Posted by: cousindampier | 22 August 2010

American Exceptionalism

In his first Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln closed with:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

“The better angels of our nature” is the line which continually crosses one’s mind when reading about the planned mosque in New York. Over at the Economist, Democracy in America had a thought-provoking post on the matter.

American exceptionalism may well be a myth. The power of America doesn’t rest on military power, nor rhetoric infused with hyperbole (think: “this is the greatest country ever!”) The power is in the ability of American society to accommodate ‘the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses longing to be free.’ It stands on the rights granted to the individual and the powers limited to each portion of the government. It stands on its minimalist rule set, and guaranteed freedoms, and the openness of its society.

Any culture – perhaps all culture – is exceptional in its own right. American culture is no better than those; yet, paradoxically, because of its ability to incorporate those cultures into its own, American culture is exceptional. American exceptionalism isn’t enforcing American culture. It is letting the draw of American culture do its own work.

Throughout the history of the American Republic, the ‘other’ has always been pushed back against by what is determined to be ‘American’ at the time. The Chinese, Scots-Irish, Italians – all faced bias and discrimination upon arrival to the United States. But the openness of American society is such that more continued to arrive.

There is always the desire to reject others and give into biases – now more so than any other time. Bill Clinton pointed out, in an episode of America Abroad, that when a state reaches middle age, security becomes paramount, which in America means the military budget, Medicare, and Social Security will be hard to cut. It is easy to see the high point of American power slipping away, and to yearn for yesterday.

It’s foolish. If America is really exceptional, harkening to the past does nothing more than chip away at that notion. The fight between the better angels of our nature and our insecurities will always continue, but, if we let the better angels have their say, than American exceptionalism is alive and well.


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