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American exceptionalism: A letter to a leftist friend

By Patrick O'Hannigan
web posted July 21, 2003

I was thinking about those articles and Internet links that you send me uncovering thuggishness and deceit in high places as reported by the likes of The Nation. The linchpin of your (and their) argument with the Bush administration's conduct in Iraq seems to be that it subjected the rest of us to a "bait and switch" justification for war. I don't see that, because it seems to me that the administration always presented a laundry list of reasons why Hussein was a threat, and most of them were thoroughly documented instances of motive and opportunity, but at least your position there is defensible.

Whether America is an empire has been secondary to the bait-and-switch argument, although in the end getting the terms right in this area seems more important. You've said that we are an empire but foolishly refuse to admit it, for reasons that have a lot to do with how we think about ourselves (people who rebel against an Empire, as Americans once did, aren't usually comfortable with becoming one later on).

I'll buy the "empire" label, with one caveat. I don't think you're giving enough credit to the idea of American exceptionalism. I'm not suggesting that America has access to special grace, or is immune to the laws of cause and effect. In fact, I think you're right to deride Reagan's "shining city on a hill" rhetoric as not reflecting reality on the ground in that swamp of corruption called Washington, D.C.

Moreover, as a Catholic, I'm deeply suspicious of Protestant attempts to dragoon biblical references to the "New Jerusalem" into functioning as synonyms for the United States. That seems arrogant and uninformed. New Jerusalem, when it comes, will rest on Jesus, not on George Washington. Your mileage may vary.

But Reagan and other "exceptionalists" were and are right to remember that America remains the only country in the world not founded on mono-racial or mono-cultural bedrock. Even the original 13 British colonies were not monolithic, as D.H. Fischer's well-respected book, Albion's Seed made clear a few years back.

America was founded on ideas. As a German newspaper editorial forwarded to me by my friend Kurt suggested some months ago, when you look at the U.S. flag, you realize that America doesn't have an ideology because America is an ideology. Think about it. No other country in the world can plausibly make that claim, or back it up with the hard evidence presented by millions of immigrants who vote with their feet to come to the United States. Inflow to here has always been greater than outflow from here, and it's not far-fetched to see American exceptionalism as the dynamic behind that. (The free market is itself an effect of this exceptionalism, not its cause -- and never mind references to "capitalism," which is a Marxist slang word for the free market. Marx wasn't paying us a compliment, and he knew that by applying an "ism" to the end of any noun, you can make it sound disreputable.)

America's founding documents, and the principles they embody, make her an objectively better country to live in than others. Every major blot on American history has been in violation of those documents.

To make a long story short, then, the United States is now an empire. We agree with each other on that. Where we disagree is in applying the lessons of history to our current situation.

I have no use for comparing the U.S. today with ancient Rome or 18th-century England, because I think U.S. imperialism differs in kind and not just in degree from all previous imperialisms. That, and the attacks of 11 Sept. 2001, places the Bush administration in uncharted waters.

Bush is too cavalier about spending my tax dollars on stupid things and too willing to play politics when it suits his purposes (where's Alan Keyes when you need him?), but Bush and Co. seem to grasp what makes this country different better than his Democrat rivals do. Come to think of it, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair understands American exceptionalism better than most Democrats do, because he's an old-fashioned liberal and most of them know very little history.

Joke about favors to Haliburton and Bechtel all you want. Big business is a legitimate target for satire. On the other hand, with or without ties to Dick Cheney, why wouldn't an oil services company be helping out in an area whose chief resource is oil? (Bill Clinton, true to form, did favors for Arkansas' own Tyson Chicken Corporation). What puts big business in perspective is that it flourishes more in the U.S. of A. than elsewhere.

An example from my backyard: Basha's, the biggest chain of grocery stores in Arizona, is the brain-child of two local boys made good. They are brothers whose parents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. Does their success feed the American mythology? You bet. But that mythology is grounded in reality and no poor-mouthing from editorialists at "The Nation" or diplomats in Europe can change that.

Sorry to run so long. That's my four cents...

Patrick

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in Arizona.

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