On American Exceptionalism

Is America exceptional?

The question is often used as a crass litmus test. Some "conservatives" (for want of a more accurate term) assert that "liberals" (ditto) are unfit to lead America, and lacking in patriotism, because they don't accept that America is exceptional and (put more bluntly) superior. Some liberals complain that conservatives treat belief in an exceptional America as a self-sufficient justification for any act, whatever its own merits, and that American ideals are not necessarily the best ones.

I believe in American exceptionalism.

But I believe that American exceptionalism is too often treated as plumage. It isn't. It is a sought-for ideal.

Nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, revolutionaries said this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . .

That was the statement of an ideal — a goal — and our founding fathers swiftly went about falling short of it, as all of us routinely fall short of our best intentions. The history of our country is a history of not treating all men — let alone all people — as equals, but we have fought and bled and clawed our way towards that hope. The history of our country is a history of the powerful abusing power not conferred upon them by the people. Our progress towards that goal is perhaps less steady.

Early in our history our founders decreed that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," yet just as quickly passed and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts. We complained in our Declaration of Independence of mock trials (or no trials at all) and other abuses of police power, and passed Constitutional amendments to ward off such historical abuses, yet we dabble in them now, and seek to classify obscure and arbitrary classes of persons as beyond the protection of the law, and tolerate large-scale spying upon us by a government putatively serving at our pleasure. When speaking of American exceptionalism we often think of the extraordinary service of our military — both volunteer and drafted — and our heritage of brave soldiers, but not our repulsive and dishonorable treatment of the brave once they return to us.

We have not achieved American exceptionalism as a laurel on which we can rest. It's a grimly determined acknowledgement of duty, not a complacent boast of accomplishment. American exceptionalism is a set of challenges to ourselves about liberty and equality and the rule of law and justice. We have not finished, and will never finish, the work to fulfill those challenges. American exceptionalism is not "I have earned this." It's "what can I do?" American exceptionalism is this:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

We do not deserve pride in ideals unless we fight for them.

Every Fourth of July I link, and repeat, this story, which is on the same theme. Happy Independence Day.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. LauraW says

    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,

    On first reading I thought that said, "But I have ponies to keep". Sad but true. It must be the drugs.

  2. nlp says

    I love that story. I've sent the link to family and friends, so that we can be reminded of what we stand for, and what we must still work at, day after day, to achieve, protect, and make better.

  3. Nigel Lew says

    "But I believe that American exceptionalism is too often treated as plumage. It isn't. It is a sought-for ideal."

    "That was the statement of an ideal — a goal — and our founding fathers swiftly went about falling short of it, as all of us routinely fall short of our best intentions."

    "We have not achieved American exceptionalism as a laurel on which we can rest. It's a grimly determined acknowledgement of duty, not a complacent boast of accomplishment."

    That was frankly awesome. Happy 4th to you and your family.


  4. eh says

    It just occurred to me to wonder whether the laws allowing the US government to spy on its citizens qualify as an abridgement of speech. I imagine "abridgement" might have a specific meaning that obviates this theory, but then again maybe it's never really been tested.

  5. ysth says

    Some bad news for you, Ken…

    You have been co-opted by the forces of Evil.

    You have bought into the corruption of all that is good and pure.

    You have promulgated Error.

    You have earned yourself a ponyless future.

    You have caused a Poet, an American Poet no less, to spin in his grave.

    The True and Correct Form is "The woods are lovely, dark and deep"; the comma after dark is an abomination, introduced by a posthumous editor.

  6. En Passant says

    It's a grimly determined acknowledgement of duty, not a complacent boast of accomplishment.

    With xbradtc Jul 4, 2013 @12:58 pm and Nigel Lew Jul 4, 2013 @1:42 pm I also concur; and the point is far too frequently forgotten.

  7. pjcamp says

    "American exceptionalism" used to refer to the belief that the rules that apply to everyone else don't apply to America — for instance, we're offended if you spy on us but we can spy on anyone. Now it has two meanings — the old one, and the idea that America is an exceptional nation, that our ideals and principles are above the rest. Trouble is, people argue about exceptionalism using the second meaning and then apply it using the first.

    Thanks for keeping up the confusion.

  8. Trebuchet says

    Thank you Ken. Thank you for this post, and thank you for the reminder to read that previous story once again.

    This morning my wife told me to look out the front window. In front of the house two bald eagles were circling. What a lovely sight on our Indepnedence Day.

    I too think America is pretty exceptional. After all, she took in my Great-Grandfather and gave him a place to farm and raise a family. As for the current right-wing tribe who think God loves America better than any other place, to Hell with them.

