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Friday, May 4, 2012

American Exceptionalism

What is the 2012 Presidential election really about? It is about two views of the United States of America that are in stark contrast with each other. One view is founded in a bitter perspective that the United States is a corrupt nation that has gained prosperity on the backs of the weak, the poor and the disadvantaged. The other view of our nation is as someplace exceptional, a nation more generous, more caring, more free and filled with more opportunity for all than any other nation in the history of the world. The 2012 election is nothing less than a harsh clash of these views. It is in many ways a national debate on whether or not the Founders created a truly exceptional nation in the annals of history, or whether, as the late Howard Zinn described the Founders in his best-selling textbook “A People’s History of the United States”…

“They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”

There are many books with the same perspective as Zinn, such as “The Myth of American Exceptionalism” and we have a President who apparently sees our nation as no more exceptional than any other nation on earth. He has stated his desire to “transform” America by redistributing wealth, not creating conditions to generate more wealth. President Obama is angry with America. He is embarrassed by American pride and success. That’s why one of the first things he did after taking office was to go on an apology tour. He doesn’t like our form of government, he doesn’t like our choice of allies, he doesn’t like our economic system, he doesn’t approve of our prosperity (that he believes was gained at the expense of others) and he doesn’t believe that free enterprise works to the benefit of all Americans. He wants to take the United States of America down a notch. He believes that success should be punished and that government’s role is to provide not just opportunity, but equal outcomes. His goal is an entitlement society not an opportunity society. In short, President Obama sees nothing exceptional or good or great about the United States of America or about its Founders.

Unlike our President, I grew up believing that the United States of America was not only the greatest nation on the face of the earth, but also the greatest nation in the history of the world. I believed and still believe that there has never been a nation like the United States. I learned this in school and it was reinforced by my parents. They too believed that America was truly unique in the annals of history. They believed that there was nothing that Americans could not do with the blessing of God. My parents revered the Founders of our nation and the documents they wrote—the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There was no doubt in their minds or in mine that America was the greatest, most generous, most free, and most compassionate in the history of the world.

This unabashed belief that America was uniquely great was built upon the belief that the Founders of our nation—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Henry—had created something special in the history of the world—a truly unique country where each and every person could embrace and enjoy individual freedom to nearly unlimited lengths, providing his free actions did not impinge on the actions of any other Americans. The American Dream was a vital part of the belief that America was an exceptional nation. The Dream was the belief that all Americans were born with equal rights under God and that because of our legacy of freedom we could pursue our dream without interference from anyone else, especially the government. An essential part of this dream was that each American could go as far and high as their hard work, talent, and God’s blessings took them. It certainly wasn’t just about economic success, although that was a part of it. It was about realizing your dreams with the sky being the limit.

It was this vision of America as the land of opportunity that caused my four grandparents and tens of millions of others to pull up stakes, uproot their family and bet all on coming to America. And, they weren’t disappointed. While the country they came from may have been cultured and refined in many ways the United States was not, the land they came to was the land they dreamed of, a great, good, free country. What could have possessed someone like my mother’s parents to completely uproot their family in Germany and board a sailing ship to come to a land they had never even seen before? Well, in their particular case, two brothers had gone ahead and established themselves as cobblers (shoe makers) in Hiawatha, Kansas. They weren’t getting rich, and didn’t plan to, but they found the freedom and opportunity in America to be so exhilarating, and the worship of God so open and intense that they urged their parents and siblings to uproot themselves and come to America. One of those siblings had a sweetheart who she planned to marry. She had to decide whether to stay behind and marry, or to come to America with her family. She chose to come to America.

It wasn’t like deciding to move from Virginia to California, or even Alaska today. It wasn’t a temporary thing. When they left Germany they knew they would never see their friends or their town, or the countryside with which they were familiar again. It was permanent. And, it was a high risk venture, and they knew it. They boarded a wooden sailing ship—the kind of ship you and I would probably only ride for a pleasant, calm afternoon, but they were on it for weeks through good weather and bad. They knew and trusted that their lives were in God’s hands. While it may have been terrifying at times, their faith and hope rested in God for safe passage and for His blessings in the new land.

