The United States of America celebrated its 235th birthday yesterday. Across the country, as always, Independence Day was replete with parades, patriotic speeches, and fireworks. I don’t have any trouble with all that (although I would be happy with fewer late night fireworks).
But I do have trouble with the emphasis, not just on July 4 but often, on what is referred to as American exceptionalism.
Make no mistake about it: the U.S. is an exceptional nation in many ways, and there are numerous things to be proud of as a USAmerican. But people from many other countries, rightfully, think that their nation is exceptional with numerous things to be proud of, too.
During a European trip in the spring of 2009, President Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He has been severely criticized (mostly by right-wing conservatives) for making that statement.
“A Nation Like No Other”: Newt Gingrich’s Manifesto of American Exceptionalism is the title of a book published just last month. A reviewer of the new book says that the President’s 2009 statement is a quote Gingrich “does not so much cite as target.”
Of course, the critics rarely (and Gingrich doesn’t) note that the President went on to say, “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.” And I am, too.
But there are problems with narcissistic patriotism, as most seems to be. You’ve no doubt heard this definition of patriotism: “the belief that your country is better than everyone else’s because you were born there.”
In the past, certainly the English (British) thought that their country was exceptional, and they set out to spread their superior culture, and territorial possessions, around the world. For example, what once belonged to Native Americans became New England. And it was not without reason that it was once said, “The sun never sets on the British flag.”
The Chinese long thought their country was exceptional. To this day the two written characters used for the name of the nation literally means central kingdom. The Chinese thought they were the center of the world. Consequently, Chinese cultural influence is strong throughout East Asia.
A century ago, the Japanese came more and more to think of their country as exceptional. Based on a new emphasis on the ancient Shinto myths, the military leaders came to believe that Japan was rightfully the country to rule Asia (remember their emphasis on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?) and then the world. Ideas of Japanese exceptionalism was disastrous for their neighboring countries, and, ultimately, for Japan.
But what about exceptionalism in the new country that became the United States of America after July 4, 1776? Among other things, that widespread belief led to the concept of “manifest destiny,” an idea that turned out to mean death for many Native Americans and destruction of much of their culture.
So while celebrating the many exceptional aspects of our beloved nation, let us note, and beware of, the manifold problems that can spring from too much emphasis on exceptionalism.