Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Justin Rosario writes fascinating stuff for  Today, he wrote a piece about how conservatives such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck have very selective memories when it comes to American history.  I would include in that group a whole bunch of other conservatives, notably George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Ronald Reagan.  You can read his piece at

Justin’s article stirred up my feelings about the idea of “American Exceptionalism.”  Exceptionalism is a complicated historical term that is being used by Palin et al. to refer to something that the historian, Anna Gandziarowski, explains in her book, The Puritan Legacy to American Politics.  Dr. Gandziarowski writes that our Puritan forebears believed god had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to lead the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a “City on a Hill” – that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world.  This metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism and was used directly by Ronald Reagan.

Very interesting to me is the fact that one of the causes of this historical belief in American exceptionalism is America’s immigrant nature.  America has been attractive to downtrodden people of other lands (their "City oin a Hill") because of its freedoms, opportunities, and culture.  All of us, except for Native Americans, are immigrants.  Many of the people today who talk about American exceptionalism are the same people who want to build an iron curtain between Mexico and the United States.  Apparently, for these exceptionalists, there are racial and other limits to those who will be admitted to the “City on a Hill.”

There are so many reasons why I bristle at the idea of American exceptionalism, especially in its current fuzzy conservative political expression:

1.  As Justin points out in his piece, these exceptionalists seem to deny or forget huge parts of our history, especially the treatment throughout our history of Native Americans and the institution of slavery that was very much a part of this “City on a Hill” for much of our history.  How can a country that massacred Native Americans and enslaved and marginalized black people be considered at all “exceptional” in anything but the worst sense of that word?

2.  As Dr. Gandziarowski explains, exceptionalism is firmly rooted in a religious belief that the Puritan’s god made this country somehow special.  If we are special, I hope that our uniqueness has nothing to do with anybody’s idea of god.  How arbitrary and shifting an idea that is.  America is a product of the Enlightenment, and most of the Founding Fathers so revered by Palin et al. were desperate to establish this country as a refuge from the faith–based governments of England, France, and other European countries.  What a travesty now to see these modern exceptionalists claiming that their god makes us special.  And look at their god for a minute.  This is the god that is so petty that—according to Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others—he destroyed New Orleans and the World Trade Centers because he hates gay people and proponents of women’s rights.

3.  I am so sick of hearing that we have the greatest military in history.  Really?  More effective than the allies in World War II?  Braver than the Roman legions who fought the barbarians?  I do believe we have the best equipped military in history.  I also believe that the men and women who are in our military today—men and women with whom I worked for 40 years—are the best this country produces; they are literally our best and brightest, in my opinion.  What our military lacks is visionary civilian leadership.  Our political leaders since World War II have become increasingly mediocre and less and less able to give the definitive leadership that a great military needs.

If America is to be exceptional, I would like it to be known for its exceptional compassion, its exceptional inclusion, its exceptional record on human rights, its exceptional public educational system, its exceptional universal health care system, and its exceptional humility.  When that happens, when we are known for those things, then I’ll become an American exceptionalist too.


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  2. A man named Max Brooks wrote in the book World War Z "We are the greatest nation because we are not connected by history, by tradition, by royalty, we are connected by ideals, that is what connects us. If we lose them, we lose our country" I feel that is the real American exceptionalism and it is true, America is a unique nation, not designated by God, but by man's ability to unite under abstract and omnipresent human rights.