Exceptionalism

Posted: August 31, 2012 in Economics, Morality, Philosophy, Politics

Attention has been drawn to the American sense of exceptionalism.  It has its roots in the very founding of the United States of America in the late 1700’s.  Of particular interest is the pedestal of extreme respect that is given to the founding fathers.  This sense of their unique and exceptional  contribution manifest itself in the way they are quoted to support divergent views of what is meant by various statements in the constitution of the US.

It is true that their creation of a nation based in law, respectful of science and independent from specific religious control was unique, a significant experiment in rule by and for the people.  We have, to date, tried to honor their intent to create a system where change takes place in an orderly process.  The process involves amendments to the imperfect original construction of the constitution thereby making it adaptive to future trends, aspirations, and knowledge.  In this sense, what they did was exceptional.

No other nation is likely to experience this same explosive development, certainly not in the same way.  One reason lies in the exceptional aspect of history, the discovery of a virgin land populated with natives ill suited to protect themselves against the diseases and tools of the “white” man.  They were unable to protect themselves, their social order, and the wealth of the nature that sustained them against overwhelming odds, pure greed and avarice.  Our founding fathers were complicit beneficiaries of their superior advantage and supposedly superior wisdom in “the ways of the world.”  In this regard, they were certainly not exceptional.

So, I see several problems in blindly accepting their exceptionalism.  First of all, they were risk takers who had abandoned their native lands to live in the possibilities and promises of this new virgin land.  They were exceptional in comparison to the known world of humans who were satisfied to live and die in their native homelands.  They were given exceptional opportunities to carve out of a comparative wilderness something new and original.  They were given a “tabula rosa“, a blank slate on which to design the relationships between humans.  From a modern perspective, they missed the boat in several areas, slavery and women’s rights.

Rather than take this to excruciating detail, I will simply note that they were regular, well read, some religious, some not, regular guys with an exceptional opportunity and some guts to put their lives and fortunes on the line to protect their special interests.  We do ourselves a disservice by seeing them as too exceptional for in doing so, we diminished ourselves, limit our own vision, do not see ourselves as capable of the intellectual work of critically thinking about not just what they were meaning, but what they started should mean today.  We may not realize that we too, given the exceptional environment might just have been their equal.  In this time of challenges on many fronts, we should see ourselves as capable of great things, of able to meet great challenges, of being equally exceptional human beings.  But, we should not see ourselves or our nation as justifying any act, moral or immoral, on the basis of Exceptionalism.  We do not deserve special treatment or special rights just because our history gave us exceptional opportunities and resources.  Rather, we ought to feel responsibility for exceptionally decent, and generous behavior, not through war, but through humble recognition of our unique good fortunate.

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