July 11, 2010

Three Cheers for American Exceptionalism…Pass It On!

by Hal Gershowitz

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Far-left ideologues and self-styled intellectual illuminati have, for years, labored overtime to highjack the notion of American Exceptionalism by equating it with their own notion of American arrogance.  Let us put an end to this calumny. Let us recall and, indeed, praise the American Exceptionalism at which Alexis de Tocqueville marveled when, during his travels through the young country in 1831, he coined the term in his treatise, “Democracy in America.”

De Tocqueville was writing for the European reader, especially for his fellow Frenchmen far more than he was writing for the new and vibrant American marketplace.  Whereas revolution had produced chaos and anarchy and hatred of almost anything that smacked of religion in France, de Tocqueville was quick to observe that something quite the contrary had emerged in America.  Here he saw the budding fruits of freedom, individual liberty, equality of opportunity and a people absolutely free to practice religion however they chose or not to practice any religion at all.   What he saw, first hand, was the world’s first functioning meritocracy, and what he described so eloquently was the fantastic differentiation of America from Europe.  He called it American Exceptionalism. It was, and has been, that exceptionalism that produced the most industrious nation the world has ever known.

That is something we should celebrate each and every day…that which made us different, that which made us great, and that which, thankfully, a rapidly growing number of Americans are determined to reestablish as the great American paradigm.  And while American Exceptionalism shouldn’t merely be about what was, but rather about what is, it is worth remembering that twenty-five thousand Americans died during the War of Independence to establish the great American experiment.  Relative to population that first American war was the second costliest in human treasure, exceeded only by the Civil War.   During the course of the 235 years since the shot at Concord that was heard around the world, more than 1.3 million Americans have died defending freedom and liberty.

We should also remember that independence wasn’t the end game of that first great historical American struggle. It was but the starting point of the American Exceptionalism that Alexis de Tocqueville described.  Our founding fathers, who may have disagreed about many things, were of one mind when it came to our raison d’être, what would be our very reason for being…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Liberty” is clearly the operative word, for without liberty “life”, they clearly believed, was not worth living, and “the pursuit of happiness” would be but a contradiction.

It is easy to forget that a mere 235 years ago, no nation existed with a bedrock principle that all of its citizens had a birthright to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It was the most radical of ideas.  And to punctuate how serious that principle was, the founders went on to enshrine in the Constitution a few years later that America would only be governed with the consent of the governed.  These were the principles that differentiated America from Europe and the rest of the world.

What the people gave their consent to when, state-by-state, they ratified the new American Constitution was the establishment of a government with very specifically enumerated powers. Clearly, what was fought for and established 235 years ago was a national government that never could ride roughshod over the rights of the several states or, more important, over the rights of the individual citizen.  That’s what we celebrate, or should have been celebrating on Independence Day last week.

America has, of course, evolved greatly during the years since its founding and that was expected. We have amended our Constitution many times and we have even repealed, on one occasion, that which we had previously amended.  Generation after generation of Americans have prospered and continuously improved their quality of life because of the exceptionalism that de Tocqueville spotted in the fabric of the new nation so long ago.  Citizens in every generation knew that their children would do even better than they had done.

As the twentieth century progressed the role of government evolved in response to the changing social and economic landscape. America was becoming more complex and new laws, rules and regulations were instituted as one might expect in a rapidly changing society.  But soon the growth in laws, rules and regulations began to far outstrip what a healthy and growing society required.  Soon the very principle of non-intrusive government began to rapidly erode and recede into distant memory.  The commitment to equality of opportunity soon began to transform into a commitment, simply, to equality.

And, in short order, the worthy goal of social equality began to morph into the demand for economic equality requiring massive public subsidies to equalize the benefits and advantages earned by the more productive members of society with those of their less productive countrymen.  By definition economic equality, or parity, as national policy is predicated on either directly siphoning wealth from the more productive for redistribution to the less productive or indirectly siphoning phantom wealth by incurring massive public debt as much of Europe has been doing for the better part of the last two generations.

We don’t have to theorize where such economic statism leads.  We watched the utter collapse of the Soviet Union.  We watched as every socialist country under the Soviet yoke, once freed, fled and immediately recalibrated their economies more to the once classic American model.  And now we are watching as most of debt-ridden Europe begins to recalibrate as well.  Political leaders in Great Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Iceland are now all fighting to reverse their decades-long flirtation with egalitarian economies by reigning in their unsustainable spending and debt…amazingly, to the consternation of their American counterparts.

