Philosophical Musings

Philosophical Musings

Thursday, July 5, 2012

American Exceptionalism?

The only thing exceptional about America for me is that i take exception that we are exceptional!  America is unique in history, to be sure, and the hodgepodge of characters & mifits that made up this nation are contrary to the more world wide vision of nobility & manifest destiny.  But exceptional?  That starts to sound like the divine right of kings.. attributing a unique blessing from Deity on our leaders, just because they are so special.

America is more like the Rodney Dangerfield of nations.. we never get respect.  In past centuries, & even now we are considered more of a mutt of nations.. a mongrel society with no real heritage or roots.  The european elite were glad for us to take their tired, their poor, their huddled masses.. they could then become a more pure vision of their culture, unfettered by the pesky malcontents & dregs of society.  Hitler despised the US for our lack of racial & cultural purity, as did the Japanese.  They did not think a nation like that could do battle with their superior warriors.  Most Europeans & middle easterners also view us as impure mongrels.. nothing exceptional about us at all.

Now in spite of all this disrespect, we have grown to become the most powerful nation in history, & unlike other superpowers, did not annihilate our enemies to prove our cultural superiority.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the continued disdain we get from many nations.  Annihilated enemies do not show disdain.

I see a progression of American culture.. an evolution of the american psyche & how we arrived at our unique views.

Early on with the pilgrams & other colonists, self sufficiency became the norm.  England did not protect & supply the early pioneers, nor did the Dutch or French.  After a few generations of this self sufficiency, with a dose of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, & other revolutionary views, the colonies started to feel they were not part of the old world.  Old England did not view us as equals, but distant suppliers of cheap goods & raw materials.  THEY were the exceptional ones.. the colonial nations with a divine destiny to rule (or at least manage) the world.

We had weird cults from all over europe coming here to practice their beliefs without persecution.  Many experiments in collectivism were tried, with little success.  But individuals working together had more success in building the new society.  Individual freedom & individual responsibility proved to be a powerful force in nation building.  The bizarre mix of people from many ethnic & ideological backgrounds was our heritage, rather than a noble purity of esteemed ancestry.  We had criminals, cult members, indentured servants, slaves, adventure seekers, & many other misfits & malcontents come to settle the new uncertain shores of america.

These people battled for their turf like any urban gang.  They made & broke treaties with the natives, & could be as treacherous as any european.  They were pawns in the European struggles for world dominance.. Spain, France, England, and even Germany saw us as bit players in their European stage.. pawns to be manipulated for political purposes.  By and large, we were naive & unsophisticated in world politics.. we were trying to grow the nation & provide freedom for our people.  And more kept coming.. immigrants from europe, mostly, coming for a new life of freedom & opportunity.

What made the American culture different was self sufficiency.  The govt was not powerful & totalitarian, like those in Europe.  It did not dictate to the people a lot of rules of behavior or religious beliefs.  They could not tax us oppressively, & engage in a lot of wars, because they didn't have much money or power, & the people were too spread out & lived mostly on subsistence farms.  The people had little to do with govt, & took care of themselves.  In contrast, the Kings of Europe ruled their people with divine right.  They drafted their young men into the army & made regular, imperial war on other nations to expand their turf & power.  They levied heavy taxes to pay for their excesses & wars.  The common people did not live under a free, self sufficient system, but at the pleasure of the monarchy.  Every right or privelege was granted by the King.  Your very life was at his discretion.  Common Europeans lived under this system until the last century.  But even now, most European nations do not have a personal responsibility, individual liberty culture.  They still look to the 'king' or the state to manage a lot of their lives.  They expect the govt to tell them what to do in most aspects of their lives.

Russia went from the Czars to Lenin without any real change for the common people.. they were still enslaved & oppressed by a monolithic central power.  Germany went from Kings to Kaisers to Furhers with little difficulty.. it was just different faces & different agendas.. but the totalitarian, statist govt was familiar & comfortable for the people.  France went from Kings to revolutionaries to dictators in the same way.  China, too, went from emperor to Mao.  Most of the world does not have the history or culture of individual freedom like those in america.  Free speech & press are fairly recent in Europe, and not really there in some places.  No citizens of other nations are trusted by their govts to be armed.  In America we think free speech, press, arms, etc, are normal human rights.  We have had them for so long we take them for granted.

But i see this as more of a psychological difference.. a matter of upbringing & the evolution of culture.. it is nothing inherent in americans, and certainly not exceptional.  Many generations of breathing the air of freedom have given us this attitude, & we tend to assume that individual freedom is a human norm.  But of course, it is not, & freedoms can disappear & be just a footnote in history, if we let statism & totalitarianism continue unchecked in it's constant lust for power.

American freedom is exceptional.  But that is not the people.. that is the concept.. the idea of America.  There is nothing exeptional about being born here, or coming here to start a new life.  But continuing to breathe the air of freedom requires exceptional committment.  Freedom is not free, & we must defend it & treasure it as our most precious possession.  In the history of the world, the freedom of America is very unusual & quite exceptional.  But we are not born with it.. we must take it as our own.. embrace it as our personal heritage & individual identity.  That individual freedom is the idea of America.  You don't have to live here to have it, nor does living here mean you automatically understand it.  To fully 'get' America, you have to see the idea.  For us to survive as a nation, we have to keep the dream alive.  America must live as a concept, not merely a collection of misfits & mongrels.  America as an idea is exceptional.

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.  ~Thomas Jefferson

"Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience." ~John Locke

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 whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government..  ~American Declaration of Independence

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