Happy Birthday America: How Exceptional Are You?

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Happy Birthday America: How Exceptional Are You?

Today, as we celebrate the birth of our nation as the world's beacon of freedom and democracy, we might also ponder the insights from a book by Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is an especially pertinent topic for us during this insecure period of empire, war and economic decline.

Hodgson grew up in Great Britain and became a great admirer of Americans because of what we did during World War II. He studied in Philadelphia and served as a correspondent for the London Observer in Washington, D.C. He covered the Civil Rights Movement and made films about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan. He taught at Harvard and Berkeley and has visited all but two states. He prides himself in spending most of his life in trying to understand the history and politics of the United States and he provides an interesting "outsider's" viewpoint.

American exceptionalism, says Hodgson, is rooted in religion where colonialists saw themselves as "a chosen people" destined to "fulfill a unique historical destiny." This ideology surfaces from time to time, especially when the nation is in crisis. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush all used it because it resonates well with the public and reasserts our identity. President Obama is now using it by "appealing to our better natures," as Lincoln would call it.

Our schools have trained us well in exceptionalism, he says, however, what they often miss is the context of international historic processes at work. For example, the American Revolution borrowed its ideas about liberty and freedom from Europeans who had been developing them since the seventeenth century British Revolution and the eighteenth century Enlightenment.

European political rivalries and struggles also influenced America's development because they brought dispossessed immigrants to our shores. We were exceptional in that we offered the immigrants land they couldn't get in Europe. However, these lands became available through our expulsion of the indigenous tribes who once lived on them. In this way we were not exceptional to the Europeans who built their colonial empires in the same way.

Hodgson continues that westward movement, made possible mostly by the transcontinental railroads, was financed by Europeans who also invested in our manufacturing, provided us with intellectual property, and supplied us with cheap European labor-through immigration.

The twentieth century reinforced America's exceptionalist belief when we acted as "an international knight errant, riding to the rescue of the victims of oppression and injustice." Much of this ideology came from Wilson but FDR tapped it, too, and it inspired us to win two world wars. A good thing, says Hodgson.

The post-war 1950s began a new era of American exceptionalist thought and brought more good. Our victory in war bred a new prosperity, wider participation in politics, greater rights for women and minorities, belief in educational opportunity, mobility in geography and economics and concern for the welfare of others. But it also produced a dark side where we feared vulnerability with the Soviet Union. However, our Cold War textbooks taught us a "new militant sense of exceptionalism" with a re-worked religious belief that "the United States had been entrusted by God with a mission of bringing light to a darling world."

This story continues into the mid-1970s until something happens to make America seem less exceptional, he says. International institutions the United States had created, like the United Nations, became unpopular with many Americans. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 fomented a hubris where we seemed to reject "long-cherished principles."

For example, America switched from being exceedingly liberal (the legacy of FDR) to being exceedingly conservative (the legacy of Reagan), which made us drastically exceptional from the rest of the world in terms of:

  • imprisoning greater numbers of people
  • providing less access to health care
  • sustaining a growing inequality in distribution of income and wealth
  • disconnecting the campaign from the deeds done in politics
  • rejecting assumptions about global warming, international law and respect for international organizations
  • supporting a standing army of invincible force and superiority.

The rate of child poverty is 21.9 percent, the highest among the 17 OECD countries, makes the United States exceptional, says Hodgson, in that we are unwilling "to pay to take children out of poverty."

Additionally, our political system has become more focused on funding and winning elections than on encouraging voter participation. Politicians seek money from business and lobbyists to finance the cost of TV advertising, which is aimed at wealthier people who do vote their best interests, he says. It's no wonder unions, citizens groups, consumers and minorities have been left out!

Even the Constitution has been abused in part "as a result of the unrestrained ferocity of political conflict" between the polarized conservatives and liberals-who differ very little except in their party affiliations.

A spiking stock market in the 1990s created a "mood of economic triumphalism and a belief in a ‘New Economy' that broke all the rules," says Hodgson. Americans changed from being an people of idealism and generosity to a people who were "harder, more hubristic." Most Americans truly believed that everyone was experiencing a rise in living standards-that is until the bubble burst in 2000 and again in the fall of 2008. Only then did it become obvious that the country had in fact become a debtor nation where only the very rich profited.

Since 1989 America has evinced a new attitude as "the lone superpower" with its 700+ military bases and a supremacy of force. Consequently, Americans were the last ones to believe that anyone could challenge them, says Hodgson, until 19 hijackers armed with box cutters poked through our vulnerability.

And that is yet another thing. Americans perceive 9/11 as an instance where we were exceptionally hated and then forget that terrorist attacks were carried out in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, Bali, Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul and London.

Hodgson concludes that the United States as it is today is not exceptionally bad but that it is no longer exceptional. Instead, America is just "one great, but imperfect, country among many others."

Hodgson has taken great pains not to minimize America's achievements but rather to offer analysis about how our exceptionalism has influenced false perceptions of ourselves and a skewing of some of our policies.

Actually, this book may serve as a sounding board for our national consciousness during this time of crisis. Then, what we do as a nation is really up to us. And that will be the measure of our exceptionalism.

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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