American Exceptionalism – A Double-Edged Word

by John Holbo on August 30, 2014

I’m not surprised some conservatives are upset about the AP American History test. But I am bemused by the strength of the axiom Stanley Kurtz would oblige us to adopt, to keep things from getting politicized: “America is freer and more democratic than any other nation.” (Although, grant the axiom, and postulates about military strength, and theorem 1 – “[the US is] a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world” – enjoys high probability.)

This is a comparative thesis about the international order, so it is noteworthy that Kurtz simultaneously forbids the ‘internationalization’ of US history. Comparative ‘transnational narratives’, the only sort of thing that could empirically support the validity of Kurtz’ exceptionalist axiom, are out! But I suppose Kurtz is just trying to avoid confusion. (It is wrong to allow that there could be empirical disconfirmation of any aspect of a result that has been transcendentally deduced from an impulse to amour-propre.)

Precisely because I associate the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ with this sort of lather, I do not associate it with the study of history. So I’ve never really wondered, but suddenly I do: what do students of American history say about ‘American exceptionalism’? I ask Wikipedia and am a bit surprised to read that it is widely accepted! And then I realize what is widely accepted is some version of the old Tocqueville-to-Louis-Hartz-and-beyond line I spent a semester in college studying. Oh, that thing! (Well, you can forgive me for not associating that with this stuff Kurtz is banging on about.)

Also, more weakly: “American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nation states.”

I know, I know, it’s just a Wikipedia entry. Still, this looks like a term born to do the terrific two-step of triviality!

1) We’re #1! We’re #1!
2) There is no danger of the US collapsing into, say, Switzerland, via Leibniz’ principle of the Identity of Indiscernables.

What we obviously want is:

3) It makes sense to single out for special study features that make (or seem to make) the US an outlier, among nations, relatively speaking. Culturally, politically, geographically, in terms of not having its industrial base shattered after W.W. II, on and on and on.

Studying 3), in a serious way, is incompatible with catechizing students to chant 1), while depriving them of any comparative basis for judgment. 1) is only good for doing the one thing Kurtz says he doesn’t want to do: “ensure that students think a certain way about contemporary events.” The approach Kurtz rules out is perfectly compatible with 3). Comparing nations is not incompatible with contrasting them. It really is that simple.

I hadn’t realized that, in a scholarly sense, ‘American exceptionalism’ is apparently most strongly associated with Seymour Martin Lipset. Thus, I haven’t read his book – American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword [amazon]. But just Googling up this page is enough to separate Lipset’s line from Kurtz’.

Tocqueville’s Democracy, of course, is the best known [work that takes this exceptionalist line]. As we have seen, he noted that he never wrote anything about the United States without thinking of France. As he put it, in speaking of his need to contrast the same institutions and behavior in both countries, “without comparisons to make, the mind doesn’t know how to proceed.”

Tocqueville was a transnationalist.

To conclude: Kurtz is just kicking up partisan dust, obviously. But perhaps I can make a proposal, for future reference. In a geopolitical sense, America is exceptional, and it really is right to see that as a double-edged sword. (I don’t know exactly what Lipset means by that, but I can privately attach a perfectly sensible sense to the phrase, I think.) But, intellectually, ‘exceptional’ is a double-edged word. There is the scholar’s sense and the jingo’s sense. These are different enough that we can’t do without two words. Going forward, let’s call Kurtz’ sense ‘American suprematism’ – an alloy of moralism and power highly distinct from the more neutral ‘exceptionalism’, that is Tocquevillean, so we should leave it to the transnationalists who, for better or worse, are apparently writing the AP American History tests.

As a final note: while penning the present post, I find this post at Powerline (wow, haven’t visited in years!)

A goodly chunk:

Obama put it this way:

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

This is vintage Obama. He stands above America — putting us in a “global perspective” as just another country that considers itself exceptional.

This, as I tried to show in my post [he means this one], is the same perspective that gives rise to the way the College Board wants AP U.S. History to be taught.

Still, I agree with Obama that Brits probably believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks in Greek exceptionalism. And I knew first hand that the French believe in French exceptionalism.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to citizens of countries like Britain, Greece, and France, whose histories indisputably are exceptional. When I talk to immigrants from Central and South America, they speak proudly of “my country,” the nation they left to come to the U.S.

I don’t probe deeply enough to learn whether they consider their country “exceptional” or to discover what version of their national history they are taught in school. But it’s clear that they don’t view their country as just a province among the provinces that make up the world.

When I visited the Dominican Republic this past winter, I discovered a narrative of that nation’s history (which I gather is taught) that holds that its patriots thwarted the U.S. when we intervened militarily in 1965. In reality, the U.S. was not thwarted.

The U.S. accomplished its goal of preventing a left-wing takeover of the DR and saw its preferred presidential candidate, Joaquín Balaguer who had been closely associated with the dictator Trujillo, elected president under a plan for forming a new government imposed by the U.S. (Balaguer went on to serve 22 years as democratically elected president, presiding over stunning economic growth and development).

If the Brits, the Greeks, the French, and the Dominicans believe in the exceptionalism of their respective countries, then, as Yossarian might say, Americans would be damned fools to feel any other way.

Since Mirengoff (the author) is hereby not merely admitting but actually arguing that his favored approach will conduce to more historical falsehoods being taught (on the alleged Dominican Republic model), I suppose the point must be that we have to guard against any transnational Hack Gap, historiographically speaking. We can’t allow the citizens of other countries to be bigger fools than we are, due to their natural, human desire to believe they are better than we are.

In short, I’m not sure Mirengoff is right about what Yossarian would say:

Dunbar sat up like a shot. “That’s it,” he cried excitedly. “There was something missing – and now I know what it is.” He banged his fist down into his palm. “No patriotism,” he declared.

“You’re right,” Yossarian shouted back. “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right. The hot dog, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mom’s apple pie. That’s what everyone’s fighting for. But who’s fighting for the decent folk? Who’s fighting for more votes for the decent folk? There’s no patriotism, that’s what it is. And no matriotism, either.”

As G. K. Chesterton remarks: “’My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

Lipset quotes Chesterton, as a believer in American exceptionalism. “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Even so, in fairness, I think we will have to put him, too, on the Tocqueville pile rather than the Kurtz pile.

{ 181 comments }

1

John Quiggin 08.30.14 at 6:32 am

Interestingly, while insistent that the USA is more democratic than any other country, the National Review is also partial to the line that the USA is a republic, not a democracy, which is important when justifying restrictions on the right to vote.

As with “people’s democratic republics”, the “republic” bit is needed to ensure that a truly democratic government represents the genuine Will of the American People, rather than the transient preference of a mere majority (who might, for example, be Democrats).

2

John Holbo 08.30.14 at 6:42 am

Quite so! Thanks for the link.

3

Brett 08.30.14 at 8:01 am

When I visited the Dominican Republic this past winter, I discovered a narrative of that nation’s history (which I gather is taught) that holds that its patriots thwarted the U.S. when we intervened militarily in 1965.

I remember reading a book that had excerpts from school textbooks from foreign countries on American events throughout history – like a British textbook bit on the American Revolution, and even an honest-to-god excerpt from a North Korean textbook about the Korean War. Lots of interesting stuff like this.

4

mjfgates 08.30.14 at 10:01 am

“American suprematism”: typo, or do you actually want to coin a new word?…

5

John Holbo 08.30.14 at 10:24 am

Well, I wouldn’t want to accuse Kurtz of perpetrating a well-known style of Russian abstract art, but in an American mode. I’m open to suggestions. American Supremacism?

6

Antoine 08.30.14 at 10:29 am

Looking at it from the outside I’d say that American exceptionalism is easily counterbalanced in the America itself by its opposite , the constant demonization of the United States , the paranoid vision of the U.S. as a totalitarian state and a social hellhole . Sartre wondered why Americans were always so critical of their country ( in Situations ) . Both attitudes I find extremely unattractive in their extremism and self-righteousness. They are probably inherited from rigid protestant attitudes (fire and brimstone and all that) . In France on the other hand its a given that the state must be glorious and any inconvenient facts are simply wiped away from history ( colonialism , collaboration , … ) . And so Hollande last week declared that “France liberated herself from nazism” and that “France is and remains a great nation” and that “France invented human rights” and no one batted an eye . These statements are accepted as necessary facts in order to provide a sense of unity and self .

7

Hix 08.30.14 at 12:05 pm

Thats consistent. They think every other nation is even worse. They just dont trust even the must basic social contract to hold up under any pressure in general. In the sky is falling Tv genre for example, other countries if mentioned at all are in evenworse shape.

8

Harold 08.30.14 at 12:14 pm

France did invent human rights, or rather the French enlightenment (an international movement) did.

9

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 2:09 pm

@Antoine

Looking at it from the outside I’d say that American exceptionalism is easily counterbalanced in the America itself by its opposite, the constant demonization of the United States…

It’s a rare progressive blog in whose comments section you can’t get an up-vote, or whatever, for making the argument that the U.S. is, in fact, the Focus of Evil in the Modern World. Pointing out that this is, in fact, also a species of American exceptionalism doesn’t seem to advance the discussion, though. Threads full of “Uh-huh, we’re waaaaaay more evil than that…”

It’s been particularly commonplace lately. Many full-throated defenses of Putin’s adventurism I read in Ukraine eventually reduce to this proposition, before disappearing entirely into repetitive sotto voce chanting of “Victoria Nuland… Victorial Nuland…”

10

David 08.30.14 at 2:10 pm

What exactly is ”ordered liberty”? ”Freedom without the fun parts”? It seems right wingers in the US are very big on qualifiers.

