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Exceptions to Exceptionalism

State of the Union, 2020. Rush Limbaugh gets a medal. A young girl gets a scholarship. A military family gets a surprise return from their deployed husband and father. And Donald Trump gets his reality TV show back. The speech ends. Before we go to the Democratic rebuttal, Nancy Pelosi extends herself for the perfunctory hand shake. The Donald disses The Speaker. Pelosi responds by ripping his speech in two. Twice! Petulant? Absolutely. Entertaining? Without question.

The President’s security team quickly moves him past the Joint Chiefs, the Supreme Court Justices, and up the aisle toward the door. There’s a sense that they are in a hurry. Has a threat been made? Does the President have another engagement? Are the lights about to go out because government is too big and wasteful? Before he leaves the space, a swarm of congratulatory hands thrust out toward the President. “Great speech Mr. President!.”  “Good job, Mr. President!” “Fine words, Sir!” Adulation all around. He’s knocked it out of the park and those that resisted his impeachment and will vote for his acquittal are in a triumphant frenzy.  Their hero is still standing.

Then it comes.  “Mr. President, that was a great defense of American Exceptionalism.” The President returns the grip and heads out the door. State of the Union 2020 is a memory. The next day his impeachment will be as well.   

American Exceptionalism.

At least one person in Congress went to class that day when his US history instructor presented the term in class.  It’s an ideology that states that the United States, from its colonial start, as early as the  Mayflower Compact in 1630, through the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, into the US Constitution and as the country expanded west following the Louisiana Purchase,  strengthened by industrial might in the 19th century, connected continent to continent by the Transcontinental Railroad, as it rescued Europe and the rest of the world in the two world wars, as it defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War,  and now fights heroically as it wages the War on Terror is a country that is an exception- a positive one- in the history of human civilization; unique, blessed, and empowered by a divine mission to spread democracy and capitalism over the whole globe.

When the congressman shook the President’s hand and congratulated Mr. Trump for acting as the latest champion of American Exceptionalism, he endorsed an ideology and mindset that has come back into favor with Donald Trump’s presidency. The President often articulates his ‘America First’ agenda;  make America great again so that it can continue to uphold the values of self-government and free enterprise; the values it has been anointed to spread.

Understanding that the United States is unique (more so than any other country) and has developed historically due to its special ‘calling’ or mission ignores some bedrock data. This data goes a long way in challenging the view that country is altogether exceptional and has a special relationship to Providence.

Yes, the form of government our founders created, was, at the time, unique and remarkable. For the first time in history, people had opted for a government that found its authority not in monarchs endorsed by God nor tyrants feared by the people. Our revolution put government in the hands of the people, not all people mind you-women and men without property didn’t quite count- but still, the Revolution set us on our way. But those intellectual currents that informed our greats like Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Washington and others, belonged to Europe and its Enlightenment. Our founders no more invented the idea of democracy than Donald Trump invented the idea of nationalism.

The Revolution helped to release creativity. The country’s exceptional growth and increasing military and economic might toward the end of the 19th century put the United States, despites its initial hesitance, in a position to enter and help win the first World War. That growth, however, did not come without significant moral compromise and the harsh brutality, cruelty, and murder of countless African-Americans and Native Americans. The land was rich and resourceful but it was inhabited by others. The Trail of Tears and the Massacre at Wounded Knee decry any national self-congratulations. So too the experience of African Americans. So-called enlightened white people accepted the inhuman conditions of slave ships and the wealth that their imported chattel produced. It took a civil war and the death of 600,000 citizens of this country to come to the place that Blacks weren’t property and that slavery didn’t belong in the Land of the Free.

When the Chinese finished building our Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s we returned the favor by excluding their continued immigration in the 1880s. When the Great Depression put people in bread lines 1n the 1930s  we put brown-skinned US citizens named Gonzales, Lopez, and Rodriguez (y mucho mas) on trains to Mexico in the Mexican Repatriation in 1934. When reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. asked the country to join him in the Dream for an equal land, people were beaten, killed, and he took a bullet in the head.

I say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in my classroom. I place my hand over my heart and I offer myself to the service of my country.  I will not, however, offer myself to the service of untruth or an ideology that doesn’t acknowledge our dark side. While this is a great country, it’s greatness lies in its ability- too absent of late-to right the wrongs of its past. If we are to be a Light to the Nations, let it be a humble light, a light of self-examination.  May we be exceptional in the way we correct ourselves, the way we strengthen our weakest citizens, include those on the edges, and practice openly, purely, and legally the democracy which we so highly extol.        


Suggestion for further reading: The Myth of American Exceptionalism, Godfrey Hodgson, Yale University Press, 2009

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