  9. granny weatherwax says

    American exceptionalism is another side of the state religion of the USA, which is the USA itself. To believe that your nation state is exceptional is not a good thing, no matter what manner of jingoism is employed to justify the belief. The USA is not exceptional, it is subject to the same base reality as everything else and the ideals that it clothes itself in are hardly unique in history.

  10. says

    Busy sizzling things on a Grill so I'll just quickly note, that one of the things that all the "Amuruka Furst" crowd seems to miss is that our founders really meant the word "all" – they didn't mean for the rights and philosophies they were espousing to end at our borders. When you hear anyone being ok with people being denied the rights that we enjoy as Americans on the basis "well, they're not from here" – they don't get it, IMO.

    Thanks for another great post Ken, and have a Happy 4th everyone.

  11. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels says

    That was a great story Ken. Thank you.

    I think it beat my usual Twilight Zone Marathon 4th of July by quite long distance.
    Happy 4th of July everybody.

  12. A Random Brit says

    To use a British expression, I am regularly gob smacked by the way that Americans view themselves.

    It is not clear to me that the USA is actually exceptional compared to other countries. Of course, I have to define what (to me) are the important categories to consider:

    Health and Lifespan: Although the USA spends a far larger percent of its GDP on healthcare than most countries, the general health of the population is worse than many and the average lifespan significantly lower than many. According to the UN, the USA tied with Chile and Bahrein to be 33rd in the world rankings. The USA is the only first world country that doesn't have somewhat close to universal health coverage.

    Cost of healthcare: The USA is number one. Healthcare is often tied to occupation making it difficult for people to change jobs. Many jobs have no healthcare. For people in the bottom 25% of earnings, the cost of buying healthcare at the level considered normal in Europe would exceed their earnings.

    Military Expenditure: USA is first in amount spent – a total of 39% of all military spending in the world, and more than the second through eighth countries combined.

    Murder rate: Thanks to the US addiction to guns, around 4 times higher than most of Europe.

    Incarceration: The USA leads the world in the percentage of its population in prison. Prison guard is the top growth occupation of the last 20 years.

    Work benefits: Company supplied pensions in the USA are becoming a rarity. People in the USA work longer hours than in Europe and there is no requirement for paid time-off. The EU requires a minimum of 20 days vacation plus public holidays to be paid. Many countries have higher minimum requirements.

    Education: The USA spends roughly the same percentage of GDP as other first world countries on K-12 education. However, that doesn't include university level education costs where the USA far exceeds any other country, with the result that the number of people graduating from universities is declining. This requires the USA to rely on immigration for many skilled occupations, but immigration is a huge political hot potato.

    Science: The US is no longer the leading country for basic science research. The US was the first in the space race, but now doesn't even have a plan to replace the retired space shuttles. A significant percentage of the population in some states are anti-science because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

    I could continue, but you get the picture from my European point of view. Many of the issues I mention will have long term consequences that will cause additional negative issues.

    I get the impression that many Americans have the view "My country, right or wrong". Americans would do well to heed the words of the Wisconsin senator Carl Schurz when he added "Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right."

  13. barry says

    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,

    Everyone or every nation can have the hope, dream or intent to be exceptional. Ideals are not so rare. I dont think wanting to be exceptional is a particularly exceptional thing, and eventually the Jesus taxonomy of trees test applies: 'they are known by their fruit'.

    Interpreting "all men are created equal" as "all Americans are created exceptional" might work for local consumption, but getting the rest of the world to swallow it might be more difficult.

    Or is it really about having an exceptionally powerful military?

  14. says

    For those who object to US citizens celebrating their country's independence with lovely heartfelt posts, read W. Ian Blanton's comment:

    our founders really meant the word "all" – they didn't mean for the rights and philosophies they were espousing to end at our borders.

    Thank you, Ken. As a permanent resident seeking citizenship, I believe I understand what you are saying.

  15. Xenocles says

    And now I see that by pursuing the pun I have implied your other posts are inferior. Well, let's just say this was a very good one, anyway.

  16. James Pollock says

    "Education: The USA spends roughly the same percentage of GDP as other first world countries on K-12 education. However, that doesn't include university level education costs where the USA far exceeds any other country, with the result that the number of people graduating from universities is declining. This requires the USA to rely on immigration for many skilled occupations, but immigration is a huge political hot potato."

    We've been ripping off the rest of the world for generations. They send their most talented science, engineering, and technical students to the U.S. for an education, and then we try to keep as many of them here as we can, keeping the U.S. a leader in technology, and giving U.S. companies first shot at the best talent the world has to offer.

  17. AlphaCentauri says

    Anyone who has dealt with the sociopaths working for the US immigration service knows that we aren't exactly recruiting talent. And universities like foreign students because they pay full price for an education American expect discounted with scholarships.