11

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 2:24 pm

IIRC “ordered liberty” is a legal term of art, at least in constitutional law… 14rh Amendiment incorporation doctrine and theory… and that raises the prospect of it actually being a shibboleth.

Palko v. Connecticut is where I remember it from…

But that was long ago, in another country and besides, the wench hornbook is dead.

12

Palindrome 08.30.14 at 2:55 pm

@3: Was that History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray US History, by Lindaman & Ward? I remember enjoying that one very much. It should be assigned reading in actual US public school history classes, along with Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.

13

PJW 08.30.14 at 3:30 pm

Supremacism might be charged with too much of a racial component or connotation to properly capture the essence of the idea. Wish I had just the right word as a substitute.

14

bianca steele 08.30.14 at 3:50 pm

John, I love your two-steps!

I like Schlesinger’s Cycles of American History, which discusses different ways of thinking about exceptionalism, just because I happen to have it on my shelf.

My American history professor used to remind us that there were presidents who were earth-shakers and there were presidents who were earth-soothers–I can still hear him saying that (though I never was sure whether the latter were actually “smoothers”). I assume he got that from Schlesinger. Guess which kind was in the White House in 1983.

15

Kaveh 08.30.14 at 3:50 pm

I think this kind of ‘comparison-with-nothing’ is a common thing in sloppy history writing, and Kurtz has elevated it to a principle. For example, a book on the economic history of Safavid Iran (1501-1722) I read years ago claimed that the Safavid social/political system stifled innovation and investment. The author didn’t seem to realize that this statement is meaningless without some specific point of comparison–chronological (vs, say, the 1370-1501 period) or geographical. The statement wasn’t clearly framed as comparative, rather than absolute–it was presented as a historical fact that could be asserted without a solid comparative framework. But as an absolute statement, it’s patently wrong (as this historian surely knew–the Safavid period saw recovery from the civil wars & famines of the late 15th c., major developments in the arts and philosophy…), so the only way to make sense of it is as comparative. But then it is meaningless outside of a clear comparative framework–you could say about any society that certain aspects of the social/political system stifle investment and innovation. I think what the ‘comparison-with-nothing’ got this particular writer (or the previous writers he inherited it from) was to be able to attribute the “slow” economic growth of Safavid Iran to internal factors of political culture (that, implicitly, did not exist in W. Europe), whereas really fleshing out a comparison with, say, France, would force the historian to consider the role of other differences, like France’s commercial expansion into the western hemisphere. Maybe a reason for this is that the historian in question, Willem Floor (whose work is pretty good & important), was an independent scholar whose formal employment was at (IIRC) the World Bank, and so was used to thinking in terms of autonomous nation states or something similar as the relevant economic actors, rather than in terms of a balance between different social groups within a geographically larger scene. (i.e. I doubt Floor thought of this comparison-without-comparative-framework as an ideological choice.)

Anyway, I think one could say something about “conservative thought” being a contradiction in terms, because what makes such conservative intellectual tendencies conservative is a kind of willingly-lazy unwillingness to improve on faulty assumptions & thought patterns when doing so would threaten a cherished hierarchy.

16

bianca steele 08.30.14 at 3:51 pm

American history professor – who the heck wrote that? I meant AP history teacher

17

William Burns 08.30.14 at 4:03 pm

America is the only nation founded on a creed? How about Saudi Arabia? Or North Korea? Frankly, founded on a creed doesn’t seem a particularly desirable quality.

18

DBW 08.30.14 at 4:49 pm

The reason most historians today reject the descriptive Lipset-type notion of exceptionalism is that they have largely given up the dream of a unified pattern of history, whether derived from Marxism (and it was Stalinists who invented the idea of American exceptionalism in this sense), or from liberal postwar modernization theory. In order to believe in an exception, you don’t just need a comparative framework (e.g. America is different from France)–you need a general rule or pattern from which the American instance is held to depart. So it’s not enough to say that all nations have their particular and unique developmental features, as Obama did when he said the British and the Greeks each believed in the exceptionalism of their own nations. The exceptionalist doctrine would be that the exceptional nation stands outside the general pattern and rule. Since most historians no longer believe in a unified metaphysic of historical development, teaching American history through an exceptionalist lens, from the point of view of professional historians, would seem to obscure much more than it would illuminate. So, when Kurtz attacks professional historians from departing from an exceptionalist view, of course he’s right, but not because they “hate America.” It is Kurtz and his ilk who are committed to the idea that one must take an ideological stance on “America” as a condition of studying its history. The designers of the AP framework, I suspect, want students to have an understanding of history–and, yes, a critical one–, rather than either condemn or celebrate America. This is one of those instances where conservatives seem to want to attack the ideological distortion of history, but only because it’s not distorted in terms of their own ideological predilections.

19

Claude Fischer 08.30.14 at 4:58 pm

I offer my own discussion of the (legitimate) meaning of American Exceptionalism — and its’ more exceptional than Obama’s exceptionalism:
http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/american-exceptionalism/

20

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 5:05 pm

Frankly, founded on a creed doesn’t seem a particularly desirable quality.

A state founded on Creed, however, is going to be something far, far, worse.

21

geo 08.30.14 at 5:56 pm

Antoine @6: Looking at it from the outside I’d say that American exceptionalism is easily counterbalanced in the America itself by its opposite , the constant demonization of the United States , the paranoid vision of the U.S. as a totalitarian state and a social hellhole.

“Easily counterbalanced”? American exceptionalism is practically the national religion. No candidate for public office, except perhaps in enlightened Vermont, can forswear it. Any TV anchor who expressed a shadow of a doubt about it would be off the air the next day. By contrast, I can’t remember the last time I heard even the most marginal leftist call the US a totalitarian country. I’m sure someone somewhere has said such a thing, but I’m equally sure he or she isn’t even a molecule on the scale against American exceptionalism.

Davis X. @9: Again. I haven’t heard this allegedly omnipresent meme about the omnipotence and absolute evil of the US. I have, on the other hand, heard people point out that the US was overwhelmingly the most powerful state in the second half of the twentieth century, and so, outside the Communist world, not much happened against which we set our face. And those things that did happen against our will — in Chile, in Indonesia, in Indochina, in Central America — did so only at a terrible cost to those who did them.

22

bianca steele 08.30.14 at 6:01 pm

geo:

To the extent that “American exceptionalism is false” means “the rest of the world does X, the US does Y, therefore the US is wrong,” then I’d say American exceptionalism is true. I’m not sure why this would mean I have to agree with Stanley Kurtz and the NRO crowd.

As for “I haven’t heard,” which you say at least twice in this comment, maybe it’s a generational thing. In the absence of much data, I think I’m going to assume it is.

23

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 6:15 pm

American exceptionality often takes form in the refusing to admit that foreigners have agency, and that things that happen overseas either don’t happen, or happen only because we make them happen, or let them happen.

You can be The Indispensible Nation, or the Bearded-Spock Indispensible Nation. But you’re still the Indispensible Nation.

24

hix 08.30.14 at 6:17 pm

Re reading my post at 19 -that one was answering to a virtual post that would have correctly asociated excessive anti government paranoia with the right side of the US political spectrum.

25

J Thomas 08.30.14 at 6:52 pm

But, intellectually, ‘exceptional’ is a double-edged word. There is the scholar’s sense and the jingo’s sense. These are different enough that we can’t do without two words.

I noticed dealing with computer language standards, that if a word has two meanings and you want to clear things up by using two words, you need to use two new words and retire the original. If you try to redefine the original you will sow confusion.

So I would suggest

American supremacism as you do for one side, and
American Unusualness for the other.

America is one of the most unique nations on earth, except that so many other nations have copied us in so many ways.

;-)

And we’re so good at mining other nations’ customs for fashion and food etc.

26

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 08.30.14 at 10:01 pm

Many full-throated defenses of Putin’s adventurism I read in Ukraine eventually reduce to this proposition, before disappearing entirely into repetitive sotto voce chanting of “Victoria Nuland… Victorial Nuland…”

That’s as good a way of saying, “Just shut up about Mrs. Robert Kagan” as any, I suppose.

But what are you gonna do about it? Enlist** with Anne Applebaum?

** That’s a joke, son.
~

27

Ken_L 08.30.14 at 10:06 pm

American exceptionalism seems to be held up more as something to be reflexively applauded than as a concept which can be reduced to concrete meaning. Its most fervent proponents are also likely to be the most virulent critics of what America is today, or at least of what it is perceived to be becoming thanks to the progressive undermining of American institutions by “liberals”. It’s not exactly clear what this version of American exceptionalism consists of; the only expressions of what it means in practice tend to refer to World War 2 and the “greatest generation” (which is a little strange because I’m sure the people who think this way would have been appalled by Roosevelt’s New Deal socialism). But generally the expression seems to mean either an idealised set of values that float free of any particular institutions or people, or some frontier quality that only survives in pockets of the “real America”, or an imagined past America; not an existing reality. In this sense it held out as something America is that no other nation is, not something America has more of than anyone else.

28

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 10:06 pm

That’s as good a way of saying, “Just shut up about Mrs. Robert Kagan” as any, I suppose.

And that’s as good a way of saying “I got nothin'” as any, I suppose.

