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Americanism, Part III- American Exceptionalism

by delicatemonster Sun May 20th, 2007 at 10:29:26 AM EST

Closely tied to the notion of American innocence is a sense of our exceptional character. We believe we are an exceptional people, as George Will is often at pains to point out, we're the only country founded on an ideal--actually a series of ideals. G. K. Chesterton put it this way:

"America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence."

Seymour Lipset has noted that this 'Creed' is really "liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings". It was "essentially the rebellion . . . against the monarchical and aristocratic state--against hereditary privilege, against restrictions on bargains." He argues, that the spirit of America was essentially--and exceptionally -- anarchistic.

"It was anti-State."  

The mistake Lipset makes, along with many conservatives, is conflating a rebellion against Monarchism with a rebellion against the concept of the modern state (which didn't even exists at that point!). Among other things, he seems to forget the words in the Declaration of Independence form an up close and personal j'accuse against the monarchy, represented by another aloof boor named George. The articulation in our constitution and declaration is hardly 'anti-state'; it is anti-monarchical. In fact, the vision of our founding fathers was to create a separate category of nation state altogether. Surely they would not have gone to all the trouble of devising a three branch ruling body, with its checks and balances carefully worked out, if they, in fact, favored anarchy. Me thinks Lipset is letting his own anti-socialist and libertarian prejudices slip through.

But the main point holds: the creation of the United States was a rebellion against the Monarchism that came before it and out of which it was borne. Alexander Tocqueville also finds the roots of our exceptionalism in that rebellion, and in the material expansive of the country and the acquisitive nature of the individual. Unlike Europe, American pioneers found a vast expanse of open land, inhabited by Indians who were successfully ignored, or pushed back. Most of the Europeans who arrived early enough could own their own land or work towards ownership. Tocqueville  called this industriousness and desire to amass one's personal fortune a "middling" of values, neither aristocratic in its desire for `the idealized good' (and it's consideration of mere money making as banal) nor plebian with its foreclosure of future hopes entirely. The devotion to these `middling' values, individualism and self made industriousness, was what set America apart from Europe and made it `exceptional'. This is often referred to with the short hand, " the American Dream", a 'dream' which might also explain why Americans have never embraced socialism as Europe has--the belief in America was that with sufficient `middling' effort, one could acquire a fortune of one's own.

One off shoot of this is that Americans also tended to suspect intellectual and intellectual elites--the refinements of aristocracy were conflated with the leisure of contemplative thought and so both were frequently tossed overboard, unless the egg head could also prove himself industrious and useful to some extent. Inventors were welcome, theoreticians, not so much. Tocqueville asserted such `natural elites' were the lone virtuous members of American society, but they could not enjoy much share in the political sphere as a result of the middling values system inherent in America. Ordinary Americans enjoyed too much power to defer to intellectual superiors as it were. He called this leveling of leadership "a middling mediocrity." We've all seen examples of this, from the lowering of the national discourse around election times, to the daily embarassments that passes for entertainment and news on American television and radio. Our Presidents are especially emblematic of this 'middling': Relatively taciturn leaders like Coolidge, unable or unwilling to speak much to anyone, folksy inarticulate Presidents like Eisenhower or Reagan with his sweeping folksy rhetoric but little or nothing in the way of insightful policy intelligence...all the way to the acme of inarticulate: George W. Bush, an incoherent, drawling good ole' boy who has worked very hard to make himself the anti-thesis of the intellectual. Tocqueville wouldn't roll in his grave, he'd just nod and roll his eyes.

But there is another aspect to the notion of American exceptionalism, that is not so much how we ourselves act among ourselves, but how we act toward the rest of the world. The idea, as Howard Zinn has put it,

"is that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary"

The zealotry for redefining the world in our image probably started as early as 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Governor John Winthrop uttered the words that centuries later would be quoted by Ronald Reagan. Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a "city upon a hill." Reagan embellished a little, calling it a "shining city on a hill."

