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Richard Geldard Headshot

The Rise of American Exceptionalism

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As the 2012 election cycle heats up, the myth of American Exceptionalism is with us again. Romney and Gingrich, the two bruised and battered candidates still standing, have both chosen American Exceptionalism as their clarion call, their only rationale for being candidates for president.

They accuse President Obama of diminishing America's so-called God-driven divine right to rule the planet, to spread democracy and liberty around the globe. We are hearing again Reagan's "shining city on the hill" rhetoric, the call to restore America's manifest destiny.

I was personally reminded of the shining city imagery on a recent weekend trip to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for a family gathering. Stockbridge is home to the Norman Rockwell museum, filled with his famous Saturday Evening Post images of the American Dream. It's obvious now that America's artist of record is no longer Rockwell with his proud aproned grandmother delivering the Thanksgiving turkey to her happy family. Instead, we are closer today to this week's New Yorker Magazine cover of an unappetizing Thanksgiving meal for one in a lonely café.

If we want to put that image behind us, we must not return to Rockwellian sentimentality. We need public and private support and cooperation to help create the kind of world where we all have a chance to end violence and restore some degree of peace and economic justice, but without the condescension of behaving as if America had some special destiny. There's a difference between destiny and responsibility after all.

The attacks of 9/11 taught us hard lessons. We have use the wisdom we gained to be less susceptible to nostalgic myth-making. We have to study our history, accept responsibility for our failures and live up to our promise, but not as a nation destined to save the world but rather to be a nation among nations and a people among peoples who have the same dreams we have of living productive, meaningful lives.

If American voters go to the polls blinded by the myth of American Exceptionalism as no doubt will be spun into TV ads by whoever survives the Republican reality show, we will become a parody of our own myth-making. When the tough brilliant Benjamin Franklin emerged from the long arduous process of creating the Constitution, a woman asked him, "What have you given us?" Franklin replied, "A republic madam, if you can keep it." He didn't say "God has given us a shining city on a hill. Let us go forth and claim the world in His name." God forbid.