They braved all to come to America. What use would it have been to come to America if it was not dramatically different from the land they came from? It wasn’t just the land and it wasn’t because they were poor. To the contrary, my mother’s parents didn’t come in steerage. They cleared US Customs in Germany and traveled in less crowded conditions. They weren’t rich either. My grandfather and his sons knew a trade and they risked all to come to what they believed to be a unique land of opportunity.

No one would take such a step lightly if they were not absolutely convinced that the United States of America was a far, far better place than where they had come from. For millions America held the promise of an exceptional nation and it did not disappoint. It was this hope, this promise that caused tens of millions of immigrants to risk all to come to our land. Today America remains a shining beacon of hope and opportunity for millions around the globe who would gladly give up everything to come to America. But is there really such a thing as American Exceptionalism? People immigrate to other nations, too.

Is American Exceptionalism a myth as some would have us believe? Speaking to the national conference of the National Council for Social Studies, the 22,000 member organization of teachers of history, sociology, geography, political science, psychology and economics, author James Loewen said, “We need to de-exceptionalize the United States. We’re just another country and another group of people.”

Really? Is that the truth? Have those of us who have believed in the exceptional nature of America and the American Dream, from the time of the Pilgrims until today been wrong? Have we put our faith in a myth? Were those tens of millions of immigrants wrong? Are all those Latin Americans who cross our border illegally, risking life and limb, foolish to believe that America is different from where they came from? Is all the prosperity and widespread wealth in America an accident? Is it just because we happen to live in a land with more abundant natural wealth and resources than any other nation that we are more prosperous than other nations?

This view of Americans that the United States was an exceptional land was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in the second volume of his book, Democracy in America. Even de Tocqueville, who wrote favorably of the American experiment, found the passion and the pride of Americans in their country to border on obnoxious.

“I say to an American that the country he inhabits is beautiful; he replies: ‘It is true, there is none like it in the world!’ I admire the freedom that the inhabitants enjoy, and he responds to me: “What a precious gift freedom is! But there are few peoples indeed who are worthy of enjoying it.’ I remark on the purity of morals that reigns in the United States: ‘I conceive,’ he says, ‘that a foreigner who has been struck by the corruption that is displayed in all other nations may be astonished by this spectacle.’ Finally, I abandon him to the contemplation of himself; but he comes back to me and does not leave me until he has succeeded in making me repeat what I just said to him. One cannot imagine a more disagreeable and talkative patriotism. It fatigues even those who honor it.”

While the prevailing view of the vast majority of Americans may be that America is an exceptional nation, that doesn’t seem to be the perspective of President Barack Obama. In a response to a question posed by Financial Times correspondent, Ed Luce, during his first trip to France as President he gave an entirely different view. In fact, it was his response that sparked the current debate over whether or not the United States is truly an exceptional nation. When the President was asked, if he subscribes, as his predecessors did, “to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world?” the President replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

In his book, American Exceptionalism, the late Seymour Lipset (who is credited with coining the term “American Exceptionalism” writes…

“When Tocqueville or other ‘foreign traveler” writers or social scientists have used the term “exceptional” to describe the United States, they have not meant, as some critics of the concept assume, that America is better than other countries or has a superior culture. Rather they have simply been suggesting that it is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier. Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept. As I shall elaborate, we are the worst as well as the best, depending on which quality is being addressed.”

So is the United States of America really an exceptional nation? Or, if it is exceptional, is that to be understood as simply different, sometimes better, sometimes worse? We may think of the United States as an exceptional nation, but what are the views of others around the globe? Do they look upon the United States as did the young Frenchman who was applying for a job at an office services company run by a friend of mine? When asked by my friend why he came to the US, he replied, “Everyone knows the United States is the greatest nation on earth.” Was he right? If so where is the evidence? What is the cause?

