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Bruce Fein

Bruce Fein

Posted: December 17, 2010 04:31 PM

American Exceptionalism Is Un-American


"American exceptionalism" -- the narcissistic soundtrack of several presidential aspirants for 2012 -- is Un-American. The boast betrays ignorance of the Founding Fathers and the tarnished history of the United States. In any event, to overlook faults because other nations are more flawed is juvenile, and leads nowhere.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney scribbles in, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," that, "This reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism is misguided and bankrupt." Congressman Mike Pence (R. Ind.) similarly addressed the Detroit Economic Club on "Restoring American Exceptionalism: A Vision for Economic Growth and Prosperity." And the brilliant but sub-literate Sarah Palin, features a chapter in her book, America by Heart, entitled "America the Exceptional."

Although none of the three specifically define the term, "American exceptionalism" conveys three wrong or empty ideas: that Americans are blessed with morally superior DNA which immunizes them from the vices or ill-humors of human nature; that the history of the United States is morally irreproachable; or, that the United States, despite its warts, is less immoral than other wretched countries.

The Founding Fathers understood that human nature does not vary based on geography, race, religion, culture, or otherwise. They sculpted a Constitution that relied on a separation of powers, checks and balances, and a diffusion of authority to secure individual liberty and the rule of law. James Madison, father of the Constitution, lectured in Federalist 51:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Alexander Hamilton explained the Senate's involvement in treaty ratification by doubting presidential virtue in Federalist 75:

The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a President of the United States.

In Federalist 10, Madison acknowledged that without constitutional constraints mal-government would prevail among Americans:

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true.

The Bill of Rights was a vote of no confidence in "American exceptionalism" to thwart the dangers of government overreaching.

In sum, the United States was conceived in recognition that original sin had not carved out an exception for the American people.

To deny that American history has been regularly punctuated by immorality is to blink at truth. The Constitution protected slavery, which caused Thomas Jefferson to lament, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever." Jim Crow, featuring black lynchings, flourished for a century after the Civil War Amendments. Blacks were conscripted to fight in World Wars I and II in segregated units.

Women were subjugated until the 1960s.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 violated freedom of speech and due process.

Indian treaties were flouted with impunity.

Mormons were persecuted for half a century. Catholics were de facto unelectable to the presidency until John F. Kennedy.

Civil War hero and President Ulysses S. Grant descried the Mexican-American War as "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory." World War I was followed by the A. Mitchell Palmer raids. World War II witnessed concentration camps for 120,000 Japanese Americans. The Vietnam War emblem was the My Lai massacre. Ongoing aimless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have killed or maimed tens of thousands. And post-9/11 waterboarding, detentions without accusation or trial, the suspension of habeas corpus, spying on Americans without judicial warrants, and threatening lawyers for defending accused terrorists or terrorist organizations are earmarks of tyranny, not liberty.

Despite its numerous moral blotches, the United States may still rank above other nations by an evenhandedly applied moral yardstick. Many died in the Civil War to end slavery. Freedom of speech, press, and association in the United States is greater than in any other nation. Discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation has plunged since the American Revolution. But the observation that the United States is less imperfect than other nations is jejune as a guide for the future. Complacency with injustice or bigotry because other nations or peoples are even worse is pointless and puerile. It guarantees stagnation, not improvement towards a higher life form.

Moreover, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, a nation that loves itself will have no rivals.