How many divisions does the National Endowment for Democracy have, again?

29

geo 08.30.14 at 10:23 pm

Bianca: I’m not sure I follow you. By “American exceptionalism,” I meant pretty much what JH identified as “Theorem 1″ in the OP: that is, the belief that “[the US is] a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world.” (Though it’s important to note that most politicians, pundits, and talking heads leave out the “at times.”) I thought Antoine was saying that there are just as many Americans who say that the US is uniquely evil as there are who say that it’s uniquely good, which seems to me nonsense. And I thought Davis was saying that practically every progressive blog is populated by people who think the US is not only supremely evil but supremely powerful, which he seems to imply is as silly as saying that it’s supremely benevolent and idealistic. To which I replied (or meant to reply) that I don’t think that’s received wisdom on the left, in the caricatured form he proposes, but that the US was indeed uniquely powerful in the second half of the 20th century and was indeed responsible for vast suffering and oppression in the “Free World.”

Claude Fischer’s interesting discussion of American exceptionalism mainly concerns social history rather than foreign policy, which is what it’s usually applied to.

30

john c. halasz 08.30.14 at 10:33 pm

“How many divisions does the National Endowment for Democracy have, again?”

Well, how many divisions does the CIA have?

31

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 10:49 pm

The NED and the CIA don’t actually represent threats to Russia of similar magnitude to the threat that the Russian military represents to its neighbors, do they?

That’s an o.k. proposition for debating purposes, but really?

32

Davis X. Machina 08.30.14 at 10:52 pm

To which I replied (or meant to reply) that I don’t think that’s received wisdom on the left, in the caricatured form he proposes…

Go to DKos, or DemocraticUnderground.com, and try to propose the alternative.

33

bianca steele 08.30.14 at 11:04 pm

geo:

I thought you were saying basically the same thing as John Holbo in the original post: if it’s jingoistic, we’d like to call it “American exceptionalism,” if it’s just factual, we want to call it something else. I see you were mostly objecting to the idea that the two sides were equal. I misread you as saying there was no one on the other side. I just don’t think that’s true. Suppose you’re reading a book by an English writer, with an argument that a written constitution is a bad idea, or a book by a French writer, arguing that common law is bad, or someone like Solzhenitsyn or Shaw saying Mark Twain is the worst writer ever. For a certain kind of left-leaning person, do they feel they ought to agree that the American institution or the American writer is bad, lest they have to feel they’re being jingoistic and right-wing? I think they often do, and that feeling gets explained as their determination not to be “exceptionalist” about the US.

34

geo 08.30.14 at 11:24 pm

Bianca: I do think the US is exceptional in lots of ways, including some good ones, but not uniquely dedicated to spreading freedom, democracy, and human well-being, which I think is what Madeline Albright meant and Charles Krauthammer means.

Davis: What would “the alternative” be?

35

cassander 08.30.14 at 11:49 pm

Actually, I think that quote by kurtz perfectly demonstrates the right wing view of american exceptionalism, that america is an exceptional nation, the shining city upon the hill, and our duty is to preserve and defend it. This is contrasted with the left wing view that america is exceptional because it has the potential to become the shining city upon a hill, and our duty is to build it. combine those two with the less influential but highly persistent frontier narrative (screw you people, I’m going to go west and build my own damn city) and I’d say you have at least 80% of the ideological underpinnings of american politics.

36

Piquoiseau 08.30.14 at 11:55 pm

Since “American exceptionalism” is a label for the (counter-revolutionary!) notion that America is exempt from the Marxian laws of class conflict, immiseration of the proletariat, bourgeois democracy as window dressing for capitalist rule, &c., aren’t Kurtz, et al, in touting it, implying that the Marxian analysis is true for everywhere else?

37

bob mcmanus 08.30.14 at 11:57 pm

31.A Imagine Russia arming, inciting and organizing a separatist movement in Michigan. Or northern Mexico. Think Canada is fully sovereign and free? They absolutely aren’t, and as an American you would think so.

If you ever ever think “Well, this is different because America (*or any American*) is the good guy.” you are not only buying into American exceptionalism but fully onboard the Imperialist Full Spectrum Dominance Global Project.

34:US is exceptional in lots of ways, including some good ones

And Mussolini made the trains run on time, Hitler liked dogs, and Hirohito was such a gentle man. To say anything good about America or particular Americans (except those who are dedicated to its complete destruction) is wicked.

Superhero movies are the/one opium of this particular evil empire. It’s smart and subtle, but wants the same and worse than any previous empire. It wants everyone and everything.

38

bob mcmanus 08.31.14 at 12:06 am

One change from simple “exceptionalist” explanations of fifty years ago is the understanding gained from the post-war anti-colonialist movements as to exactly how attractive and corrupting Americanism is for the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeois of the peripheral countries, in other words how American money, capital, power and protection, and reassuring individualist ideology (Yeah, Pussy Riot!!) can bribe the educated elites overseas into being plantation managers and enslaving their own, transcending nationalism and religions.

IOW, Empire is a team effort.

39

Andrew F. 08.31.14 at 1:15 am

This is an insightful post!

I found the linked article by Kurtz very light on what is specifically wrong with the AP US History Framework, and rather heavy on the background of those who contributed to it. On lack of specific evidence alone, Kurtz is very unpersuasive.

Kurtz’s lack of specific references, and various claims as to the meaning of American exceptionalism (which is surely a highly contested term, and moreover one for which the range of possible meanings changes by context), adds to the confusion. Obviously I’d disagree with his description of American exceptionalism which has more plausible interpretations than what he undeservedly hung upon it.

This paragraph is the clearest statement I could find of his underlying objection:

A detailed analysis of the new AP U.S. History Framework is for another time.

[Really? An article making sweeping claims about the Framework isn't the time? I was annoyed on reading this. Anyway the paragraph continues:]

Suffice it to say that in its downplaying of America’s traditional national story and emphasis instead on material causation and exploitation within the context of a transnational Atlantic World, the new AP U.S. History Framework is a huge step in the direction of precisely the sort of de-nationalized American history advocated by Thomas Bender and the La Pietra Report.

So charitably, to make sense of the problems he finds in the new Framework, we can separate his objection into two claims:

(1) the new Framework requires a narrative that contradicts American exceptionalism in all the “usual ways that some lefties do,” focusing too much on American crimes, too much on how other nations viewed the US, and scorning the traditional narrative of America as… well, it’s late, you get the picture;

(2) the new Framework encourages American students to think of the US as merely another nation, merely another province, nothing special, nothing worthy of particular allegiance, a geographic and political rest stop on the global highway, an entity superficial and unimportant to their identities.

So far as (1) is concerned, without specific evidence it is impossible to assess.

I think (2) is more interesting, though overstated. I do think it’s important, especially at the high school level, to teach US history as “our history”, to foster a sense of national identity. That includes the good and the bad of course. To make this explicit, Martin Luther King Jr. is the cultural heritage of every American, regardless of race or ethnicity, as is slavery; the triumphs of the framers of the Constitution are the cultural heritage of every American, regardless of race or ethnicity, as are their failures; the crimes and failings of the United States are the cultural heritage of every American, regardless of race or ethnicity.

That is, the story needs to be told as “our story” and not simply “a story.” I don’t think this is quite the same as just recognizing ways in which the US is different from other nations, and the ways in which it is the same.

In particular, to tell a story as “our story” is to include aspirational principles that, though continually and necessarily compromised by the imperfections of our world, inform a sense of who we are as a people and a nation. This does not mean we should be uncritical, but that we should be pragmatic in our framing and in our understanding. And by pragmatic, I don’t mean deceptive or untruthful – I mean pragmatic in a sense closer to that of philosophical pragmatism (speaking of American perspectives).

Of course, what is pragmatic here is contested. Obviously a viable narrative should not be false, nor deficient in evidence relative to another. Assuming those criteria satisfied though, there are still choices to make. Those most concerned about the dangers of jingoism may find certain narratives better; those who are most concerned about the dangers of losing a sense of shared national identity may find others better. Surely though there is a middle ground that can reasonably serve both. But whether the Framework tilts too far in one direction or another, failing as deficient in evidence or for other reasons, is impossible to say without looking at the Framework itself.

“Kicking up partisan dust” as JH puts it is exactly the right verdict on the article.

40

Mdc 08.31.14 at 1:25 am

“In particular, to tell a story as “our story” is to include aspirational principles that, though continually and necessarily compromised by the imperfections of our world, inform a sense of who we are as a people and a nation. “

Really hard for that not to turn out to be an exercise in ideology. The truth is almost sure to be more interesting.

41

geo 08.31.14 at 1:27 am

bob: If you ever ever think “Well, this is different because America … is the good guy,” you are … buying into American exceptionalism

Couldn’t agree more.

bob: To say anything good about America … is wicked.

Couldn’t disagree more, assuming you’re serious. (It’s often hard to be sure.) To start with the obvious: the landscape of the American West is exceptional. Even after the damming of the Columbia and the Colorado, the flooding of Hetch Hetchy and Glen Canyon, the strip mining of the Appalachians and the clear-cutting of the Cascades, the poisoning of the Everglades, and so much more mindless destruction, this is still probably the most beautiful country on earth. But more: as Noam Chomsky always says when someone in the audience asks him plaintively whether resistance to the Empire is still possible, the US is the freest country on earth — no thanks, of course, to our ruling classes but rather to a rich history of popular struggles by workers, feminists, students, blacks, journalists, consumer advocates, etc. It’s not just ungrateful to forget about those struggles or sell them short, it’s counter-productive. After all, if efforts to fight the power have invariably been unsuccessful, why bother to try again?