    You'd have to ask all students coming here to study why they are willing to go through all that bullshit to come to the US instead of giving some other country the first shot at the best talent the world has to offer.

  18. Kevin says


    Sad but true. It must be the drugs.

    You must have access to better drugs than I. Care to share?

    @pjcamp: lolwut?

    @A Random Brit: Your comment is in exceptionally poor taste, and of exceptionally poor tactics, if your goal was to convince anyone of anything of which they were not already convinced. Pointing out imperfections in the status quo of the American experiment is perfectly fine, and is, indeed, a central theme of this blog. But you have responded to a post explicitly along that theme – acknowledging, and seeking to correct those flaws, by turning up your nose and twisting the knife, rather than attempting to encourage or assist in any attempts at improving the situation. And you have employed ludicrously ignorant and counterfactual talking points in the course of doing so. Your comment is bad, and you should feel bad.

    @Ken: I love you man.

  19. granny weatherwax says


    Truth doesn't really care if it is in poor taste or not. Ken's post may seek to correct flaws, however one of the central flaws is the idea of american exceptionalism itself and shooting it down would help improve the situation.

    From the outside, much of the USA these days looks like some sort of malignant death cult that revels in violence while claiming both global dominion and to be the ultimate arbiter of morality, and the insistence on claiming exceptionalism, whether that of rights or ideals, seems kind of a sick joke at this point.

    Fine, improve your country, just don't go looking for the city on the hill along the way. The path to the city on the hill is drenched in blood and the hill does not exist.

  20. frymaster says

    "Pointing out imperfections in the status quo of the American experiment is perfectly fine, and is, indeed, a central theme of this blog"

    I'd imagine what he takes exception to (because I did) was the phrasing in "We have not achieved American exceptionalism as a laurel on which we can rest".

    That, to me, implies "well, of course we're not perfect, but I already think we're better than everyone else"

  21. says

    'stapundit offered up a useful quote from Calvin Coolidge:

    About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.

    But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.

    Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

  22. granny weatherwax says


    The Declaration has some wonderful sentiments in it, however it isn't beyond criticism. I don't think rights are endowed by a creator for a start, I think we give them to each other.

    I do not think that it is self evident that all men are created equal even if we are using a very narrow definition of equal that only corresponds to equality in rights, as I do not think that rights are given by a creator.

    I do think that people should have equal rights under the law and that the law should respect life, liberty and happiness and should only seek to interfere with those when an individual is impinging on the life, liberty and happiness of others, however that is not quite the same as the declaration as it strips the concept of its platonism.

  23. Tarrou says

    American exceptionalism is another wierd term that means different things to different people. It's a political shibboleth, which liberals are loathe to utter lest they seem to be "better" than others ("A liberal is someone who is not even on his own side"), while it is some sort of group bonding for conservatives (our team is better than all other teams, ever!).

    There is something to the conservative approach. Every group of any effectiveness or worth tells each other these little lies all the time. We humans are partisan creatures. Our self-serving biases force it. Find me a sports team, military unit, or business endeavor with good morale which does not on some level espouse their superiority. I think the search would be problematic.

    On the other hand, there is no moral superiority granted by nationalism, and on an honest philosophical level most people recognize that.

    My thought is that "Exceptionalism" is just normal nationalistic bonding, nothing sinister. You can see it in every culture. It is a sign of a healthy country. How that bonding is used is the question.

  24. Greg says

    Say what you will about the series (and god knows there is a lot to say about it both good and bad), but the opening monologue scene in the pilot of Newsroom really hit this theme really well. I consider that to be one of the best monologues in TV history.

    Google and watch it if you haven't scene. It hits many of the same points as above, both from Ken's original post and Kevin's post. It also lays out that acknowledging the problem is also the first step on the road to fixing things.

  25. princessartemis says

    Well, I had been feeling a little better about it, but then I read the comments. I guess nothing but relentless loathing for the nation of my birth is appropriate on the birthday of its independence. Where do I sign up for my official blood-drenched death cult robes? They're probably pretty stylish.

  26. En Passant says

    Xenocles wrote Jul 4, 2013 @8:11 pm:

    An exceptional post, Ken.

    Ken is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.

  27. machintelligence says

    What a great post. For those who have not heard of the origin of the term American exceptionalism: Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville actually wrote. He introduced his opinion that America was “exceptional” by saying that Americans didn’t have any original thoughts or advances in science, literature, or the arts because they relied on the thinkers of Europe:

    “At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly identified one to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. Among this people they found distinguished men of science, able artists, writers of eminence; and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without laboring to amass them. In spite of the ocean that intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.
    ‘The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.

