The first time I became skeptical about the American doctrine of Exceptionalism was in planning a new course on The Mass Society for the University of Pennsylvania in 1958. That American Civilization seminar attempted to assess the impact of mass production and mass communication on the American character. It was in the midst of a deepening recession and Fairfax Cone, a leading advertising mogul at the time, tried to whistle in the deepening economic dark by assuring his New York Times readers that America was still The All Time Hit on Humanities Hit Parade. It seemed like an especially fatuous observation, but it started me thinking.
I had learned in my colonial American literature courses that the Congregationalist divines in Massachusetts Bay had actually argued that God's covenant with them had kept the New World empty so that they could be a City on the Hill, setting a good theological example for the corrupt Old World. (Tell that to the Indians, I huffed, with characteristic graduate student scorn.) It was that seed of American Exceptionalism that morphed over the ensuing decades into Manifest Destiny, Lincoln's last, best hope of Mankind, and finally into its current form, The American Dream. (It stunned me to learn that this ideal originated during the Great Depression, another whistling in the dark scenario if there ever was one!) And it also interested me to observe that the American politicians obsession with the New began shortly after Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the Great American Frontier closed. TR's The New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's The New Freedom, FDR's the New Deal, and of course John Kennedy's the New Frontier. Why this obsessive trait of trying to ignore our accumulating history by attempting to reaffirm the tabula rasa freshness of that City on the Hill.
My theory builds on the hypothesis that the American character has been deeply split from the very beginning of our experiment in egalitarian democracy. How could it be otherwise? Jefferson's Declaration of Independence said one thing, our effective genocide of the native Indians and our complicity in Negro slavery affirmed something quite antithetical. Americans from the start believed they were in Eden, but they acted as if they inhabited Eldorado. Our Superego said one thing, our Id the opposite. We are only gradually and partly integrating those conflicts in a secure Ego. That split also accounts for our almost manic depressive swings from HyperIdealism (say, The Peace Corps) to unabashed greed (as symbolized by the Enron Era).
I also explain our Violent Past and Present from a similar lack of integration. Our penchant for the death penalty is surely related to our suppressed fears that our long exploited underclasses would wreak compensatory vengeance on us if only they could. The heat lightning prefiguring such paybacks we saw in the Watts and Rodney King riots. The gap between what we say we stand for and the way we mostly behave has to be occasionally closed by outbreaks of violence. It is pathetic how slowly even a minority (professional historians) have discovered such outrages as the Tulsa obliteration of a black neighborhood after World War I. It wasn't until last year that I happened to pass through Duluth, MN when their first black mayor was memorializing a similar eruption. Black soldiers had fought for America, and they wanted equality. They were crushed, even in Farmer/Labor Minnesota. Sometimes, when I compare how much more Europeans are sensitive and aware of their national histories than Americans it seems that the real American Exceptionalism is blindness to our own heritage, warts and all.
9/11 has only exacerbated this national fault. I was appalled on a recent visit to my home town Philadelphia to see that the public buses all kept flashing GOD BLESS AMERICA on the sign that tells you where the bus is going. And there was a great controversy over the discovery of slave quarters on George Washington's property, where the new Constitution Center was being constructed. After a loud squabble, the National Park Service agreed to include that embarrassing detail about the Father of Our Country's experience where he lived as our first President. To be sure, 9/11 with one cruel stroke obliterated the illusion that we were exceptionally secure between two protective oceans. (Saner heads had long observed how undefended we were by economic migration along our southern frontier.)
A major lesson of 9/11 has yet to sink in: the creative destructiveness of our global capitalism makes us exceptionally vulnerable to the passions of other people our benign imperialism is uprooting.(And those people also include untold American blue collars whose jobs have slipped first into Mexico, and now into the coolie labor Far East.)
The opening months of the Bush administration revealed how the ideology of American Exceptionalism played out, clad in faux Texas cowboy gear. No to Kyoto, to nuclear testing, to banning landmines, to creating an international criminal court,to paying UN dues. During his UN speech, President Bush presumed he was ingratiating himself with his international infra-peers by rejoining UNESCO. He was actually drawing attention to the neanderthalic impulse that motivated the US to abandon an organization we should have wrestled to improve from the inside.
And the insolence of the President sneering at a reporter who had the courtesy to address President Chirac with his fluent French only reminds us of his fumbling Spanish aimed at bamboozling his Hispanic Texas constituency. Exceptionally oblivious one might infer to a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, to cite a former president who was exceptionally open to what he could learn from the rest of mankind. (One day in Honolulu when I was interviewing the leading journalist of Kerala, India, he told me how Jefferson risked death by hiding some grains of a new variant of Italian rice in a hollow walking cane so he could improve agriculture in Virginia!) Now there's cultural exchange!
American Exceptionalism was once a relatively harmless delusion for an immature society; today it has become a lethal hubris that could do us in. We are not,of course, the only Exceptionalists in this world, only the most powerful, and possibly the most reckless and most dangerous because of our blindness to others. The Israeli-Palestinian standoff is based on the Jewish belief that they are God's Chosen People, and therefore have an uncontestable right to Judea and Samaria, and a God-given right to ignore the sanctions imposed by the same UN that gave them their country. And the Muslims are driven by equally exceptionalist assumptions about Allah and Mohammed. The World dearly needs a surcease from these Exceptionalist fantasies.
In 1961, when I was the first director of the American Studies Institute at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii, I said that it was the greatest American idea since the Declaration of Independence. American and Asian students mingling as they prepared careers for modernizing their diverse countries. It was a Declaration of Interdependence. An exceptionally far-sighted idea, somewhat diminished by my discovering that my number two had spent the last ten years in the CIA. (He was their mole!) But no matter, in the real world we must take the bitter with the sweet. Which really means rejoining the human race with our undeniably exceptional powers to change our common world for the better, if only we could descend from the High Horse of Exceptionalism. Even cowboys have to leave their saddles some of the time.