42

js. 08.31.14 at 1:28 am

Suppose you’re reading a book by an English writer, with an argument that a written constitution is a bad idea, or a book by a French writer, arguing that common law is bad, or someone like Solzhenitsyn or Shaw saying Mark Twain is the worst writer ever. For a certain kind of left-leaning person, do they feel they ought to agree that the American institution or the American writer is bad, lest they have to feel they’re being jingoistic and right-wing? I think they often do

I must say my jaw dropped when I read these examples. Solzhenitsyn a better writer than Twain! Hilarity! But honestly, I still can’t tell if these examples were meant in jest or not, because they all seem so completely indefensible—even to me, and I’m happy to hate on the US, geopolitically speaking at least. But I do think you have a point. So I thought I’d propose a set of alternatives:

(1) The parliamentary system is better than the presidential one; (2) French-style republicanism is superior to how Americans treat religion in the public sphere/La Règle de jeu is superior to Citizen Kane; (3) El Lissitzky thought Whistler was a bourgeois mediocrity.

Set aside the one statement there that’s just flat out true.* I’d probably sign on to the rest (though “mediocrity” is a tad bit harsh on Whistler), even though I can see quite good arguments on the other side.

*La Règle de jeu. Obviously!

43

Glenn 08.31.14 at 1:31 am

American Exceptionalism:
The belief that no matter how many foreign governments and their elections the US subverts; no matter how many baseless wars devastate no matter how many millions; no matter how many are tortured and imprisoned without cause for no matter how long; no matter how many non-white Americans populate the extreme lower classes and prisons: The Government of America would NEVER do anything so cruel, underhanded and deceptive to its own people.

44

john c. halasz 08.31.14 at 1:33 am

@31:

I’m not really interested in debating anyone who swallows MSM propaganda whole and exhibits little geo-political or historical understanding of the case or issue involved.

As for “American exceptionalism”, there is this geo-political fact. It is a continent-wide country with immense “natural resource” endowments, with two vast oceans between it and any “great power” rivals. (Admittedly, that’s not how it started out, but the outcome was always envisioned). As some 19th century wag put it: “Pity poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!” Canada only managed to slip the noose and become the peculiar nation that it is, because it observed the immense power of the Union Army during the Civil War and decided it might get together to avoid the worst.

“Full spectrum dominance” is the hallucinatory result of a failure to appreciate the limits of such historical good fortune.

45

js. 08.31.14 at 1:39 am

Somewhat more seriously, I do think bianca steele and Davis X. Machina have a point, but I’m ultimately with geo on this one. Yes, there’s a problem with certain kinds of American leftists denying agency to non-American actors, especially ones in the global south. (Adam Schatz’s recent piece in the The Nation that in part dealt with this sort of thing was excellent, e.g.) And it is true that certain kinds of American leftists like or prefer non-American institutions and ways of doing things for no reason beyond the fact that they’re non-American.

Bu ultimately, geo’s point @21 seems unassailable to me. The US was indeed “overwhelmingly the most powerful state in the second half of the twentieth century,” and as such was capable of causing more harm than any other country in the world. Which… it did. And yes, that’s a certain sort of de facto exceptionalism. I suppose it comes with the territory of being “#1″. (By comparison, the British Empire was pretty fucking exceptional for a good century or more.)

46

L.D. Burnett 08.31.14 at 1:50 am

Ben Alpers recently wrote an excellent post at the U.S. Intellectual History blog discussing the history of “American exceptionalism” — both the term and the idea(s) invoked by it. His post includes a link to several previous posts at USIH discussing various issues connected with the historical problem and/or problematic valences of “American exceptionalism.”

Here’s the link: American Exceptionalism Watch

47

MPAVictoria 08.31.14 at 1:53 am

“the US is the freest country on earth”

Please tell me how the US is more free than, to take one example, Canada?

48

Ronan(rf) 08.31.14 at 1:57 am

to take one example at random ? ; )

49

Layman 08.31.14 at 2:07 am

“You can be The Indispensible Nation, or the Bearded-Spock Indispensible Nation. “

Your agonizer, please, Mr. Machina.

50

geo 08.31.14 at 2:09 am

Good question, MPA. I should have asked Chomsky. I suppose he meant the Freedom of Information Act, libel laws, no prior restraint on publication, First Amendment protections and all the other jurisprudence around the Bill of Rights. Then again, he started saying that in the 1960s and 70s, before the Republicans took over the Executive Branch and started rolling back all those freedoms. Maybe he’d award the palm to Canada now. Still, even if the US isn’t the freest country in the world, it’s exceptionally free.

51

Ronan(rf) 08.31.14 at 2:10 am

I would say most countries have founding myths that stress national exceptionalism, I dont find that point particularly unusual. Has the US behaved badly as a major power ? Of course. What countries havent ? Which countries have behaved better ?(however that is measured) Which major powers have been less explicitly rapacious in their ‘imperialism’ ? Which have allowed the same space for economic and political development to occur (somewhat) independently from the core ?
The problems in developing countries that plagued (and were exacerbated by)the cold war era still continue in a number of regions. Some of that is the fault of the western powers, some(most, imo) is domestic(political and economic mismanagment, ethnic division, local dysfunction) I, personally, think the post colonial era is over. The instinctive reaction to blame ‘the west’ (or the US) has passed. We’re living through something new where blame is more democratically assigned.
Bob’s empire is dead etc etc

52

Ze Kraggash 08.31.14 at 2:19 am

Canada? It’s as much a foreign country as Wyoming. I bet no one ever said ‘I’ll be traveling abroad next week’ meaning: to Canada.

53

bianca steele 08.31.14 at 2:25 am

I suppose I tend to associate criticism of “American exceptionalism” with things like: contempt for any marking of the anniversary of the Constitution in 1987, and readings of “Why No Socialism in the U.S.?” that emphasize the answer must be something rather like American wickedness. Maybe wrongly. Also a bit with the boyfriend whose comeback, to my saying why I was interested by my courses in Greek philosophy, was “You don’t think that was invented by the Greeks, do you?” (He was an anthropology major with an interest in Western Asia.) Of course, the correct answer was, “No.” Anyway, I think of it as domestic, rather than geopolitical.

54

geo 08.31.14 at 2:50 am

PS to 50: In fairness to Chomsky, I should note that he recognizes as well as anyone (even the implacably suspicious Bob McManus) that a person’s ability to take full advantage of American exceptional freedoms depends on being able to afford a good lawyer. But that’s true of most other societies as well.

55

ckc (not kc) 08.31.14 at 3:23 am

Canada? It’s as much a foreign country as Wyoming.

indeed

56

Diogenes 08.31.14 at 4:30 am

Liberal blogger exceptionalism is pretty fucked up too.

57

John Holbo 08.31.14 at 6:46 am

“Liberal blogger exceptionalism is pretty fucked up too.”

I’ll keep an eye out.

58

bad Jim 08.31.14 at 6:53 am

Actually, you need a passport to visit Canada now.

There is a fixed idea that America is exceptional. Exactly why it that is so seems to be a matter of taste. In some quarters we’re considered exemplary because of our religiosity, and it is true that we’re more religious than other developed nations, but at our founding we were conspicuously less religious, or at least less religiously uniform, than any European country.

We’re probably still more ethnically diverse than our peers. I used to be confident of distinguishing an American Olympic team or orchestra by its variety. This may no longer be a reliable criterion, but perceptions once true continue to be convincing.

The United States is in effect a European country in the western hemisphere, and as such is inherently exceptional. I’m vaguely aware that we’re bordered by mythical states with comparable claims, and I’ve even visited them, but even if they do exist they’re inconsequential.

59

Metatone 08.31.14 at 9:10 am

Since it’s easier for all of us to think about others more clearly, let me (as a UK citizen and current resident) talk about the British Empire.

The big problem with the “exceptionalism” of the British Empire in terms of foreign policy was this all too common line of thinking:

1) We’re a force of good in the world, a land of democracy, the mother of parliaments, etc.

2) Therefore:

a) We must never fail to be evil enough to defeat those more evil than us. Democracy etc. must never fail to be protected because of democratic or ethical qualms.

b) Any evil we commit that leads to the greater growth or glory of the empire is justified because the empire is a good thing…

60

bob mcmanus 08.31.14 at 11:53 am

Bob’s empire is dead etc etc

I just googled “box office 2013″ for Romania, Thailand, and Venezuela. Try it.

As mentioned above, Poland has become a place where Anne Applebaum can move, marry the Polish Foreign Secretary, and feel at home enough to push for war. What have we done to Poland?

It is of course more complicated than Friedman’s flat world, and “difference” is a profit center. But if you think Empire is declining, it is because it has become immanent, invisible, “just” and “natural,” because it has already won.

61

Brett Bellmore 08.31.14 at 1:01 pm

“There is a fixed idea that America is exceptional.”

I think at this point, on the right, the idea is that America used to be exceptional, and, could be exceptional again, but that a lot of work has been put in by liberals erasing that exceptional status, and it’s going to be a long, hard slog becoming exceptional again.

Especially with liberals trying to make America in to a knock-off of Europe.