    This is particularly true of the dominance of the USA after WWII. The countries of Europe were busy rebuilding their damaged infrastructure and the USA was not. Additionally, the GI Bill which encouraged the pursuit of higher education of a scale never before attempted. This, plus the space race, a brilliant (IMHO) diversion of missile technology away from the military, resulted in the dominance of the USA in scientific research during the last half of the 20th century.
    The anti- education/ intellectual stance of so many conservatives (due, in large part, to their alliance with the religious fundamentalists) has definitely slowed down research, while Europe has now caught up (because of the long peace) and begun to surpass us. This is really no surprise and is actually quite ironic, since it is the conservatives who are the first to claim exceptionalism.

  28. Mikea says

    I get the impression that many, probably most, Americans are quite delusional regarding this. It would be healing for the US to begin to understand a number of things, beginning with the fact that "foreigners" have fundamental rights, national sovereignty, particularly regarding democratic societies outside of the US, must be respected, among other things. But the most important thing to understand may be that what Americans regard as "exceptionalism" is just another word for boundless arrogance.

  29. granny weatherwax says


    Not relentless loathing, I have a ton of respect for many aspects of the culture of the USA, especially its vast contributions to the sciences and wealth of amazing writers and musicians.

    However, some aspects of the culture of the USA, especially since the end of the second world war have become increasingly dubious and just a little bit death-culty, part of which I put down to psychology of the cold war nuclear arms race, which has led the country to the dangerous position of having more operational nuclear warheads than the number of large cities in the world, while at the same time insisting in the doctrine of exceptionalism. An obsession with destruction and death has woven it's way deeply into the American myth at this point. Lots of cultures like guns, but there are not many that worship them.

    Now you might not like this criticism of your country, especially around this date and from someone born in the UK, however it is not meant in malice. Our country was doing much the same for a very long time. American Exceptionalism is not very exceptional, we used to claim divine exceptionalism for the British empire, not that it helped when it was time to get our coat and leave.

  30. says

    Great post as always, Ken. I reread last year's post and noticed a minor math error – it is 44 years from 1946 to 1990, not 54. 44 years is still far too long to keep those brave men waiting.

  31. princessartemis says

    @granny weatherwax, I actually don't have a lot of issues with my country being criticized. It's the relentlessness of it that gets to me. And it is relentless. Obviously, the criticism could not even relent for one single day when the people of this country celebrate its good parts. Commenting on an Independence Day thread about how Americans are seen as blood-drenched (and now gun-worshipping!) death cultists does come across as having just a bit of loathing in it, even if you don't mean it that way.

    It also has part to do with how badly I was feeling about the state my country has fallen to in the last years. So here, I see a wonderful post by Ken that lifted my spirits a bit, that the place I call home still has its good parts. Then, as I said, I read the comments, and, well, got my tiny little parade thoroughly rained on. Not your fault I was feeling that way to begin with. You were part of the rainstorm, though.

  32. says

    I fail to see the rationale for the hand-waving over @A Random Brit's posting. The reaction fails to address any of the points, it simply whines about how they should not have been made on this posting. A complaint that I fail to see any rationale offered for. The complaining reads like thin-skinned whining along the lines of "whawha! you dared to agree and also criticized the modern USA!". As a Brit who is now a US citizen, I think the points are cogent, and if the people of the USA are collectively so thin-skinned that they cannot tolerate any form of criticism, well, the USA has an even bigger challenge in the future. Denial and the blaming of outside agents is the first approach to be adopted when national decline occurs, as those of us who grew up at the end of the British Empire saw only too clearly.

  33. orvis barfley says

    great post.  as disgusting as we are for the shortfalls we are just as remarkable for the attempt and for the willingness to admit failure.  if by the people and not by the government.  the fact that we have the right to criticize and illuminate is not celebrated anything like enough, in my humble.

    another matter.  i just watched the youtube of the young man bullied by the tennessee thugs, uh, cops.  really took me back to my youth in north central texas half a century ago.  all this is nothing new.

    one saturday night, way back there, a number of young guys in my little town were sitting in our cars at a hamburger joint just at and after closing like we had done untold times.  the owner came out and ordered us off the premises, unlike anything i had ever seen, anyway.

    not a one of these guys was a troublemaker of any description.  dopey, but pretty good, bunch of guys.  one suggested we go to his dad's filling station.  it was long past being closed and we wouldn't be bothered there.  so we trailed along, regular as you please, to the station and i backed my '55 ford up to one of the service bays.  racked my walker continentals a little as a final harrumph.

    from nowhere appeared three cop cars.  our little town didn't own three cop cars.  at least one was a county cop who i didn't recognize.  that guy came to my window and informed me that i 'lined up too fast at the red light'.  i asked him what that meant, and his face hardened.  i could hear sharp intake of breath from a couple of my riders, and at least one tapped my shoulder.

    the guy glared at me and i looked even on right into his face and told him i needed to understand what that meant in order to avoid doing it in the future.  i can't recall if he said anything else, but that was about the extent of it.

    well, that and three years of unmitigated hell i got from yokel cops of any description before i could escape that miserable place.

    this is nothing new, so pardon my yawn.  i'm going to have another bagel.

