The Left has been atwitter in the wake of President Obama’s Libya speech, seizing upon his assertion of America’s “responsibility to protect” as evidence of a heartfelt belief in American exceptionalism. Of course, what has made America exceptional has been its political and economic liberty, not some esoteric calling to police the world. That said, the topic prompted Salon’s Glenn Greenwald to question whether America is exceptional at all.
The pervasiveness of this exceptionalism isn’t really surprising. It’s a common human desire to believe that one is special, unique, better than all others. Few people aspire to ordinariness. We view the world — physically and mentally — from our own personal perspective, and are inherently situated at the center of it. As tribal beings, we naturally believe that our customs and the beliefs with which we were inculcated from childhood are superior to Theirs. Personally, I’ve never understood how the following thought doesn’t obliterate — or at least severely dilute — the conviction of one’s exceptionalism:
The probability that I happened to be born in the greatest country on Earth — or, even more so, the greatest country ever to exist on Earth in all of human history — is minute. Isn’t it far more likely that I believe this because I was taught to, rather than because it’s true?
Consider the premise. Greenwald speaks of probability, as if the assertion of American exceptionalism were a bet before the flop, as if we don’t know whether the country we live in is any different from any other. This is reminiscent of the infamous Obama quote where the notion of American exceptionalism was compared to British or Greek exceptionalism, a tribal conceit, like the boasting of dueling sports fans.
Such comments are indicative of a troublesome worldview which ought to be rejected and shunned. It includes social constructionism and moral relativism. According to these notions, there is no objective truth, and therefore no inherent or absolute value. America is not exceptional among nations. Its people merely feel that way. So too do the people of Britain, Greece, and every other nation. None have any higher claim to greatness than another.
The reason this view is troublesome should be obvious. It does not regard the liberty and prosperity which result from the American way of life as greater than the despotism and stagnation which result from many others.
The notion of American exceptionalism is not a boastful romantic hope or ill-informed bet subject to probability. It is an analysis of results. It’s looking at your hand, once the betting is done and the cards are flipped, and knowing it is the best.
The perversion of objective American exceptionalism into some sort of esoteric higher calling, now termed the “responsibility to protect,” has visited us before under another name – manifest destiny. Then, as now, it was used to justify war and propagate the notion of an American mission to enforce our values through might.
If this sounds similar to claims from the Left, take note. There is a crucial difference between condemning America in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright sense, pointing to expansionism absent any context as evidence of an overriding evil, and acknowledging it as a thread in a much larger tapestry. Frankly, the Left’s tendency to focus upon America’s history of expansion highlights the hypocrisy of this moment. After all, what is the “responsibility to protect” if not a modern retooling of the old expansionist claim. They are savages, and we shall force them to be like us.
We must untangle the truth of American exceptionalism from the notion that we must remake others in our image. It is not a conceit to look at cultural results and judge ours objectively superior. It is a conceit to imagine we may or can coerce those results from others. More, it presents a cogitative dissonance. The results of liberty cannot be forced. Is that not obvious?