62

bianca steele 08.31.14 at 1:16 pm

Thanks, L.D. The post has a broken link, though, to this: http://s-usih.org/2011/02/how-did-exceptionalism-become.html.

63

J Thomas 08.31.14 at 1:34 pm

#61 Brett Bellmore

I think at this point, on the right, the idea is that America used to be exceptional, and, could be exceptional again

“Exceptional” is blurring several different ideas that deserve to have their own names.

“unusual” America used to be different from other nations.
“superior” America used to be better than other nations.
“supreme” America used to rule other nations.

Which of these did you intend?

64

L.D. Burnett 08.31.14 at 2:12 pm

Bianca @62 – You’re welcome. On a thread about how popular ideas of America are (mis?)handled in teaching U.S. history, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to hear from some U.S. intellectual historians who also happen to teach U.S. history. :)

I will get the link to that post fixed.

65

James Wimberley 08.31.14 at 2:15 pm

Harold in #8: “France did invent human rights ..” Les droits des anglais pour tous would not have read so well.

66

Brett Bellmore 08.31.14 at 2:22 pm

I think the first is going to persist for a long, long while, no matter what anybody wants or tries, because conditions in America are rather different from Europe.

The second is, of course, what I meant.

The third, given the European history of colonization and empire, scarcely constitutes a way of being “exceptional”. More a way of aping others.

To be clear, I want America, rather than being a world leader, to be just one nation among many. I want it to be the best just one nation among many. To the extent we lead the world, it should be by example.

Our current problems, I think, are largely due to an elite who look to Europe as an example, and are trying to turn America into a European nation. (Just as a lot of European problems are due to the European elite trying to make Europe into a copy of the US, by turning the EU into a nation rather than a federation.) And ignoring in the process that America’s differences make this a futile goal, even were it a worthy one.

67

jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.31.14 at 2:37 pm

America is the only nation founded on a creed

Why am I reminded of Masha’s comment to Max Renn about Videodrome.
“It has a philosphy, Max, that’s what makes it dangerous.”

68

J Thomas 08.31.14 at 2:40 pm

I want America, rather than being a world leader, to be just one nation among many. I want it to be the best just one nation among many. To the extent we lead the world, it should be by example.

OK! I agree with you!

This isn’t the first time, but somehow I’m surprised.

Kind of like an abused friend told me, “being kissed after getting slapped feels like being kissed for the very first time”.

69

john c. halasz 08.31.14 at 3:45 pm

Brett Bellmore channeling Stephen Colbert. Who woulda thunk it?

70

MPAVictoria 08.31.14 at 4:23 pm

“Canada? It’s as much a foreign country as Wyoming. I bet no one ever said ‘I’ll be traveling abroad next week’ meaning: to Canada.”

Do you know how I know you don’t know anything about Canada? The US left dreams of getting results have as progressive as the stuff Canadians take for granted. Either way you could substitute pretty much any Western developed nation in my question. How is the US more free than New Zealand? Or Belgium?

71

Rakesh 08.31.14 at 4:50 pm

Isn’t Kurtz expressing not American exceptionalism but the breakdown of American hegemony–that is, the realization that the US no longer leads on behalf of the Free World or the international community but finds itself at odds with the international community as its will is expressed in supra-national institutions such as the UN and the WTO. This is the difference between Bush pere having the authorization of the Security Council for his Iraq War versus W. having only a pathetic coalition of the willing. Instead of recognizing that US leadership is now seen as exploitative, Kurtz seems to be arguing that the US’s unique commitment to freedom puts itself at odds with even former allies. The US is alone in the world, according to Kurtz, not because the bases of international cooperation are breaking down but because its founding ideas are unique, exceptional.
As for the thesis of exceptionalism, I am wondering whether Claude Fisher’s very interesting findings of exceptionally strong commitments to free enterprise and individualism are in any way related to the impossibility of national solidarity in a country founded as a settler colony which later developed due to its geographic richness an internal colonial system for resource extraction on the basis of racialized formally unfree labor relations. The idea of internal colonialism comes from Fisher’s colleague Bob Blauner.

72

Ze Kraggash 08.31.14 at 4:54 pm

Freedom, yes. The first week after I first arrived in the States, it was hot. I got a bottle of beer at a corner store, walked to a park. I noticed a cop on a horse, but didn’t give it any thought. I sat on the grass, twisted the cap off the bottle and took a sip. Life was good. Suddenly the horse was right in front of me, pushing forward, and the cop on top of it – the expression on his face is hard to describe. As if he was watching his family graves being desecrated. He couldn’t believe this was happening, such a gross violation of decency: someone taking a sip out of a beer bottle in a public park. Yeah, that was quite a culture shock.

73

geo 08.31.14 at 5:37 pm

MPAV: It’s not a slam dunk, and it doesn’t need to be for my purposes (if you’ll remember, I was merely challenging mcmanus’ dictum that “to say anything good about America is wicked”). But in general, laws on libel (especially of public figures) and pri0r restraint are more liberal in the US than in Commonwealth countries and continental Europe. In any case, I think the main focus of the thread is, or ought to be, on “American exceptionalism” as a justification for American military intervention, where it is alive and well and has done much harm.

74

Brett Bellmore 08.31.14 at 7:35 pm

“This isn’t the first time, but somehow I’m surprised.”

Shouldn’t be, this whole “leader of the free word” gig has come at great expense to our liberties. We’re suffering from a terrible case of imperial overreach at the moment.

Mind, things will be very messy until the rest of the civilized world realizes we’re not going to save them anymore, and they’ve got to take care of themselves.

75

bob mcmanus 08.31.14 at 8:12 pm

As far as America having a creed, at bottom is a sort of meta-creed of universalism that provides both right and left excuses for interventions and aggression.

“American exceptionalism” as a justification for American military intervention

As Empire expands and becomes immanent, “American exceptionalism” becomes less overt and necessary. Of course Empire wants our interventions accepted by the global community on the basis of universal values and basic human rights, as defined and inculcated by Empire in the earlier years of Empire or accepted as global elite consensus after co-optation of overseas elites. IOW, Americanism and Empire becomes most powerful when it becomes invisible, and conquest and control most efficient when overt force becomes unnecessary. Resistance is not only futile, it becomes unthinkable.

As to how it is done, the Panitch and Gindin discussions weren’t that long ago. Although I believed they only touched the surface.

Neoliberalism involves a complex of intersecting and internally supporting values, in which “People shouldn’t spread their religious views by violence” becomes a justification for “Ukraine should privatize its public farming industry because allowing individual initiative is more productive and increases freedom.”

Empire, with most of the Capital, is in the position to grab the surplus created by the spread of neoliberal individualism.

76

Mdc 08.31.14 at 8:12 pm

It just came to me: the term should be “American exceptionism”. Problem solved, you’re welcome.

77

js. 08.31.14 at 8:22 pm

I suppose I tend to associate criticism of “American exceptionalism” with things like: contempt for any marking of the anniversary of the Constitution in 1987, and readings of “Why No Socialism in the U.S.?” that emphasize the answer must be something rather like American wickedness.

In that case, fair enough. I guess I’ve always understood it quite differently. I take it that the doctrine of American exceptionalism is something like the American version of what Metatone outlined @59 (delete references to ‘empire’ and ‘parliament'; add ‘land of opportunity’, ‘equality for all’, etc.; but the basic structure of the mythology is rather similar). Criticism of American exceptionalism is then criticism of this mythical conception of US history, both domestically and foreign policy-wise.

78

bob mcmanus 08.31.14 at 8:31 pm

In any case, reading America scholars and writers to understand and judge America is a pretty obvious instance of American exceptionalism and arrogance. There are 6 and a half billion other people out there with knowledge and opinions.

Moghadam, Moghissi, Saba Mahmood, Leila Ahmed, Abat i Ninet, Aihwa Ong, Saree Makdisi…No I haven’t read them all yet. Gotta go read.

79

Ze Kraggash 08.31.14 at 9:14 pm

“As Empire expands and becomes immanent, “American exceptionalism” becomes less overt and necessary.”

I don’t think this is happening, really. Things haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. It doesn’t expand, as we still have, within our western paradigm, the ‘civilized’ western world, the ‘barbarians’ in the east, and ‘savages’ in the south. But the East is rising, and the West is in crisis. Interesting times lie ahead.

80

Tyrone Slothrop 08.31.14 at 9:50 pm

bob @ 78: Out of curiosity, how many of those seven named individuals have you read?

81

novakant 08.31.14 at 10:05 pm

I want the US to become like Denmark, till then I’m with Bob McM.

82

bob mcmanus 08.31.14 at 10:31 pm

80: None. I hope to get to Aihwa Ong, Leila Ahmed and Ninet this year. I got the names through the discussion of their work by Zillah Eisenstein, but after reading ZE (and some associated online material), I decided I would be better off reading the sources (in translation when necessary, of course.) Every book leads me to hundred others and a recognition of my ignorance, laziness, provincialism, lack of critical reading skills and retention, and shortness of remaining life.

Dilettante and flaneur but then I disapprove of work in principle in Late Capitalism.

Toujours précédé de folle quand elle n’est pas noble.

83

John Holbo 08.31.14 at 11:20 pm

“but that a lot of work has been put in by liberals erasing that exceptional status”

Is it primarily social welfare that’s bothering you, Brett.

That’s what people usually mean when they say liberals want to copy Europe, and that’s what you say, so I infer. If so: your thesis – or assumption – is that one can’t be an especially morally good nation with a generous social safety net?