  34. mcinsand says

    Graham Shevlin,

    A big roblem is that we have forgotten the difference between criticism and bashing, both on the sender and receiver sides. Thin skin is definitely an epidemic today, in addition to taking advantage of that thin skin. Our political parties are particularly perspective-deficient, which is ironic because both of them need some serious shaping; they need party loyalists that will criticize where the parties are drifting farther into la-la-land. Unfortunately, to question an idea is to question the party, and questioning the party is to bash the party, or so the perception seems to go. The same is true with the country in general. People that questioned warrantless wiretaps were called unpatriotic. After all, how can you be loyal if you have a problem with something named The Patriot Act? (That was sarcasm, although it was basically how the opponents were shouted down.) To me, though, questioning legislation that waters down or breaks our constitution is very, very patriotic.

  35. Kevin says

    @Graham Shevlin: The problem with @A Random Brit's comment was the context: he jumped into the middle of discussion in which Americans were openly acknowledging the existence of flaws in our modern state, and advocating for those flaws to be corrected, and started spouting off about how we're apparently not self-flaggelating hard enough. It's like showing up to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and shouting at everyone for being filthy drunks.

    Also, the fact that his policy prescriptions for fixing America's problems seem to consist entirely of "Moar Socializm!!!" certainly didn't help me take him seriously.

  36. Sacho says

    I hadn't cried in a long while, but that 4th July story made me tear up. Thank you.

  37. Alex the Too Old says

    Man, Europeans are masters of political savvy, playing to an audience, and acting rationally in the service of a goal, huh?

    @A Random Brit, citations needed. A bunch of them. (And bear in mind that the UN is not a neutral party, just look at committee membership within it.)

  38. barry says

    If Ken wanted heartwarming stories of hot-dog eating competitions and flag waving, he wouldn't have started with 'Is America exceptional?'. That's always going to provoke argument and discussion. I didn't see the choice of day for the discussion as being in 'bad taste'. It seemed like a good day and a worthwhile thing to argue about.

    I remember seeing President Clinton on TV some time ago explaining how the internet would be good because it would allow ordinary people to spread the 'American message' to the rest of the world. And I remember thinking "that's only half of the process". Propaganda goes both ways now.

    The term 'the American experiment' that Kevin used is curious. Revolutions are always 'experimental'. On the other hand the constitution somehow became a sacred document from the hand of the infinite and infallible wisdom of the 'founding fathers', and any bad result is seen as coming from not reading it right rather than any flaw in the experiment script itself.

    But there is the possibility the document is flawed (eg. sedition and treason being crimes while the constitution allows guns for just that purpose). It should not be heresy to suggest that making a better society might involve rewriting a better constitution. I don't see any problem with anyone criticizing the laws, constitution, or government of another nation, as long as it's not done with heavy weaponry. The world is too small to say "mind your own business" to foreign criticism. The laws of nations now have a bigger impact on the lives of people in other nations than they ever did.

    Anybody can say these things. You don't have to be American to have these rights.

    Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    (United Nations Day isn't till October. But I would have forgotten what I was going to say if I waited.)

  39. granny weatherwax says


    Sorry if I come across as a bit of an acerbic bastard, it is probably because I am, but I mean well.

    The UK doesn't have a special holiday like the fourth of July, England has St Georges Day I suppose, but that's about a Palestinian Catholic saint who fought a dragon and so is just cheerfully pointless and most people ignore it, much like most other great British traditions, like morris dancing and the royal family.

    The reason I caught on this thread is that while I agree with Ken on many things, I think that the entire concept of American Exceptionalism is poisonous, however presented.

    This is not because of the word "American" however.

    Many countries before America have played around with the concept of Exceptionalism as a national doctrine, the UK at the height of Empire being one of them. Germany also gave it a go and it didn't end well. The USSR, India, Imperial Japan, Iran, Spain, ancient Rome, the Ottoman Empire, China, North Korea and France have also all at one time or another apparently made this exceptional claim.