We can now make two undisputable observations about such statist governance. First, it is not sustainable and, second, it requires a degree of government central planning and control that is the antithesis of what the founders created as well as the antithesis of what de Tocqueville observed when he coined the term, American Exceptionalism. Unchecked, America’s drift toward unbridled statism and the ever-mounting and unsustainable public debt that is its hallmark will produce future generations that will have to rely on the sacrifices of their children to sustain the burden of their own profligacy.

The individual liberty and the equality of opportunity that American Exceptionalism introduced to the world 235 years ago, while imperfect and subject to occasional abuse as we so recently experienced, is still, by far, the most successful, the most promising and the most equitable governing model.  America is still one of the few places on earth where every citizen can realistically aspire to the height of his or her own capability. Hopefully, most Americans understand that.

Three Cheers for American Exceptionalism.  Pass it on.

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8 responses to “Three Cheers for American Exceptionalism…Pass It On!”

  1. Ronald Cherry says:

    Please allow me to post a long quote from C. S. Lewis; a man who understood the inequity of equal outcome. Equal outcome is unnatural and can only occur by force; it requires totalitarian government where it is called “social justice;” Orwellian Newspeak for injustice. Equal rights secured by equal law is natural and requires no force, and it naturally leads to unequal outcomes; it is the definition of true social justice.

    “Democracy [Marxist “equality” of economic and social outcome] is the word with which you must lead them by the nose… You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated [equal rights secured by equality before law]. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal [in outcome – regardless of creativity and labor]… Under the influence of this incantation those who are in any or every way inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever before to pull down everyone else to their own level [laboring middle class pulled down to the economic level of the lazy proletariat class]. But that is not all. Under the same influence, those who come, or could come, nearer to a full humanity, actually draw back from fear of being undemocratic… They might (horror of horrors!) become individuals… What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any tyranny other than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own…” C. S. Lewis – Screwtape Proposes a Toast


  2. Ronald Cherry says:

    George Orwell, possessing a mind of the same caliber as C. S. Lewis, pointed out that “equal outcome,” in addition to its inherent injustice against those who labor creatively to make themselves successful, is a Big Lie. The totalitarians (visualize the Pigs of Animal Farm) who would enforce “equal outcome” for the masses bring them only equal serfdom; serfs loomed over by a new elite class of not-to-be-equalized equalizers – superior in rights – superior before law – superior in property – superior in outcome.

    “It had long been realized that the only secure basis for oligarchy is collectivism. Wealth and privilege are most easily defended when they are possessed jointly. The so-called “abolition of private property” (Communist Manifesto) meant in effect the concentration of property in far fewer hands than before… In the years following the Revolution it (The Socialist Party of Oceania) was able to step into this commanding position almost un-opposed because the whole process was represented as an act of collectivization… It had always been assumed that if the Capitalist Class were expropriated Socialism must follow; and unquestionably the Capitalists had been expropriated. Factories, mines, land, houses, transport, everything had been taken away from them; and since these things were no longer private property it followed that they must be public property. Ingsoc (Socialist Principles of Oceania), which grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology, has in fact carried out the main item in the Socialist program with the result; foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.” George Orwell – 1984

  3. Ben Donenberg says:

    As I think about American Exceptionalism , Mordecai Menahem Kaplan comes to mind. Kaplan (June 11, 1881 – November 8, 1983), in addition to being the inventor of the Bat Mitzvah coming of age ceremony for girls (until Kaplan there was only the Bar Mitzvah for boys), was a rabbi, essayist and Jewish educator, the ideologue of Reconstructionist Judaism.

    Kaplan wrestled mightily with the notion of the Jews being regarded as “Chosen People,” just as some wrestle with American Exceptionalism. He reconstructed the notion of a people being chosen by a supernatural, all-knowing, eternal being that controls creation and the events of the world and each of its inhabitants. Instead, Kaplan suggested that a converse relationship might exist and that the deity may have been invented (projected) by a people and perhaps it’s the people who have chosen to set themselves apart by adhering to a man-made code, a system of rules, regulations, rituals, and moral imperatives. Perhaps, it is a series of specific choices that are collectively made and perpetuated eternally through generations that define the Jew or any nation as distinct or exceptional.

