American Exceptionalism… versus what has made America exceptional

At their convention, the Republicans chose their theme. The coordinated message from two-thirds of their speakers would be American Exceptionalism.

Unable to gain leverage by using the economy – which is slowly but clearly recovering from their own train wreck depression – and with the GOP suffering from devastating credibility gaps on everything from the deficit to medicare to taxes to women’s rights to skyrocketing wealth disparity, they decided to fall back upon…

…patriotism.  Waving the flag and hoping that the left wing of liberals would react with sneers.  (Post convention note: the dems did not fall for the trap.) 

Was this a case of using patriotism as a “last refuge”?

Let me surprise you by saying that, when it comes to many of the surface statements, I side with the Republicans!

The United States of America has been the most exceptional thing ever to happen to humanity. I say this not out of reflex triumphalism or chauvinism, but as a simple matter of outcomes appraisal. Indeed, I bet that in the grand context of time, the American Experiment will turn out to have been one of the major reasons, if we wind up succeeding as a species and even reaching for the stars.

Alas, in a supreme irony, those who most fervently push this overall viewpoint in fevered generalities have also been the same folks responsible for severely damaging the American republic, far more than any enemy has in 150 years.

== First – the case for exceptionalism ==

Most moderns have no idea how stunning the American Revolution seemed, to onlookers around the world.  Especially the example of “Cincinnatus” George Washington, who turned his back on power not once but three times.  Or Abraham Lincoln, whose legend penetrated all the way to tribes deep in the Caucuses, as told by none other than Leo Tolstoy.

If Britain and France had listened to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, and imposed a gentle peace on Germany, there would have been no Weimar Depression, no seething resentment leading to Hitler.

Later, in 1945, when America stood as the world’s behemoth, men like George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had their chance to impose structure on the world, an imperial peace or “pax,” as had Rome, China, Babylon and Britain in their day.  The long (comparative) peace that ensued – Pax Americana – was deeply flawed in many ways. But compared to all other “pax” eras — and especially to the lawless times in between — it was the gentlest ever known.

Certainly it was beloved by those we defeated in war. Today the U.S. has no better friends than those former foes who benefited from the plan of the 20th Century’s greatest man.

Marshall aimed to avoid a core mistake of every previous pax empire.  All the others – even Britain – set up mercantilist trade patterns that sucked fortune out of distant satrapies and fed gold back to the central kingdom, fostering poverty and resentment everywhere else, making inevitable a later collapse.

In contrast, the counter-mercantilist pattern imposed by Marshall’s unusual Pax Americana favored transferring low level, labor intensive industries (e.g. textiles) en masse to poor regions around the globe in a cascade sequence that uplifted, successively, Germany and Japan, then Korea and Taiwan, then Malaysia and Singapore and so on, until right now this program of “foreign aid via WalMart” is raising up more than a billion people in China and India at the same time.

The core of modern development, this innovation is the number one reason that two thirds of children on this planet live in clean homes with electricity and sanitation, never hungry, and go to school every day. A program fueled in large measure by the American consumer, thanks to wise patterns enacted a lifetime ago. Patterns unique in the long and lamentable history of human empires.

(An aside: How did we manage for seventy years to pay for such a program – shipping low level jobs overseas in return for cheap products? It was financed by the rapid advance of new technologies, from jets to rockets, satellites, transistors, computers, telecom, pharmaceuticals and so on, created largely by American engineering and science. A joint effort of government, companies and individuals, that none could have accomplished alone… but that’s another story.)

== Have I made you angry? ==

Do I have the liberals out there shaking their heads and the leftists seething with purple wrath, by now? Stammering with eagerness to remind us of Pax Americana’s crimes?

Hey, I said I was aware of how many times this century’s “empire” lapsed in its ideals, was hijacked to ill ends or just did bad things, from banana republic invasions to Vietnam to realpolitik nasties committed during the long slog to achieve another part of Marshall’s plan — “containing” the crazy Soviet empire till its fever finally broke. I never denied the flawed fallibility that emerges whenever barely-uplifted cavemen get their hands on tremendous power.

What I ask you liberals out there to notice (the lefties are hopeless) is that your reaction — shared by millions of fellow citizens — is unique in the history of nations on Earth.  You grew up in a place where most people are brought up never to be satisfied with things as they are, even when the situation is far better than our ancestors ever knew. Pax Americana clearly committed a higher ratio of good deeds to crimes than any ten other top nations in the history of the world. Just look at how little-hated it is! But you focus on the mistakes, the faults…

…in hope of improving things, eliminating errors, re-charting a course that is even better!  An imperative of which I wholly approve. I believe your willingness to criticize the nation that you love is far more sane than the reflexive, blithering “exceptionalism” that we witnessed in Tampa a few weeks ago.

Yours is the true patriotism… if only you would recognize and admit it.

== The true exeptionalism ==

Those amazing accomplishments — creating the world’s longest best peace, along with the spectacular rise of billions out of poverty, plus the driving of racism and sexism and other ancient traditional obscenities into ill repute — these weren’t accomplishments of jingoist flag-waving but of relentless, day-to-day creativity, good-natured progress and lots of self-critique by every generation of new Americans.