    All I'm saying is that by all means love your country and celebrate it, but also see it with clear eyes and remember it is just a bunch of collected ideas with some rocks and nice trees and an imaginary line round it.

    And most of the people who you are told hate you don't.

    People all over the world love American culture. Most people love something about America, and would easily find Americans who would agree with them completely about the parts that they hate. Which is because America is not exceptional, it is just another part of world culture and history.

    We all just wish you would please stop voting in such insane gits to run everything and that they would stop bombing shit all over the place in proxy wars with other insane gits.

    Not that I can really say anything on this score, the UK did much the same until it ran out of money and had to give everything back and say sorry, and now still does it, just on a much smaller scale than before and usually just to give you lot some PR at the UN.

    However, when you have things like a significant number of the politicians of a country claiming to partly base their Middle East policy on end times theology and that country has nukes, an active drone army and a global surveillance grid, then you can understand why there might be issues with such a country's public image on the international stage.

    peace, love and beez

  40. Renee Marie Jones says

    Oh, American is exceptional all right. Exceptionally ignorant. Exceptionally cruel. Exceptionally ruthless. Exceptionally greedy. Exceptionally cold-hearted.

  41. Anonymouse says

    @Renee Marie Jones – Exceptional trolling. Avoiding profanity too, that was a particularly nice touch. +1

    Now on to (hopefully) constructive comments.

  42. Tarrou says

    Really. there are two positions on America, as Hitchens pointed out. Those who think that on the whole, it has been a good idea, and those who don't.

    I belong to the former. I can acknowledge the faults without yielding on the base assumption. And it's one thing to point out a fault and suggest a solution (example: Drug War, end it). It's another to act like several commenters here and just assume that everything the US does, by definition, is evil.

    What's hilarious is how bizarre this sort of thing is. Yeah, we drop a lot of bombs. Then we drop a lot ofmoney rebuilding the damage those bombs do, because the American people demand that we not just defeat our enemies, but help them out while we do it. We just can't help being well intentioned as a nation. Americans want to help, and we always seem to think we can, even when we can't. Maybe that's part of our exceptionalism.

  43. LauraW says

    The doctor didn't give me enough drugs to share with the class. :-( Wednesday was a pretty bad night for the pelvic pain thing I was having (compressed nerve, we think), so I was pretty stoned.

    My other excuse for mis-reading that line of the Frost poem as being about ponies is that I seem to be missing the poetry gene. I just don't 'get' them 99% of the time. I do remember being forced to read that one in high school, though. I tried to take a poetry class in college and lasted for all of one lecture.

    Excellent post, which I should have said before.

  44. pb says

    If you want a more accurate term for people who describe themselves as conservative in the United States these days, I suggest you look no further than "radical activist", for that is what they are. I often hear in response to that that political definitions change over time. For something with such a literal definition, I think the only people who would allow for that are simply bad communicators.

  45. granny weatherwax says


    "What's hilarious is how bizarre this sort of thing is. Yeah, we drop a lot of bombs. Then we drop a lot ofmoney rebuilding the damage those bombs do, because the American people demand that we not just defeat our enemies, but help them out while we do it. We just can't help being well intentioned as a nation. Americans want to help, and we always seem to think we can, even when we can't. Maybe that's part of our exceptionalism."

    Please tell me this is satire.

  46. AlphaCentauri says

    @granny weatherwax, no that's probably a pretty accurate assessment. American's view of what they are ethically required to do can be a real Godwin-clusterfuck. Chamberlain negotiated with Hitler and look what happened! Appeasement is a mistake! Never again! The WWII soldiers were "the greatest generation!"

    So there is definitely a tendency to want to rush in and remove dictators and "free" people in other countries. Unfortunately, people can be very uncritical about the source of their information about which countries are oppressing their people, as well as being naive about whether the population will rise up and create a stable democracy if only the single "strongman" running the country were removed.

  47. says

    As someone who has lived in four different countries, including the US, this comment by Tarrou struck me as true:

    We just can't help being well intentioned as a nation. Americans want to help, and we always seem to think we can, even when we can't. Maybe that's part of our exceptionalism.

    In no other place I've lived has the spirit of volunteering and donating–money, items, time–been more mainstream as it is in the US.

    Please keep in mind I am aware that my experience is limited to those four countries, before you blast my anecdata as irrelevant. Still, this spirit of giving, along with people like Ken and the like, who make me feel such hope for the US

  48. says

    Careful examination of history reveals that there are no exceptions and so "America" isn't exceptional.

    First Point. America is a continent, well two and change actually, The United States of America is a country. Everybody else on our continent(s) think we U.S.A.-uns are a bag of dicks for just trying to steal the whole hemisphere. It's not our fault that the overarching name doesn't have a nice possessive. Technically I am a Washingtonian and before that I was a Marylander and so forth.