84

geo 08.31.14 at 11:48 pm

Brett: things will be very messy until the rest of the civilized world realizes we’re not going to save them anymore

We “saved” Central and South America, Indonesia, the Phillipines, Iran, and the Turkish Kurds by training and equipping their torturers? We “saved” Europe and Japan after World War II by bringing fascist collaborators back into government and crushing labor unions? We “saved” Indochina and North Korea by dropping millions of tons of bombs on them?

Brett, I know you’re only trying to enlighten us knee-jerk leftists — and we appreciate that — but it’s not working out. Could you perhaps withdraw and send a better-informed, less intellectually lazy comrade in your place?

85

Brett Bellmore 09.01.14 at 12:09 am

I don’t just mean the practice of buying Paul’s votes by taxing Peter, rather than finding some kind of work for Paul, even if it’s just make work. (But I suppose voting for a living is work, of a sort.) That’s hardly the only difference between America and Europe.

I’m talking about omnipresent regulation, the presumption that people need permission to do things, that the default is that things are illegal, rather than legal.

And the wussification of our culture, where people get hysterical about comparatively trivial risks, like a child paying in the park by themselves. Where people are encouraged to be passive, like being taught not to resist hijackers. That really worked out well on 9-11, and the government still likes to pretend that their subsequent security theater kept that from happening again, and not what happened on flight 93.

To give you an example, when I was a teen, I shared my recipe for thermite with my Jr. High chemistry teacher. Got extra credit for it. Do you suppose my son would get extra credit for doing the same? Or maybe be diverted into the juvenile justice system?

I mourn the dead culture I was raised in. Or, rather, the murdered culture I was raised in. Because it didn’t die a natural death.

86

floopmeister 09.01.14 at 12:32 am

What’s important here, and often forgotten, is the issue of ‘standpoint’ when discussing ‘exceptionalism’. Who is judging this? For example:

But you’re still the Indispensible Nation.

We always need to ask, when this trite aphorism is trotted out, Indispensible to whom?

and

The Leader of the Free World

A leader is not a leader without followers – who is following (who actually sees the US as ‘the leader’) and why?

and finally

…this is still probably the most beautiful country on earth…

Oh, there’s a ‘probably’ included – ok, so this is not an example of sheerest projection and bias. All good.

87

Herschel 09.01.14 at 1:12 am

I have no idea what “the indispensible nation” might mean. Hell, I don’t even know what “the indispensable nation” might mean.

88

floopmeister 09.01.14 at 2:02 am

Yeah, I should have put Indispensible (sic) – it’s a direct quote from Davis upthread.

89

js. 09.01.14 at 5:12 am

Holbo, I’ve been meaning to apologize for posting a basically mean and unnecessary comment on the last thread of yours that I commented on. Honestly, truly, sorry.

90

Tyrone Slothrop 09.01.14 at 3:51 pm

bob @ 82: Ah. I was only previously aware of one of those individuals ere your comment, so thanks for bringing them to my attention.

Every book leads me to hundred others and a recognition of my ignorance, laziness, provincialism, lack of critical reading skills and retention, and shortness of remaining life

Brother, I am with thee in full. Now I’m off to read a book!

91

Barry 09.01.14 at 4:10 pm

Brett: “But I suppose voting for a living is work, of a sort.”

The Tea Party seems to think so.

92

Bruce Wilder 09.01.14 at 4:42 pm

geo We “saved” Europe and Japan after World War II by . . . crushing labor unions?

?

93

bianca steele 09.01.14 at 4:46 pm

js.

Without getting into it too deeply, I think that’s about right.

The two-step comes in when, for example, I say I’d like to assume the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion applies even though there are arguments (good Berlinian arguments, for example) against codifying freedom of religion and placing it above all over values. And I’d like to not have to fend off arguments that I’m being ideological or buying into a myth. Or that I’m buying into the imposition of IMF policies on the developing world. Or that I haven’t proved I’m up-to-date on my Marxian base-superstructure distinction. I don’t want to get into a metaphysical discussion about those Berlinian arguments, either. I just want to focus on positive arguments about domestic politics for a little bit, and see how far actually existing institutions might be able to take us in the direction of justice. Or where, specifically, they’re failing to take us where we want to go.

That in my opinion, it’s easier to see how a socialist opposes the House of Lords than equality for all is also interesting. I know it can be done: you just oppose “bourgeois equality” or “individualistic equality” to “true equality.” Or you oppose not equality in reality, but US discourse about equality. But in that case you would be refusing to participate in domestic politics at all at any level of detail. Effectively, you would be leaving it all to the right (and to liberal centrists who can’t talk to you because you would waste their time trying to enlighten or convert them).

94

geo 09.01.14 at 5:52 pm

Bruce @92: See Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, pp. 338-339:

“In Japan the US was able to act unilaterally, having excluded its allies from any role in the occupation. General MacArthur encouraged steps toward democratization, though within limits. Militant labor action was barred, including some attempts to establish workers’ control over production. Even these partial steps toward democracy scandalized the State Department, US corporations and labor leadership, and the US media. George Kennan and others warned against a premature end to the occupation before the economy was reconstructed under stable conservative rule. These pressures led to the ‘reverse course’ of 1947, which ensured that there would be no serious challenge to goverfnment-corporate domination over labor, the media and the political system.

“Under the reverse course, worker-controlled companies, which were operating with considerable success, were eliminated. Support was given to right-wing socialists who had been Fascist collaborators and were committed to US-style business unionism under corporate control, while leftists who had been jailed under Fascist rule were excluded, the normal pattern worldwide. [Eg, Italy and Greece, Chomsky writes elsewhere.] Labor was suppressed with considerable police violence, and elimination of the right to strike and collective bargaining. The goal was to ensure business control over labor through conservative unions. Industrial unions were undermined by the late 1940s, as the industrial-financial conglomerates (Zaibatsu). which were at the heart of Japan’s Fascist order, regained their power with the assistance of an elaborate police and surveillance network and rightist patriotic organizations. The Japanese business classes were reconstituted much as under the Fascist regime, place in power in close collaboration with the authorities of the centralized state. … By now [1991], Japan has perhaps the weakest labor movement in the industrial capitalist world, with the possible exception of the United States.”

95

TM 09.01.14 at 5:58 pm

51: “I would say most countries have founding myths that stress national exceptionalism”

I’d be curious of your examples. Pick three from every continent to make it interesting.

50: “the US is the freest country on earth”

As somebody explained above, it all depends on your comparative framework. Many of us have only recently become aware that the US is the one and only country where children can actually legally own guns (not handguns but rifles) and also where children any age can legally shoot military weapons such as Uzi machine guns. It is hard to imagine a freer country than that!

Unless of course your comparative framework takes into account such things as how many people there are in prison (Amercian exceptionalism: highest peace-time imprisonment rate of any country in recorded history) or whether it is legal for an adult to have a beer (again American exceptionalism).

This is all pretty obvious isn’t it. The US really is exceptional in many ways. Why being exceptional should be regarded such a good thing is a different question of course, and goes to the heart of US right-wing obsession with empire.

96

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 6:07 pm

@95 are you serious ?

(1) I am not an expert on the history of every country in the world, hence the ‘ I would say’ (2) I think it’s a pretty obvious point and probably not all that controversial. You dont think *major powers especially* have had national myths that stressed national exceptionalism during the period where they were most powerful (imperial France and Britain, late 19th early 20th century Germany, Russia, China, India) ?

97

geo 09.01.14 at 6:10 pm

TM@95: I would like to withdraw the unfortunately distracting assertion @41 that “the US is the freest country on earth” and substitute, as a response to bob mcmanus @37, the (hopefully) less distracting assertion that “there are some good things about the US.”

98

Zamfir 09.01.14 at 6:15 pm

Geo, that sounds to me like a good example of leftist American exceptionalism, portraying the rest of the world as a playboard where Americans can be wrong or right without much agency from the locals themselves.

As a foreigner, such reasoning scares me a little. Because it is not such a big step from believing that the US caused all the problems, to believing that the US should go fix them.

99

Zamfir 09.01.14 at 6:16 pm

That referred to the Chomsky quote about Japanese unions.

100

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 6:21 pm

“Geo, that sounds to me like a good example of leftist American exceptionalism, portraying the rest of the world as a playboard where Americans can be wrong or right without much agency from the locals themselves. “

I do agree with this. The idea that the US is exceptionally evil seems to be coming from the same place as the idea that it is particularly benevolent .

101

stevenjohnson 09.01.14 at 6:33 pm

If you take a world map and plot the locations where the US has fought wars; supported coups; armed and cooperated with rigid dictatorships; has military bases…you can see where the idea the US is exceptionally evil comes from. Claiming a pretended equality between American exceptionalism, a right wing doctrine and an alleged “left wing” version is fatuous moralizing at best.

102

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 6:37 pm

Only if you remove US behaviour completly from the context of how similar powers have behaved historically, how regional powers behave regionally etc ..and imagine all of those coups, dictatorships and wars as examples of US power working seamlessly, always in the driving seat and always with ill intent.

103

geo 09.01.14 at 7:13 pm

Zamfir, I’m mystified. Japan was under US military occupation after WW II. Does it really strike you as implausible that the US dominated Japanese politics in the postwar years, which is all Chomsky claims?

104

Brett Bellmore 09.01.14 at 7:25 pm

“you can see where the idea the US is exceptionally evil comes from.”