    We Jews and we Americans are exceptional to a grand extent because we choose to be. So are and so do Latin Americans, Africans, Europeans, Slavics, and Arabs. So are those who practice Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Each are distinct and exceptional by choice. But it is not the case insofar as economic differences are concerned. Very few choose to be poor.
    When my five year old asks me if I love him more than I love my eleven year old, I default to the ancient wisdom of a Solomon and reassure him that I love each of my children just as much as the other, yet in a special and different way. There is no need to downplay or apologize for each my children’s exceptional gifts or choose one over another. Nor is there any need to dismiss or mitigate the exceptional spirit of the American people who forge a unique democratic experiment. We can recognize our special qualities without placing our worth above or below any other’s humanity.

    When he asks me why some of his friends have homes that have “upstairs” and “basements” and why we only have a few rooms on one level, I shrug my shoulders and point out that there are others who don’t have what we have. Someone, I tell him, will always have more stuff than you do and some will always have less.
    The fact is that we are only exceptional in comparison to others. The richness of our identity as a nation is dependent upon our own actions in the context of other nations. The little secret that is easy to forget is that we need others for us to be exceptional in comparison to. Exceptionalism is a global commodity.
    The economic implications of accepting individuality and interdependence are hard to parse, harder to reconcile and are still being worked out. Just as we learn to acknowledge our cultural differences without acrimony or resentment, we must acknowledge, accept and come to appreciate the values of economic disparity. Some will always have more and some will always have less.
    Once we recognize that this is, was and will be the case, we have an opportunity to consider the present and choose how we gage our own interests in the context of others. We are all perfect at this moment and we all can improve a bit, as Suzuki Roshi, the great Zen teacher once observed.

    We must continuously ask, answer, and improve our answers to the question, “What do we want the bottom line definition of being an American to mean?” How do we choose to set ourselves apart from other nations? How do we and how must we demonstrate that we are an economically exceptional nation? There is no right or wrong answer, there is what we choose according to our own preferences and accumulated experiences.

    Mordecai Kaplan understood that the translation of the Hebrew word “Israel” means “One who wrestles with God.” It is in that wrestling match that our exceptional character as a person, a people, and a nation is defined.

    Will we choose to create fiscal policies today that take away future generations’ economic self-determinism? How do we elevate the standard of living for those who are suffering without diminishing or punishing or taking away from those who are not? Is it possible to enable our leaders to create policies that produce a lasting happiness that all can share that transcends economic class?
    As we evolve as a nation, how do we want the notion of our nation as “exceptional” to evolve?

    Questions worth taking to the proverbial wrestling mat.

  4. Ronald Cherry says:

    The United States is exceptional because we are the only nation on Earth which has as a nation written down its un-amendable moral/natural law (Declaration of Independence); law which recognizes the natural equal rights of all individuals to their life, liberty and fruit of labor (labored-for property) – their pursuit of happiness; equal rights which come from our Creator; equal rights which supersede government its self – government which is after all but a small group of people. It is self-evidently both immoral and irrational (and un-American) to assert that there is a superior class of “Philosopher Kings” (a small group of people in government) from whom all other American Citizens derive their right to freely speak, write, assemble, worship or peacefully protest. After all, if our rights come from a small group of other people, those “rights” can be rescinded by the same. “Human rights” which derive from government are necessarily reversible and not unalienable.

    “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Thomas Jefferson

    Secondly, we are exceptional because we have written down amendable rational/secular law which can be derived through the consent of the governed; from “We the People;” majority rule where the majority is constrained by both Declarational (natural/moral) and Constitutional (rational/secular) Law.

  5. Ben Donenberg says:

    And sometimes the interpretation of the realizations that attend the opening of eyes to the amendable and un-amendable are applied according to the whimsical discretion of those in positions to legislate and interpret and enforce . . . whether they represent the majority, once did, or never did.

    It’s still the same old wrestling match – call it God or Democracy, it’s up to you to project.

  6. Ronald Cherry says:

    Those in government who would not open their eyes to the self-evident natural/moral laws of our Declaration of Independence find it necessary to interpret those truths away, according to their self-serving, whimsical and arbitrary discretion. Although we depend on government to make secular law, we do not depend on them to make natural/moral law; such law having preceded them and all other governments. Secular law becomes the tyrants will when it violates natural/moral law; when it violates man’s self-evident equal rights to life, liberty and creative pursuit of happiness; sacred unalienable human rights which form the starting point for real social justice – not government.

    “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” Thomas Jefferson

  7. Bill_H says:

    Welcome to the Tea Party !

  8. Kate McFann says:

    I had dinner with my French friends here in Paris and they spoke of their patriotrisms for their country, but agreed they should of not taken on the European union of economics and wished they had gone in the direction of the US economics. He is in the Aviation market and feels this has caused an increased stress on his already suffering industry. I applaud your sentiments.. Merci

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