    So when we talk about "American Exceptionalism" and then blithely ignore and dismiss all the Americans who are not from the U.S.A. "Because everyone knows what we mean and who we are talking about" we prove just how pedestrian and homo-typical we are compared to every other state and nation in all of history.

    History is not filled with great and terrible men so much as it is filled with great and terrible holes into which men were thrust. Gandi and Hitler both were essentially inevitable, if different men had fallen into those holes the outcome would have changed only slightly. (There were too many Indians/Germans being screwed by Brittan/eh-Brittian-and-the-other-victors-of-WWI not to find a leader who would answer the zietgiest of social/economic escape.)

    When you really read history and discover that, for example, The Mayflower originally set sail along with the Speedwell; that the under-class were on the slavers vessel and the Deacons and Elders of the church were on the wine merchants vessel; and then willfully draw a parallel between the Puritan Separatists and The People's Temple; and you realize that the "Pilgrims" were comming here to set up their very own Johnstown (Ghana)…

    Well the whitewash of history gets a little tarnished and you discover that we here today are all a giant bag of dicks, just as were our founding fathers, and every other group of people since the start of history.

    Re-branding jingoism with terms like "American Exceptionalism" is the single most recurrent theme in history. Anybody who has ever had a slogan, or a battle cry, or a flag has thought exactly the same about _their_ exceptionalism.

    Everyone is just trying to do their best, for the most part anyway. But this has always been true.

    As Mark Twain said, History does _not_ repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

    Whatever state follows ours once we fail will, hopefully, do better still just as we did better than those that came before.

    I agree that we got a lot of things right, but in many ways Canada is doing better than us at a whole lot of things, like health care, and no software patents, and regulating their banks so that they don't crash every time some rich guy finds it convenient, and not torturing detainees, and not reneging on their clean water and air acts, and getting the gay military and marriage thing right long before us, and well lots of things we here in the U.S. have totally screwed up on.

    But then again, _they_ are 'Americans' just like us…

  49. says

    Oh, for those who don't know and never read a real encyclopedia about the Mayflower Compact:

    The Puritan Separatists, a.k.a. "the pilgrims" didn't come to the americas to establish "religious freedom" nor were they very egalitarian. They were "puritans" and "separatists" just like their name directly states. The cult was originally expelled from england under threat of death because they advocated regicide. (They didn't come here by choice, they were kicked out of england.)

    They were entitled (literally given title to) what we now call Virginia, but they missed by about fifteen-hundred miles. And thereby hangs a tail.

    See, they were middle-class cultists. e.g. they were useless but they had money. So they had to hire a bunch of people, "lower class" people, with actual skills. Tin, gold, and black smiths, soldiers, sailors (who would never see a boat again, so not the best sailors at that) and farmers. In short the boats were devided into three groups. The "church leaders", the cultists, and the people with skills.

    There were two boats. The Mayflower was a bulk carrier of human chattles. It was a retired (beaten down and shitty) slave merchant vessel. It was designed to carry people like chord wood. The Speedwell was a wine merchant's vessel. It was lavishly equipped because when you sell wine to rich people… well it was a big yacht.

    Now the church elders and deacons and _their_ families were on the yacht, as is ever the case with cults, the leaders are more equal and all that.

    Everyone else was packed in like slaves.

    But the yacht wasn't up to the ocean and it sprung a leak. They had to turn back but they couldn't return to the port where they army was waiting to kill them, so they had to sail further south. They did quick repairs while the army marched south to greet them. Then they left. Lather rinse repeat. When the same thing happened sooner on the second try they had to turn back again. They were running out of places to re-try their departure and the army was coming.

    So the deacons and elders lowered themselves to join the dreggs on the mayflower and they fled just before the army got there.

    Now if you have ever been stuck in confined spaces wiht cultists you know it can be crazy making in short order. The "hired men" and their families quickly grew tired of the five-times-a-day prayers and the constant conversion attempts.

    Meanwhile the sailors, who didn't know about the later-named Gulf Stream current, found themselves getting sent northward by forces the didn't understand. The voyage was also taking over-long. The religious leaders started in with the whole "god is taking us to our promised land" stuff.

    When they finally made landfall in what is now New England, they were desperate to get off the boat. After all this we where "god meant us to be". The "hired men" pointed out that where they were was _not_ the land in their title. And quite frankly they were sick and tired of the cultists. They told them all to get back on the damn boat so they could sail south to their entitled land.

    So the church elders had a problem. They _needed_ their hired men, they couldn't get their sheep back on the boat after all that "god's destiny for us" talk, and the men weren't going to get off the boat.

