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American Exceptionalism: Spider-Man vs. de Tocqueville

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Posted on April 1 2011 8:00 pm
Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
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I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

This uninspiring quote has haunted Barack Obama. It leaves some doubt as to whether the president truly regards America as exceptional, or merely expresses a superficial team spirit.

In the wake of the president’s speech earlier this week, during which he attempted to sell his intervention in Libya, leftist commentators have seized upon one of his justifications and flaunted it as evidence of his belief in American exceptionalism.

Steve Benen proclaimed that Obama’s speech should put an end to the debate…: “the president wasn’t subtle — the United States isn’t like other countries; ours is a country with unique power, responsibilities, and moral obligations.” Andrew Sullivan observed that exceptionalism was “the core message of the President’s speech” and that “he clearly believes in that exceptionalism – and now will live with its onerous responsibilities.” Mark Kleiman announced that last night’s speech exposed “one of the stupidest of right-wing talking points about Obama . . . that he somehow disbelieves in the exceptional nature of the American project…”

Adam Serwer wrote: “After Obama’s speech last night. . . anyone who alleges the president doesn’t believe [in exceptionalism] deserves to be laughed out of town…”

This has prompted an intriguing back and forth between Serwer and Salon’s Glenn Greenwald (author of the above blurb). The discussion has taken two tracks. The first is consensus upon this assertion that Obama clearly believes in American exceptionalism. The second is whether that’s a good thing.

Of course, neither of these tracks are terribly useful if we do not first accurately identify what American exceptionalism is. Here’s the Left’s answer.

That conviction… was expressed by Obama’s appeal to “America’s responsibility as a leader” and by this claim: “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”

Serwer calls this “the Spider-Man theory of American Exceptionalism: With great power comes great responsibility.” However, that is not what Alexis de Tocqueville had in mind when he coined the term.

De Tocqueville observed that the young American nation had a unique ability to prosper. This was the result of an exclusive political and economic environment, namely liberty, which enabled a culture of success.

… their exclusively commercial habits… a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.

This was no special claim to international leadership or a moral duty to intervene in the affairs of others. The Left, including President Obama, are making that up.

The exceptional quality which de Tocqueville noted enabled America to become prosperous and therefore powerful. Conversely, the Left’s bastardization of American exceptionalism, the so-called “responsibility to protect,” is a product of power which dictates its use.

These two views of American exceptionalism are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed. They are functional and moral opposites. For if we are bound to others by some special calling, we are not free to pursue our own interests. What the Left is here engaged in is the worst kind of historical revisionism, hijacking a familiar historical concept and transforming it into its polar opposite.

 

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