Exceptionalism Symposium: I take exception to the term

Ceaser quickly outlines the competing factions in any discussion of “American exceptionalism” being that of the conservative defender of the concept and the liberal anti-exceptionalist who wants to “take America down a notch” to the level of any other civilized nation.

Somehow or another, conservatism has found itself defending the notion while liberals are free to reject it.  I am tempted to  note the ironic reversal, laugh to myself, and point out that the latter position is the one for responsible adults, the former being the province of juvenile imaginations clouded by ideology (“I will not apologize for America…”).  Yet, the devil is somewhere in the liberal’s position, just as it is in the conservative’s; it is as if rejecting exceptionalism means shunning the particularities of America.  There needs to be another way.

Some clarity on the term is necessary.  Unfortunately, though Ceaser offers suggestions and traces history, a definition is never really reached; “exceptionalism” is given an association with being great, unique, and pretty swell, but it is not established in what ways America is, according to the term, exceptional—a limitation Ceaser admits. Let us consider the word for a moment in order to understand its limitations:

If we accept the premise that words possess being (a different argument altogether) then it should come as no surprise that the word itself contains the meaning we seek.

But what is America being excepted from?  This implies a norm or standard which America is not subject to.  “Exceptionalism” can mean one of two things, then:  it can mean that America is except from an intentionally vague standard of uniformity with other nations:  which is to say, it is somehow unique.  Or, it can mean that America is exempt or excepted from a standard which all other nations are held to; that is, a moral standard.  The particulars of this moral standard do not matter overly much for our purposes; it is sufficient merely that America is excepted from an otherwise universal standard of behavior.

The first notion should be rejected, not because it is too strong, but because it is too weak.  It tells us nothing about America that is not equally true of Mexico, Japan, or Turkmenistan.  All places are unique because of their history, their location, their (insert factor X).  What of it?  Good for them.  Theirs is surely the most beautiful land to their people; let them think so.  It is a harmless notion, so long as we do not take ourselves too seriously when we claim that, indeed, ours is really the most beautiful land.  But it fails to describe America in any meaningful way.  Take note, this applies equally well to America’s political identity as it does to any other feature: it is unique, like any other nation.

The second notion should be self-evidently corrupt to any mind with some shadow of a moral imagination.  Simply put: it violates justice.

If conservatives desire to keep the patriotic high-ground over their liberal opponents, they must seek a better path than that of exceptionalism:  for what we love is not a document, or exportable theory of government, or messianic vocation.  Rather, it is a collection of real places—cities, towns, countryside, wilderness—that are worth caring about.

America is exceptional, just like any other nation.  But, unlike all the others, it is our nation, and that is all the justification needed for caring for it.

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