    So the cultist leaders went over to the Mayflower and asked "What will it take for you to get off the boat here?" And the resounding first requirement was "we don't have to go to any more of your waked-out religious meetings." And thus was the Mayflower Compact enacted in the harbour at Plymouth.

    Religious Freedom was not the _cause_ of the Mayflower journey nor its devout members. It was wrest from the mouths of religious nutters by force of circumstance. It was at its inception a freedom from religion stamped into the soil by the less faithful, agnostics, and atheists.

    And there is a reason that John Standish went to live with the indians, and why all those old cities have the "good side of town" and the "wrong side of town" all up and down the east coast. The pattern of rich religious types vs everyone else was set by the segregation of the pilgrims from their hired men.

    And there is a reason that they starved and froze that winter and had to be rescued by the natives… they weren't dressed or kitted-out for New England, they were supposed to be in balmy Virginia.

    Now this is just one historical myth that you probably didn't fully understand, and may still not believe. But the facts are all there if you go and piece them together and remember that people back then are no better than the people you meet today the story of history is much more interesting. It's also chock-a-block full of dicks and douche-bags.

    The same will be said of us in our future when we are gone.

    There really is nothing exceptional happening here and now. In fact we have fallen from our ideals into an age of torture and xenophobia. But this isn't the first, nor likely the last, time this will happen here. Ask a Japanese American in California circa 1943 or any "Native American".

    Ask how the "indians" ended up being blamed for "scalping" when it's the British who started that.

    So seriously, this is just how people are, and there is nothing outside the norm going on anywhere near you right now.

  50. barry says

    The idea I mentioned that I didn't know had an actual name before I found it, and was also mentioned by granny weatherwax, is "American Civil Religion".

    Washington thought the constitution should be venerated and treated as sacred, and Jefferson thought it shouldn't and made some snarky remark about people treating it like the ark of the covenant. I think Washington won that one.

  51. Tarrou says

    @ azteclady and Alpha Centauri

    Thanks. And especially for the note of international travel. The root of my regard for my country lies in the fact that I lived over half my life outside it. I wasn't raised patriotic at all, but after years lived in places like PNG, Russia and Iraq, I see America with a deep knowledge of the alternatives. Yeah, we have our problems. So does every country. We have fewer and better problems than anyplace I've seen.

    My favorite example is this: We have a problem with obesity centered in the poorest classes. It bears repeating for anyone who has lived in a lower third nation. Our POOR……are too FAT. Now, that is a problem, but in the world at large, complaining that your poor are too fat is like being a billionaire complaining that his Ferrari convertible messes up his hair.

    Much of the world, the poor just starve to death.

  52. Tarrou says

    @ granny weatherwax,

    In what way would it be satire? Satire would require some exaggeration, would it not?

    This is my best read of the nation at large, as filtered through our foreign policy. An above commenter characterized us as "exceptionally cruel" and a variety of other epithets. Now, the results of our policies may be bad, even disastrous, but I have never seen a policy that the supporters of it meant to cause pain and suffering. These policies (whatever their result) are sold as being for the good, not of America, but of the people they apply to. Because that is what Americans want to hear.

    Americans have a self-image of white-knighting in foreign policy. You rarely see policies justified by hard-nosed nationalistic realism. You see policies people disagree with characterized as such (no war for oil!). Now, people can disagree on whether the war was actually for oil or not, but the supporters never suggested that oil was the goal. The detractors did, because a policy based on simple realpolitik is unpalatable to the American public.

    We give billions if aid to foreign powers, we fund millions of charity groups. We fund most of the UN. We also interfere in places with disastrous results. Sometimes that charity harms more than it helps. But one cannot impute malice as the primary policy motivation of Americans at large.

  53. Careless says

    I do wonder, was A Random Brit trying to harass Americans, or mocking European ignorance?

  54. AlphaCentauri says

    My people are in the US because the British though that the solution to poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, crop failure and Roman Catholicism in Ireland was "transportation" (sentencing people to slavery for crimes as petty as vagabondism) and taking advantage of starving people during a famine to evict them from their tiny farms. Most of the other people who came to the US voluntarily were fleeing European governments that kept the poor on the edge of starvation and allowed mobs to attack religious and ethnic minorities. Whatever you think of the foreign policies of the US government, they can only get away with them by convincing a large enough segment of the population that they are rescuing people from oppression. Many towns in conservative states have their newspapers/local television and radio owned by a single family, and they present only the point of view of their political allies. So I know good, well-meaning people who had never heard about instances of US torture, but who could tell you in detail about how Saddam Hussein was torturing people as justification of why we had to invade Iraq.