Of course, just a few years after Governor Winthrop waxed eloquent about our shining city on the hill, individuals from that same city participated in the massacre of the Pequot Indians that some historians have suggested was the event that marked our first Thanksgiving.

One of the consequences of American exceptionalism in combination with our firm believe in our own innocence--put another way, our inability to do wrong-- is that the U.S. government considers itself exempt from legal and moral standards accepted by other nations in the world. Zinn notes,

There is a long list of such self-exemptions: the refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty regulating the pollution of the environment, the refusal to strengthen the convention on biological weapons. The failure to join the hundred-plus nations that have agreed to ban land mines, in spite of the appalling statistics about amputations performed on children mutilated by those mines. The refusal to ban the use of napalm and cluster bombs. Our insistence that we must not be subject, as are other countries, to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

This brand of anti-internationalism runs deep in the American political tradition, as any casual student of history knows, and its persistence is to be expected. More surprising is the respectability that the movement is winning among academics and policy analysts. What's most dangerous is that this thinking is not simple Patrick Buchanan isolationism at its core. No - this school does not oppose international engagement per se and thus cannot be classified simply as isolationist. Rather, it holds that the United States can pick and choose the international conventions and laws that serve its purpose and reject those that do not. Call it international law a la carte; exceptionalism with teeth.

According to Foreign Affairs:

"This "New Sovereigntist" vision explains the continuing U.S. refusal to participate in a broad array of international regimes, some of them now nearly universally accepted by other nations. It drove the Senate's recent rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Clinton administration's refusal to sign on to the Land Mines Convention and the Rome Treaty establishing an international criminal court, and the U.S. failure to submit the Kyoto Protocol on global warming for Senate approval. It also explains Washington's persistent refusal to conform U.S. practices to international human rights regimes....Only the free-trade agreements -- provided they are limited to trade and do not include the environment, labor issues, or human rights -- pass muster under New Sovereigntism because they are thought to serve American interests."

This brings up yet another way in which we might think of ourselves as exceptional--our economic might, our wealth. Being one of the wealthiest nations on earth, we might also expect our country to be equally generous. Certainly many a rightwing pundits from Bill O'Reilly to Glenn Reynolds seem to suffer under the delusion that we are exceptionally generous, even disastrously so. Unfortunately, this isn't born out by the facts. USA's aid, in terms of percentage of their GNP is already lowest of any industrialized nation in the world. See the following table:

Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 2000 to 2003
ODA in U.S. Dollars (Millions)    ODA as GNP Percentage

        ODA in U.S. Dollars (Millions)    ODA as GNP Percentage
        2000    2001    2002    2003    2000    2001    2002    2003

  1.     Norway    1,264    1,346    1,746    2,043    0.8    0.83    0.91    0.92
  2.     Denmark    1,664    1,599    1,632    1,747    1.06    1.01    0.96    0.84
  3. Netherlands    3,075    3,155    3,377    4,059    0.82    0.82    0.82    0.81
  4. Luxembourg    116    142    143    189    0.7    0.8    0.78    0.8
  5.     Sweden    1,813    1,576    1,754    2,100    0.81    0.76    0.74    0.7
  6.     Belgium    812    866    1,061    1,887    0.36    0.37    0.42    0.61
  7.     Ireland    239    285    397    510    0.3    0.33    0.41    0.41
  8.     France    4,221    4,293    5,182    7,337    0.33    0.34    0.36    0.41
  9. Switzerland    888    908    933    1,297    0.34    0.34    0.32    0.38
  10.     U. K.    4,458    4,659    4,749    6,166    0.31    0.32    0.3    0.34
  11.     Finland    371    389    466    556    0.31    0.33    0.35    0.34
  12.     Germany    5,034    4,879    5,359    6,694    0.27    0.27    0.27    0.28
  13.     Canada    1,722    1,572    2,013    2,209    0.25    0.23    0.28    0.26
  14.     Spain    1,321    1,748    1,608    2,030    0.24    0.3    0.25    0.25
  15. Australia    995    852    962    1,237    0.27    0.25    0.25    0.25
  16. New Zealand    116    111    124    169    0.26    0.25    0.23    0.23
  17. Portugal    261    267    282    298    0.26    0.25    0.24    0.21
  18.     Greece    216    194    295    356    0.19    0.19    0.22    0.21
  19.     Japan    13,062    9,678    9,220    8,911    0.27    0.23    0.23    0.2
  20.     Austria    461    457    475    503    0.25    0.25    0.23    0.2
  21.     Italy    1,368    1,493    2,313    2,393    0.13    0.14    0.2    0.16
  22.     U. S.    9,581    10,884    12,900    15,791    0.1    0.11    0.12    0.14