From people who were rooting for the communists during the cold war? Yeah, I see your point.

105

geo 09.01.14 at 7:25 pm

Ronan, the US does indeed have a unified global strategy: to render as much of the world as possible open to US economic penetration and control, ie, to make sure the climate for foreign investment is favorable and the local governments are business-friendly. It makes use of a wide array of tools and tactics: bribing local politicians and businesspeople, whose interests in any case align with those of US business, co-opting local armed forces and police with training and equipment (and bribes), recruiting local publishers and journalists, financing docile unions, and when necessary, orchestrating boycotts and sanctions, instigating coups, or even intervening militarily. Sometimes the US is more successful, sometimes less. All this is very solidly documented outside the mainstream of mainstream scholarship and media. What troubles you about this argument?

106

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 7:41 pm

What troubles me is words like ‘dominated’ and ‘controlled’ which are too vague and slippery to tell us anything about how US influence is exerted. I think this idea of US omnipotence is overstated( I can’t really speak to Japan, but Iraq and Afghanistan should give us pause when considering how US influence manifests itself in complex political systems)
At a general level, I wouldnt really have a huge problem with

“US does indeed have a unified global strategy: to render as much of the world as possible open to US economic penetration and control”

But again it’s too vague, and doesnt tell us specifically how capitalism (or political systems the US favours) have expanded (and imo implies too coherent a strategy and a power to achieve it that I dont think the US possesses)
I’d also push back against the tendency at times to overstate US influence in specific events(or regions) and to imagine the US as leading, rather than following, local actors, or creating situations rather than responding to them.
At a general level, it’s a matter of emphasis more than anything else.

107

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 7:45 pm

..there’s also(possibly) a difference in perspectives, as in I don’t think the expansion of ‘capitalism and democracy’ is neccesarily a bad thing.

108

TM 09.01.14 at 7:57 pm

geo 97: I’m confused – I understood you were quoting Chomsky, not making an assertion. But if you did mean to assertively make that claim about the US being “the freest country in the world”, well there is some evidence contradicting that assertion although without agreement on how to measure “freedom” (and such agreement is unlikely to emerge, say between the audience of this blog and the NRA), the statement is basically meaningless.

Ronan 96, I can’t make much of your statement. “You dont think *major powers especially* have had national myths that stressed national exceptionalism during the period where they were most powerful” – well even granted that, that is a different statement from 51 “most countries have founding myths that stress national exceptionalism” . The real issue is whether in any given country you will currently find a discourse about national exceptionalism, of which Kurtz’s article is an example. That is just not true for many countries.

Everybody of course thinks they are in some way special, and everybody is indeed in some way special (the French Revolution, the German Classics, La Italian Renaissance, whatever). But that’s not the same as making a claim of exceptionalism (and when it is made, it is widely perceived as ugly, don’t you think?). There is certainly much that is special about the US, from having the first modern constitution to the natural beauty of a vast country (which one can really admire without the need to declare it “the most beautiful country on earth” – re 41), to the very particular legacy of racism and so on. But that is NOT what anybody reasonably associates with national exceptionalism. Am I belaboring the obvious?

109

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 8:04 pm

“ent from 51 “most countries have founding myths that stress national exceptionalism” . The real issue is whether in any given country you will currently find a discourse about national exceptionalism, of which Kurtz’s article is an example. That is just not true for many countries. “

Of course you would. Obviously in different form, but the claim would be the same. The reason I highlighted *in major powers especially* is that making claims of having to lead the world, or spread your specific form social or political organisation usually occurs only in countries with the power to do so.
See also

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exceptionalism

110

TM 09.01.14 at 8:10 pm

(108: A superfluous article sneaked in…)

111

TM 09.01.14 at 8:13 pm

Ronan, I am not aware of a “national exceptionalism” discourse in any contemporary country outside of the US. Provide evidence for your claims or don’t make them.

112

TM 09.01.14 at 8:14 pm

(And the wikipedia article provides absolutely no support for your claim.)

113

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 8:29 pm

TM – Jesus Christ man are you actually serious ? To start with here’s the relevant wiki entry

“Many countries have claimed exceptionality including France, Germany, India, Pakistan, Imperial Japan, Iran, North Korea, Spain, Britain, United States, and the USSR. Historians have added many other cases, including historic empires such as China, the Ottoman Empire, and ancient Rome, along with a wide range of minor kingdoms in history.”

Now, more than your two line responses so far what is it you’re objecting too here, just so we’re not talking past eachother ? That other countries have founding myths that can manifest itself in what we’ll call ‘narratives of exceptionalism’? That large powers have tended to use these narratives to legitimise their dominance ? Or is it that *at this moment in history* the United States is the only country that uses such a narrative ?

I really dont think the first parts of the above can be argued against, .. but on whether or not the United States is the only country where a narrative of exceptionalism still exists, I find that unlikely.
Your demand for ‘evidence’ is completely arguing in bad faith(as I said, i am not an expert on countries x y and z) but anyway, here’s an example for Russia (the first thing that came when I googled it )

http://www.newsmax.com/jackiegingrichcushman/russian-exceptionalism-putin-ukraine/2014/03/06/id/556422/

you dont think that there might be similar pseudo religous myths that have underpinned Russian behavious in its near abroad ?You dont think the same is true of, for example, China, India, Iran ? I think that’san idiotic position(unless you’re arguing something else, in which case out with it)

114

geo 09.01.14 at 8:30 pm

Ronan @96: At a general level, I wouldnt really have a huge problem with “US does indeed have a unified global strategy: to render as much of the world as possible open to US economic penetration and control”

Good. Then you’re not an American exceptionalist, if that means believing that “the US is unique among great powers, past and present, in seeking primarily, in its foreign policy, to advance democracy, freedom, and human welfare in the rest of the world rather than, like every other great power in history, to further the interests of its own dominant social groups” (Chomsky again). I think that’s what it meant in the OP. If not, I apologize for mistakenly assuming so.

TM @108: Am I belaboring the obvious?

I’m afraid so, though it’s a lot less annoying than belaboring the preposterous, as Brett regularly does. I was quoting Chomsky @41 and also agreeing with him. As I’ve tried to explain since, I regret putting it that way; I was only looking to rebut the assertion @37 that the US is totally evil and that to say anything good about it is wicked.

115

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 8:33 pm

116

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 8:33 pm

117

Zamfir 09.01.14 at 8:48 pm

@geo, the claim there was that smart nefarious American action in the 1940s had decided Japanese labour relations down to 1991, with hardly a nod to 40 years of Japanese domestic politics.

But even for the occupation years themselves: don’t overestimate the capabilities of a handful of unfamiliar foreigners to run a country. If US occupation forces really had such social mastery (nefarious or benevolent), then Iraq would look rather different today.

Japanese domestic politics went on during the occupation years, just as much as Iraqi politics. If the US looked more in control in Japan, it was to a large extent because the Japanese let them look in control. Sincd their elites largely supported a mkre westernized, US-allied future. And if there was a lot of fascist union-bashing, then the main reason was that quite some Japanese elites were fascist union-bashers. Who could rally the occupation forces to their side, but who were quite capable of independent action afterwards.

118

Kaveh 09.01.14 at 8:49 pm

Brett @85 And the wussification of our culture, where people get hysterical about comparatively trivial risks, like a child paying in the park by themselves.

I agree that’s a bad thing (though ‘wussification’ sounds like a 12-year-old’s attempt to make up a political term), but it sounds less like aping Europe, more like the authoritarian culture of public schools in the South–heavy-handed, petty authoritarianism, pervasive emphasis on discipline and rule-following… Not that I think it’s unique to the South, but given how big it is there, I doubt it has very much to do with aping Europe.

Also, I would expect the kinds of intellectual types who admire Europe to also favor looser drinking & drug laws. And why isn’t anyone talking about making American higher ed more like European higher ed? Why isn’t there any conversation about a kind of national baccalaureate exam system, like in France (and Germany?), where your future education and career prospects are heavily determined by an exam you take at the end of HS?

119

TM 09.01.14 at 9:18 pm

Ronan, the wikipedia article does list those countries but doesn’t provide actual evidence (not even citations).

I take your claim to be that the “American exceptionalism” narrative is unexceptional, that almost any country has a similar narrative. I don’t buy that claim and lest you throw more exasperation at me, Yes Jesus Christ I am serious. Also I don’t see anybody in this forum agree with you. It is your claim that is extraordinary and requires evidence, which you haven’t provided (ok two links, only one of which refers to exceptionalism – but your claim applies to almost every country). And let me point out again the difference between “specialness” and “exceptionalism”. Each country has a unique history making it special – again I am belaboring the obvious. That is not the same as exceptionalism.

120

TM 09.01.14 at 9:21 pm

BB 85 your complaint of over-regulation is well taken. See 95.

121

Kaveh 09.01.14 at 9:21 pm

Zamfir @117 If US occupation forces really had such social mastery (nefarious or benevolent), then Iraq would look rather different today.

One could argue that the purpose of de-Baathification was to dismantle the Iraqi state as much as possible, and only secondly, to create investment opportunities for American companies. The last thing the Neocons behind the policy wanted was for Iraq to become a functioning democracy in any meaningful sense–although they claimed to believe that a democratic Iraq would be friendly to Israel and the US, they probably knew better, and weakening the Iraqi state as much as possible was more important for them than generating investment opportunities (except maybe for the war industry).