While many celebrate American Exceptionalism, there can be no debate that for slaves aboard ships sailing from Africa to America they did not have the vision or the expectation of my ancestors. For those brought to America in chains, this was not an exceptional nation in any terms except bad ones. Similarly, there are other groups—Hispanics, native Americans, Japanese, Irish, and Chinese—for example who could, with some logic and credibility, argue that for their ancestors America was an exceptional nation only in the worst way. No sane person would argue that the United States is a perfect nation, but that alone does not disqualify the United States of America as an exceptional nation.

The discussion is not about the economic might of the United States, which is certainly prodigious. It is not about the astounding and widespread prosperity enjoyed by the vast majority of Americans. It is not about the productivity of the American worker or the innovative genius of entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Bill Gates or Stephen Jobs. It’s not even about great engineering achievements such as building the Panama Canal, Hoover Dam, or putting a man on the moon, as amazing as those feats may be. Other nations and other countries have given the world inventors and innovators like Louis Pasteur and Nikolaus Otto. Other nations have blessed the world with composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handle. Still other countries have contributed humanitarians like David Livingstone, great economists like Adam Smith, and exceptional philosophers like Edmund Burke. The United States certainly has no monopoly on greatness in this regard. But that still does not answer the question as to whether the United States is an exceptional nation in the annals of history, but this is a question that does deserve an answer.

This debate over American Exceptionalism is not just a casual question suited for cocktail parties and the academy. This national debate over American Exceptionalism will decide down which path our nation will go in the months and years ahead. It is the core question that must be answered in the affirmative if America is to survive. If America is indeed just another nation, then the Declaration of Independence is just another document. The Constitution of the United States is just another outline for another nation. The Bill of Rights is just another piece of paper. If that is true, then the United States of America is living on borrowed time.

The belief that the United States is truly a unique nation is more than common pride in our ancestry or heritage. Gus Portokalos (the father in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) was obnoxiously proud of his Greek heritage, yet no one who saw the movie would have believed that Gus ever considered or suggested the possibility of returning to Greece. It was understood that he was first and foremost a proud American of Greek ancestry.

It’s not just President Obama or authors Loewen and Zinn who has challenged the idea of America as a unique nation. There are many, especially educators, who don’t think of America as a unique nation at all. They believe in an alternate history. They see America as the source of evil in the world. They believe America’s wealth was achieved on the backs of oppressed minorities. They express the view that freedom is overvalued, as did an appointee of President Obama to the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Lloyd. He said after assuming his position…

“It should be clear by now that my focus here is not freedom of speech or the press,” he said. “This freedom is all too often an exaggeration. At the very least, blind references to freedom of speech or the press serve as a distraction from the critical examination of other communications policies.”

To Mr. Lloyd “other communication policies” are far more important than the “blind references to freedom of speech.” Equal results are far more important to men like Lloyd than equal opportunity. They believe that the power of government should be wielded to ensure equal results for all, even at the loss of personal freedom.

Many Americans see the United States of America as a nation that is especially blessed by God. Mentioning God to a liberal is more scary than reading from the Constitution. Even some conservatives shy away from suggesting that the United States is unique or exceptional because it is blessed by God. In a paper presented to the Philadelphia Society, an intellectual conservative group, Society officer Bill Campbell suggested what American Exceptionalism is not. He said it is “improper” to believe that America is unique.” “To be exceptional means to be above average or extraordinary, not to be completely unique.” Of course, no one believes that the United States of America is completely unique. There are similarities between nations, but to say that it is not unique denies it the status and the regard in which it was held by my forbearers and by those who long to come to our land. Mr. Campbell went on to enumerate other “’improper’ understandings of American exceptionalism including the idea that America was ‘chosen’ by God.” Was America “chosen” by God?