The true exceptionalism is that habit of self-critique! And for that reason liberals (not leftists) are far more responsible for the accomplishments of America — and Pax Americana — than the manipulative “Yew Ess Hay!” rants of Sean Hannity and the puppet stringery of Rupert Murdoch.

But — oh, liberals — you do harm when you fail to take in that context. So I ask that you go over my core point, a second time.

You are critical because your society taught you to be! It is a wholesome reflex to cry out “we could be even better!”  Criticism is the only known antidote to error and you serve your nation by zeroing in on mistakes. In so doing, you are America’s truest children…

… though, like teenagers, sometimes many of you forget the context. You forget to openly avow that the thing you want to make even better was already the best thing the world has ever seen.  The nation of Lincoln and both Roosevelts, that took humanity to the moon and kept the longest, greatest peace the world has ever known, allowing a higher fraction of people to live violence free lives than any other time in the history of the race.

You forget that other societies, which you hold up as deserving tolerance and understanding, would never have said the same in reverse. They did not tolerate, or even encourage, the habit of us-criticism from their subjects, that we relish from citizens like you.

You gain credibility when you admit that context.  When you admit that yours is a nation worthy of your love.  When you accept that flaws are inevitable, but that you are part of that nation’s healthy immune response against those flaws! That you are a product of that nation’s upbringing, a reservoir of its hope for positive change.

A symptom of its health and youthful vigor and readiness to grow.

== Don’t give fools a monopoly on patriotism ==

Their version is jingoism, a dullard thing seen in all cultures.  A kind of masturbation to the clan’s tribal symbols, similar to what occurred in any and every nation across time, when the Romans or Assyrians or Pax Britons cheered their flags and called themselves “exceptional” each in their turn, and then – with their aversion to criticism – proved themselves wrong.

Can I tell you a secret? By sniffing and rolling your eyes at patriotic symbolism, you are spurning real allies. The men and women of our military, for example, who may be straitlaced and ramrod-backed… but who also happen to be the third best-educated clade in American life. The officers know that democratic presidents listen to advice when it comes time for war, and democrats keep those wars tiny, surgical and professional, like Bosnia and Libya and the hunt for bin Laden.  The generals and admirals remember – in sharp contrast – what was done to our forces by George W. Bush, who plunged us into huge, garish, endless quagmires of attrition “nation-building” in Asia, a president who many of those flag officers deem the worst in living memory.

Sure, you don’t like talk of war. You strive to end it altogether. Terrific. But amid your eager looking ahead, to a much desired time without conflict, stop!  Pause. Look back across 6000 years and know that it won’t happen overnight.

Realize and admit that it is impressive progress that we have changed the definition and meaning of war.  Recent struggles look more like intense SWAT team action than the indiscriminate rolling thunder of times past. And it’s been proved that violence on Planet Earth has plummeted each decade in the era since 1945.  The era of Pax Americana.

If we are stuck having some war for a while longer, be proud of the nation that tries, each generation, to do it with incrementally more care. A little more like rough cops — more closely watched, each generation — and less like barbarian hordes. Go ahead and nag for that progression to move faster; that’s your job!  But also shudder over what the world would be like, if anybody else had the power that we’ve wielded with a (relatively/comparably) light hand.

Liberals, you must learn to do jiu jitsu. Don’t spurn American Exceptionalism, and thus leave the scoundrels with their last refuge unchallenged.  Challenge them even over patriotism!

They whose warped version of a once proud conservative movement has harmed this country – more than any enemy has in 150 years – should not be left with that refuge, the refuge of a flag they relentlessly harm.

Like Washington and Lincoln and both Roosevelts and Ike, who saved the experiment and made it a beacon to the world… wear the blue of our revolution.  Wear it proudly.

3 Comments

Filed under economy, politics, society

3 responses to “American Exceptionalism… versus what has made America exceptional

  1. Well reasoned and well written. Not to quibble with your main thesis, but isn’t the trend of Democratic presidents conducting small wars relatively recent? After all, Wilson, Roosevelt and Johnson were all Democrats. While Wilson’s postwar peace proposals may have been one possibility for avoiding WW2, America staying out of that war in the first place could have had much the same effect. There is also some reason to think that Johnson deliberately escalated American involvement in Vietnam simply to win reelection. , That seem jingoistic patriotism was all too much a part of the Vietnam era. As, of course, was the critical anti-war movement that had so much to do with ending the war, and i guess we’re right back to your point about criticism and correction of mistakes. As noted, then, well done!

  2. It is true enough that the dems’ preference for police style or surgical warfare coincides with the generals’ move toward that preference, after Vietnam. But dig it. That is part of the reasonable willingness to listen to the professionals. It was Reagan and both Bushes who ran roughshod over the generals, demanding war actions that violated the new doctrines.

  3. Your posts are perfect. I’m 78 years old already not learn English. thanks compiler understand. Hello Charles Ekert

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