read the entire article to find out.

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