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Thursday, 8 September 2011
The problem with American-Exceptionalism

The preaching of “American-Exceptionalism” has become a stumbling block for many historians. It is a narrow-minded and archaic way of looking at our nation’s past and does nothing to expand our knowledge of history. By simply believing that we were, are, and always will be the best is not only conceited, it is completely illogical and ignorant. I believe in exceptional people while simultaneously rejecting the notion of an exceptional nation. We can be proud of our heritage and still be honest about ourselves. America is a great country for sure, but it is not THE greatest country. For any country to make that claim is absurd. Therefore “American-Exceptionalism” is a myth. It is a lazy practice that is propagated by the rehashing of biased history. The only way to get away from it is to get away from ourselves. Enter the foreign press. Sometimes the best way to get an honest answer is to get a second, unbiased opinion. After spending a few hours on foreign press websites I have found five common beliefs about America’s view of history that are shared across the globe.

  1. America has created a revised version of its own story. This adaptation is taught to its youth and contaminates their fundamental understanding of history for the rest of their lives.
  2. The nation’s founding documents are revered more like divine scriptures than legal documents. This is the primary cause of never-ending controversy and misinterpretation.
  3. The vision of an underdog rising against tyrants has indelibly been etched in the nation's consciousness. Americans believe that their fight for independence trumps all others.
  4. Misguided and inappropriate hero-worship abounds in America. There is no distinction between the real contributions of a George Washington and the fantasy ones of a John Wayne.
  5. America persists in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States.

I don’t think anyone can argue with those points. One article in particular put America’s historical vanity in perspective for me. It was written by a German journalist named Thomas Klau for the Financial Times, Deutschland, Germany. Appropriately titled 'Cult of the Founding Fathers' is Obscuring America's Worldview, this piece outlines why our exaggerated and self-centered interpretation of American history has affected our perspective, not only of ourselves, but also the rest of the world. Klau writes:

…And while it is a pillar of American democracy, that healing strength that is founded in the cult of the founding fathers has a rather peculiar consequence: The intentions of these political actors of two centuries ago are the ultimate touchstone for conditions in the United States today; and to this day it is this backward-perspective that to a great extent influences America’s perceptions of the rest of the world. Americans are hardly conscious of this, and since they never discuss it, the phenomenon is hardly registered in Europe. But anyone who listens to the way Americans discuss themselves is surprised at America's implicit self-comparison, less with real foreign countries than to another, mythical, abroad. And it's this imaginary abroad which is manifestly ruled by an unrestrained monarch where no constitutional court dominates state and government, and where people are not equal and less free than the citizens of the much-blessed United States.

He continues:

In America, the collective image of foreign countries is a mythical one, preserved as if in formaldehyde, handed down from the time of the founding fathers with the Kingdom of England circa 1776 unconsciously serving as the main point of reference. This allows the United States to persist in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States. One only has to recall the repressive American culture of prohibition and punishment. It is in this way that the tradition-arrested Americans protect themselves against the pressure to compare their own achievements and social structures against real foreign examples. Thus the myth and collective emotion stabilize society. But this happens at the expense of critical thinking and lessons learned. It is a double-edged phenomenon that has worked its way into every aspect of American public life.

I am curious as to how the proponents of “American-Exceptionalism” would respond to this. Some would no doubt scoff at this German’s interpretation of us and disregard it as yet another silly foreigner’s unwelcomed opinion. Others who are less astute will offer the same old argument that America is simply the best because God blessed us above all others. I look at this as a challenge for American historians to work harder at examining our past in the present. Maybe then we can claim to truly understand who we are and where we come from. Maintaining a superiority complex that was started by our ancestors does nothing to evolve the study of American history.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 3:07 PM EDT
Updated: Friday, 9 September 2011 2:59 PM EDT
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