Friday, March 12, 2010

Except For This

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review have made the case again for unapologetic American Exceptionalism and you need to read it. As a response to the always lurking, but recently resurgent liberal embarrassment over and apology for our great country, their argument is most welcome. But an unexpected challenge to their thesis has come from someone we might otherwise have thought an ally. Conrad Black has written a piece for National Review Online titled, "Less Exceptional Than You Think" and you need to read it too. I did, and discovered, to my surprise, that I had to agree with most of his counter-arguments.

Except, that is, for one phrase near the end of the article. Black has elsewhere argued that America is in decline (although not irreversible) and he admonishes Lowry and Ponnuru for effectively trying to rally their fellow countrymen through "the time-worn mantra about American virtue and superiority."

That phrase held my attention and as I thought about it, it occurred to me that the notion of American virtue and superiority cannot be dismissed simply as a mantra. That is, it is not merely a phrase we repeat out of habit in order to convince ourselves of something we no longer believe to be true. Rather, aside from liberal elites, that is, it is indeed something that a very large majority of Americans actually do believe to be true about their country, and persistently so. Why?

I suspect a couple of reasons, neither of which are original with me. First: Liberty. We are, and have been for some time now the freest country on earth. And I don't mean exclusively political freedom. Many countries can match that. It's an attitude more than anything else, cultural rather than legal. Historian Walter A. McDougall captures it well with his descriptive phrase that we are "a nation of hustlers", in both senses of that word. That quality, I believe, is a direct result of our liberty.

Second: Our stubbornly abiding religiosity. Even if it's not very deep, the sheer breadth of the presence of religion in our country serves us in a couple of very important ways. First, it disciplines our liberty. Free to do what we will, our religion helps keeps us from always doing the worst. But perhaps even more important is that our religiosity provides us with hope. I don't mean "keep your fingers crossed" hope. I mean, rather, hope as in "it'll work out" or "it's worth it."

Real freedom and real hope means a real future. The average American knows this and celebrates it. He is not foolish for doing so.


  1. Sage,

    Great discussion of American exceptionalism. Black makes a powerful case, but he's flat out wrong to say that "the propagation of democracy emerged as a goal only in the Cold War." That is pure myth . . . American presidents were covertly propagating democracy around the globe from Jefferson's time. The Federalists and their heirs were somewhat restrained, but for the Jeffersonians (the Democratic Republicans) it was part and parcel of their foreign policy. This notion that the Cold War changed everything has proved quite durable, unfortunately.

  2. Thanks very much sf. I'm afraid I don't know the history well enough to have picked up on that fine, but important point. It's true, Americans from the beginning have believed their founding principles to be universal.