Note that Canada is number 13 and France is number 8. The US is way down at the end, number 22. The main point to note above is that out of the 22 richest countries in the world, we are dead last in terms of GNP spending. This might explain why people don't consider us exceptionally generous. The US is actually the cheapest donors of first world nations that bother to donate to the third world countries. We also, by the way, were the richest of all the rich countries .... (As of 2006, we were the seventh richest  of all the rich countries--hat tip to retrograde for the up to date stat).

But really, it's worse than the numbers indicate, rather like J.P. Morgan asking Steven Jobs to take up his slack. They're both rich, sure, but Morgan, as a banker with control over billions that may not necessarily be his own could direct that money via investment plans, etc.. In short, the U.S. as economic leader has a heckuvalot more financial power at their command and more latitude in how invested funds are spent (and others spend it) then what the raw dollar amount of our GNP would even indicate. We have obviously fallen short as an economic leader, due precisely to the 'middling' of values that Tocqueville noted. Our bottom line since at least the Marshall Plan has always been the disease of the CEO class--the short term strategic interest, the short term buck. We eviscerate domestic industries through offshoring and outsourcing with the promise of short term profits for corporate leaders and maybe opening up markets in China. Ultimately we end up destroying our own middle class at the behest of multinationals who now have more real power than any Senator, Governor or Mayor.

We are exceptional in one material area, however. According to data collected by the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, more than $4 billion in small arms sales are made each year. The United States, responsible for 18% of that market share, has the dubious honor of being the largest exporter, with $741.4 million in sales in 2003--at a time when most governments would have noted that arming the world after invading two countries and suffering a massive terrorist attack on our own land might not be the most rational course on earth. In arming the world at such a dangerous time in the pursuit of easy profit, those `middling' values that Tocqueville promised would level our leaders, we are exceptional, indeed.

Americanism, Part I - American Innocence
Americanism, Part II- American Militarism

Next diary, Americanism, Part IV - American Religiosity
(Cross posted at DailyKos, ProgressiveHistorians, DelicateMonster)

Another exceptional diary. thank you.

I think it's sad the way these diaries are sinking without trace on kos. I fear that you are highlighting embarrassing culural assumptions that even self-identified progressives prefer not to confront.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 01:27:13 PM EST
Thank you, Helen. There's a fairly dedicated but small contingency of kossites reading the things (and seemingly enjoying them too--on the diary rescues, anyhow), but as for the rest...ah well. Maybe you're right, the points are too close to their cultural home--or maybe there's just too many 'notes' involved in reading the whole damned thing. :-)
by delicatemonster (delicatemons@delicatemonster.com) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 01:34:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I really enjoyed this.  Thanks for posting it and taking the time to write it.  
by zoe on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 02:40:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Haven't seen these diaries there at all....
by cambridgemac on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 10:30:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good work!  Thank you for the effort to take the big perspective and be objective.  These truths are not easy to swallow.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 03:37:54 PM EST

Its "(nominal)" in brackets (translated because () are not used in a URL), not "nominal" in the clear.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 07:04:10 PM EST
And while not first, in terms of GDP (PPP) per capita, IMF figures, the US is fourth, after Luxemborg, Ireland, and Norway, and just ahead of Iceland and HK-SAR. ...