The Puritan, John Winthrop, envisioned America as a “city upon a hill,” a godly and just nation of citizens who are specially blessed by God. He saw God as the source of America’s goodness and greatness. It was this vision of America as a “city upon a hill” that President Ronald Reagan referenced in his farewell address to the nation when he said:

“The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs [in the White House], I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.”

“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.”

Why doesn’t our President, a man who has benefited so greatly from being a citizen of our nation, see the “exceptionalism” of America. Author Dinish D’Souza, who has studied the background of our President closely writes…

“…Obama learned [from Barack Obama, Sr.] to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America’s military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father’s position that the free market is a code word for economic plunder.”

There is no indication whatsoever that our President sees our nation as one blessed by God or even that God is the source of our blessings. In fact, on several speaking occasions the President has carefully excised “endowed by their Creator” when loosely quoting from the Declaration of Independence. At a fundraiser for Democratic Congressional Committee and Democratic Senatorial Committee on September 22, 2010, the President said,

“And what was sustaining us was that sense that, that North Star, that sense that, you know what, if we stay true to our values, if we believe that all people are created equal and everybody is endowed with certain inalienable rights and we’re going to make those words live, and we’re going to give everybody opportunity, everybody a ladder into the middle class, every child able to go as far as their dreams will take them--if we stay true to that, then we’re going to be able to maintain the energy and the focus, the fight, the gumption to get stuff done,”

No mention is made by the President as to who endowed us with inalienable rights. Similarly seven days earlier, speaking to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Annual Awards Gala he said,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights: life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s what makes us unique.”

Again, there is no reference whatsoever to who endowed us with inalienable rights. The actual words of the Declaration of Independence read,

“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.”

It is very hard to believe that these omissions were unintentional, coming from someone who lectured on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. And, in fact, these omissions do violence to our understanding of what makes America exceptional. If we leave out “endowed by our Creator” then where do our rights come from, the government?

But of course, that’s exactly what liberals like President Obama believe. It’s no wonder that Obama decried that the US Constitution was “essentially a rendition of negative rights.” Liberals are clearly uncomfortable with our founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, without which one cannot correctly understand the United States Constitution.

In 2001, Barak Obama, over public radio station WBEZ-FM, expressed his regret that,

“…the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf, and that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was, um, because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.”

Clearly our President rejects the concepts and ideals of our Founders, their belief that only by restricting the power of government can we preserve the freedom of Americans. And by omitting references to God as the originator of our rights, he chooses government as the source of our rights. He wants government to do things for us and to us. He has no fear of government taking away our basic rights. Thus he has no problem with a one payer health care system that rations health care and that decides who will receive care and who will not based on their usefulness to society.

This pattern of President Obama omitting “endowed by their Creator” in successive excerpts from the Declaration of Independence is especially troubling when you consider that he has chosen to ignore Christian events while setting aside a special White House dinner to celebrate Ramadan. None of this is to suggest that the President is a Muslim or not a patriotic American, but rather it suggests that he is a misinformed student of American history who rejects traditional and thus critical explanations of the roots of American exceptionalism.

The outcome of the discussion of American exceptionalism in the public sphere will ultimately determine which direction our nation will take and whether or not limited government and individual freedom will continue to be the hallmarks of our nation. The election on November 6 will tell us not only who our next President will be, but also whether we will pursue the vision of America as an exceptional nation, or whether we will reject that premise, and the guiding principles of our Founders. The alternative is a perspective that sees the United States of America as “just another nation” and one that has prospered only because it has exploited the weak, the poor, and the disadvantaged. The outcome on November 6 will be momentous, not only for us but also for those yet unborn. Will future generations enjoy the blessings of freedom or will they be sentenced to a life of service to an all-powerful government that runs their life from the moment they arise in the morning to the time they lay their head on their pillow at night? Will November 6, become the beginning of a new birth in freedom, or the beginning of the end for America as we have known it? That is the choice that lays before us.

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