Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | November 9, 2010

Will the Real Exceptionalism Please Stand Up?

Jonah Goldberg, that lover of all things pseudohistorical, has penned another whopper. This time, he’s taking on American exceptionalism:

What’s bizarre about [Peter] Beinart and [Michael] Kinsley’s rendition of American exceptionalism is that it reflects the premise that the idea of American exceptionalism is an artifact of right-wing jingoism, xenophobia or ignorance. And even Obama flirts with this sort of thing every time he chalks up opposition to his agenda to fear, bigotry or small-mindedness.

Forget that every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we fought a Revolutionary War to become an exceptional nation. From their dismissive condescension, you’d think these three educated men didn’t know that American exceptionalism has been a well-established notion among scholars for more than a century. …

For the record, I’m with [Marco] Rubio. America is the greatest country in the world. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But it is, and remains, the last best hope of Earth.

First of all, check out Goldberg’s list of “scholars” who believe in American exceptionalism: Alexis de Tocqueville, E. L. Godkin, and Werner Sombart. Among the problems with that list: all of those guys have been dead for a very long time. Godkin was a journalist, not a “scholar.” Sombart was a scholar who disliked America for its “exceptional” qualities and whose ideas are thoroughly discredited. Tocqueville remains remarkably current, with a respected school of “neo-Tocquevillian” thinkers convinced of his brilliance. But if you read neo-Tocquevillians like Robert Putnam, they spend most of their time complaining that America isn’t nearly as great as it was in Tocqueville’s day. Neo-Tocquevillians don’t believe America is exceptional; they only believe that it used to be.

But on to the more important conceptual issues. After all, I could produce plenty of respected scholars — people like Michael Kammen, Liah Greenfeld, or, reaching back to a classic, Louis Hartz — who argue that America is exceptional. Goldberg doesn’t mention these people because he has no idea what “American exceptionalism” really means. Watch him slide around shamelessly between definitions: first he criticizes Obama for saying he believes in exceptionalism (but apparently not really meaning it), then he cites the anti-American Werner Sombart as a “good” exceptionalist, and finally he ends by arguing that “America is the greatest country in the world,” a belief apparently synonymous with exceptionalism. I have to give Goldberg some credit here: it’s pretty ballsy to write an entire editorial in a major newspaper about a word you can’t define and don’t understand.

It’s clear Goldberg is conflating two propositions: one, that America is different from other nations; two, that America is better than other nations. I agree with both of these statements. The first is my professional opinion, because I am convinced by the arguments of Kammen and Greenfeld that the United States was founded under unique circumstances and developed along unusual lines. The second is my personal belief, and I believe it for the same reason I believe the Arizona Diamondbacks are the best team in baseball (and no statistician is going to prove me otherwise!). I love my country because it’s mine; I find beauty in its strengths and have sympathy for its weaknesses. That’s my right, as it is Goldberg’s. But conflating that belief with a scholarly concept like exceptionalism, pretending it’s some sort of authoritative truth, is as bad as believing the Diamondbacks really are the best team in baseball.

Conservatives like Goldberg are convinced that liberals dislike America. This is because when conservatives want to change America, they want to return it to its roots, while when liberals want to change America, they want to see it progress to new vistas of achievement. To Goldberg, saying America wasn’t created perfect and blameless is a soft form of treason. Maybe so, but none of this has anything to do with exceptionalism, and I wish Goldberg and other conservatives would stop trying to lend authority to their opinions by appropriating scholarly terms they haven’t bothered to understand.

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  1. Well said, Jeremy. It’s the mythology of America we all love. The mistake is when people think the mythology IS America, and those of us living in reality know our country falls far short of its ideals. We shouldn’t worship America like it is some infallible idol. We have to parent America, as any democracy requires of its citizens. And that means reprimanding it when it’s wrong, and helping to teach it how to be better. Obama had it right when he said we’re engaged continuously in the act of ‘perfecting’ the union. It is not, in itself, perfect.

  2. Carl Schurz said it best: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”

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