... though in the CIA World Factbook, the US is 6th in its ranking and 10th overall, with Bermuda, Jersey, Equatorial Guinea (???), United Arab Emirates, Guernsey, and Cayman Islands also sneaking in there ahead of the US.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 07:11:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks BruceMcf for the correction, I updated the link. I'll let others reconcile a broad average of USA standing vis a vis international GDP--unless you can recommend one of these sources as being especially more 'authoritative' than the other...
by delicatemonster (delicatemons@delicatemonster.com) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 09:11:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For international economic clout per person, nominal GDP per capita is fine ... the reason it elevates the Eurozone countries relative to the US is the strength of the Euro against PPP ... and that strength is an indicator of economic power.

For standard of living per person, PPP GDP per capita is OK, but really for standard of living per person it should be median PPP GDP per capita, and given the high income inequality in the US, the US would certainly give up places in switching from the simple average to the middle income.

Even if the game was switched from per capital to total size of the economy, I expect that at current exchange rates, the EU will have a larger economy than the US ... and if we switch to PPP, then China will have the larger economy by 2010.

So no matter how you slice it or dice it, "wealthiest country in the world" looks like a shaky claim in the most generous reading, and most likely simply false.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 10:06:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
regarding 'the wealthiest' note: that's why I wrote "Being one of the wealthiest nations on earth"...not "the wealthiest". I presume the US is still considered one of the wealthiest, though, of course, that status might change sooner than we expect.
by delicatemonster (delicatemons@delicatemonster.com) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 10:57:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As delicatemonster points out, Wall Street and Washington may not have all of the money in the world, but their influence on where that money is, and isn't, spent, is huge, and not necessarily tied to GDP.

The option to spend money the planetary good has always been there. It's only rarely been considered in the US.

Instead a lot of 'aid' spending is often tied to marketista missionary work in developing countries, on propping up corrupt regimes, and on fighting communism back when that was still fashionable.

I think there's a useful but modest contribution from private sources in the US. But private philanthropy rarely takes the global view and is too unreliable as a funding source to support structural improvements.

The US is also famously indifferent to, and sometimes actively hostile to, the UN and its various humanitarian projects.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 07:33:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... Washington on where money is, however, is waning, as a runaway current account deficit (exceeding 6% of GDP and rising) implies a large capital account surplus, and the more critical capital inflows becomes to a nation's economy, the less influence a nation has on global capital flows.

Since China is focusing the influence of its capital outflows on maintaining a steeply discounted exchange rate, that means that the influence of the EU and Japan on global capital flows is rising.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 11:04:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
the last couple of decades of rightwingnuttery (religious mission) in USian politics have warped US foreign aid considerably, for example stifling, defunding, sidelining programmes that support family planning and women's sexual literacy/autonomy.  the effects of this -- and of the various revanchist patriarchal/nationalist backlashes against US colonial aggression and occupation -- are being felt in world population projections...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 05:50:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the consequences of American exceptionalism in combination with our firm believe in our own innocence--put another way, our inability to do wrong-- is that the U.S. government considers itself exempt from legal and moral standards accepted by other nations in the world. Zinn notes,

Followed by long list of self-exemptions

While I am more than willing to agree that the US Government has made many mistakes, or at least has made foreign policy decisions that I personally do not agree with, I do not accept the premise that these misguided steps are due to a belief in innocence or an inability to do wrong, or because the U.S. considers itself exempt from moral standards accepted by other nations of the world.

Any nation on earth, regardless of the character or history of its citizens, develops policies based upon what it considers to be its national interests. Nations do not as a rule engage in purely altruistic  international endeavor or sign treaties that provide no national benefits.  From that vantage point one should hopefully be able to form a more realistic or at least scholarly understanding of American foreign policy decisions.  The Kyoto Treaty was not believed to be in U.S. national interests (a mistake - maybe).  Refusal to support various bans on weapons, ditto.  Innocence and self-exemption from morality had nothing to do with these decisions.  Nations and governments are not moral beings.  Demonize the individuals who formulated the policies or made the key decisions if you must, but do not place the blame on some sort of flaw in the national character.  

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Mon May 21st, 2007 at 11:13:06 PM EST

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