122

geo 09.01.14 at 9:23 pm

Ronan: you seem to be arguing that the US is not exceptional in its exceptionalism. Of course it isn’t. Exceptionalism is perfectly commonplace and insofar as it is a claim to historically unique virtue or benevolence, perfectly ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean that the hacks who dominate American politics and political discourse don’t believe in American exceptionalism and invoke it regularly to justify an aggressive US foreign policy.

Zamfir: you seem to be arguing that the US is not omnipotent. Point taken. But American exceptionalism, as I and Chomsky and George Will and William Kristol and Hillary Clinton and the rest of the political/pundit class understand it, does not allege that the US is omnipotent but that its foreign policy is uniquely virtuous. That’s what I thought the thread was about and what I’ve been arguing against.

123

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 9:32 pm

TM – Sorry for the exasperation.
I think national myths manifest themselves differently in differnet contexts, and mean different things to different people. If you are a small, poor country your myth of ‘exceptionalism’ will probably ring hollow. If you are larger, richer and with more influence then the form your national myths and legends take will be different. As the wiki article seems to imply, exceptionalism (loosely defined) has been used historically by powerful countries to justify/explain their dominance.
The US is the most dominant nation in the world, imo it makes sense that its ‘narrative of exceptionalism’ should be more prevelant at this time, but I dont think it’s unique(except in its specifics) Afaik, US exceptionalism has taken different forms throughout history, has been contingent on context and used to explain/justify different realities (for example, when the US was less interventionist outside of the Western Hemisphere it was used to imagine the US as ‘an example’ for other countries to follow, rather than as now where it *can be* used to ‘to encourage the US to ‘lead’ the world) In other words the myth of US exceptionalism twists itself to the context it exists in (in this case the post ww2 world), which afaict is the same for the myths and narratives that other people construct to explain their identity.
Does that make sense or does it smell of bullshit ? Am I belaboring the obvious ? ; )

124

Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 9:32 pm

geo – i agree

125

MPAVictoria 09.01.14 at 9:36 pm

@ TM 119

I would say you are the one making extraordinary claim that the US is unique among nations. I would say many countries have national myths and view themselves as just as extraordinary as the US.

126

novakant 09.01.14 at 9:53 pm

What, like Canada? Lol …

127

novakant 09.01.14 at 9:55 pm

Btw, that’s a compliment to Canadians.

128

TM 09.01.14 at 10:32 pm

Yes I would like to hear more about Canadian exceptionalism.

Also 123, I’m not disputing that historically, imperial powers have often developed some form of exceptionalism. But that isn’t “most countries”, and few of these narratives have present day relevance. And again you are welcome to prove me wrong with actual evidence taken from the actual political discourse of the country – but spare me the platitudes about national myths.

129

MPAVictoria 09.01.14 at 10:32 pm

@127

Peace, order and good government baby!

130

MPAVictoria 09.01.14 at 10:34 pm

@128
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

/again you are the one making extraordinary claims.

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Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 10:35 pm

@128 – well now it seems you agree, so alls well that ends well

132

TM 09.01.14 at 10:56 pm

130: see 108. What do you think are you proving? That France has a history? That Canadians have a self-image? All right if that is what you understand as “exceptionalism”, fine, but that’s not what is commonly understood as such. There wouldn’t be a huge literature on American exceptionalism (as opposed to none on Canadian exceptionalism) if it were only about the claim that every country or society is special and unique. It has to be more than that to be meaningful.

133

john c. halasz 09.01.14 at 11:06 pm

Well, “exceptionalist” claims are just an abuse of political “virtue”. Since politics requires mass conformity, and thus the promotion of “virtue”, regardless of its contents…

134

LFC 09.01.14 at 11:06 pm

geo @105

the US does indeed have a unified global strategy: to render as much of the world as possible open to US economic penetration and control, ie, to make sure the climate for foreign investment is favorable and the local governments are business-friendly.

Obviously one of the U.S. govt’s f.p. goals is to try to ensure/advance/etc “business-friendly” govts abroad. The question is whether the ec. explanation is a ‘master key’ to unlocking the whole hist of US f.p., per e.g. P. Anderson or N. Chomsky, or whether it is one of several factors driving US f.p. that explains some/many things but not all.

My view is that there is a mixture of considerations at work, one of which certainly is the aim of advancing for. investment, business interests, and the interests of U.S.-based corps; but you cannot explain all of US f.p. through this lens. Jimmy Carter’s interest as pres. in human rts was genuine, however clumsily implemented in some cases, and cannot be reduced to the ec. explanation. ‘Democracy promotion’ is an avowed aim of US fp, somewhat in abeyance recently, and again can’t be reduced to economics, though it may intersect w it. The US stance on ‘development’ since Truman has been driven by a mixture of things, one of which is the desire to advance US business interests, but there has also been an element of altruism, however misguided in some cases.

Geo will no doubt reply that corporate interests trump all other considerations when they come into conflict with them. Often they might, but I think not nec. always. Also worth keeping in mind that as ‘business-friendly’ development models have become incr. adopted in recent decades, even in some countries w left-leaning govts, the scenario in which a leftist govt comes to power, nationalizes the commanding heights of the economy and expropriates all local branches of multinational corps, whereupon the US proceeds to overthrow it or connive at its overthrow, happens v. seldom these days. The US didn’t/couldn’t get rid of Chavez, much as it might have wanted to. The govt of Ecuador is embroiled in lawsuits vs Chevron, but unlike in the ’50s when the chairman of United Fruit cd figuratively or literally call the White Hse and tell it to overthrow Arbenz in Guatemala, the chairman of Chevron can’t call the White Hse and tell it to overthrow Correa. I mean, yes he can make the call, but the requested action will not be forthcoming.

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Ronan(rf) 09.01.14 at 11:07 pm

just to add..If your problem is my initial claim of *most countries*, or that Im confusing ‘exceptionalism’ with ‘specialness’ (as youve said above) then fine, im willing to concede that (and leave it to someone more knowledgable to argue the specifics) I’d be interested to see if anyone had something to say on that distinction.

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bob mcmanus 09.01.14 at 11:28 pm

I have found it useful to think about “exceptionalism as imperialism” as connected to Weber’s three kinds of legitimacy. The Athenians had three things to tell the Miletans:
1) because we can (we’re stronger)
2) Because we should (the strong should rule the weak)
3) because it makes sense, is honest and scientific.

The Crusaders ruled because God; the Nazis ruled because Aryan; The Japanese somewhat in between (Shinto + Pan-Asianism). The Romans had Hellenism and then Christianity, and late had locals governing. AFAIK, the British Empire always put English/Scottish in charge in India and even Australia (no Irish need apply.)

America is not unique in claiming a legal/rational/scientific exceptional legitimacy, but still somewhat unusual. A legal/rational/scientific legitimacy is in dialectic with exceptionalism, because LRS should be transferable and divisible. And America usually does make a pretense of delegating and dividing power (UN, IMF, Occupied Democracies), as long as our satraps follow our rules and interests. (Ottomans?)

And that to me, is what is interesting (and exceptional) to me about America, the way we can divide and delegate procedural power and legitimacy and still manage to substantially enslave and exploit the world.

137

LFC 09.01.14 at 11:42 pm

@mcmanus
the way [the US] can divide and delegate procedural power and legitimacy and still manage to substantially enslave and exploit the world.

Putting aside for purposes of this comment the aptness or not of the verbs “enslave” and “exploit,” there is nothing unusual about ‘hegemons’ or ‘imperial’ powers ruling via division, delegation, via local elites and ‘intermediaries’, etc. Look e.g. at D. Nexon’s work (which in turn will point you to a lot of the relevant soc-sci and historical lit.).

138

LFC 09.01.14 at 11:47 pm

@Ronan 123
Yes, there is a long-running tension/alternation/whatever betw exceptionalism-as-example (implying relative aloofness or noninterventionism) and more ‘activist’ forms.

139

bob mcmanus 09.02.14 at 12:14 am

Yeah, I read the Nexon when linked here at CT. Don’t remember enough details. More to find and read.

Funny, when I Googled Nexon Hegemony this page/paragraph came up in googlebooks. Can’t cut-and-paste, but keywords are “America’s peculiar situation” “universal interest” and “It is in this American liberal ideological discourse that America acquires the status of a universal symbol”

IIRC, the Nexon (+?) paper focused on the classic mechanisms for hegemony, material (bribes, delegated power) and military/police (RSA) and less on the Ideological Hegemonic Apparatus that I am interested in.

140

geo 09.02.14 at 12:17 am

LFC @134: Yes, for the sake of argument, I’d say that integrating the world into an economic order that furthers the common interest of the business and financial class in having access to the world’s resources and markets on terms favorable to them is the “master key” to US foreign policy. Which, as you recognize, doesn’t mean that every US action can be explained as linearly or straightforwardly pursuing that goal. The outside world imposes constraints, and one of them is having to lie about your purposes, since you can’t simply acknowledge that you don’t give a damn about freedom, democracy, or the well-being of others — it would be very inconvenient diplomatically, and it also wouldn’t go down well with the domestic public.

Since we have to lie, we then have to give the lie at least a minimum of plausibility, eg. by constantly focusing public attention away from abuses in your own domain and onto abuses in our enemies’ domain. Hence the Cold War, which served for both superpowers as a way to mobilize its own population. The Free World wasn’t free, and the socialist world wasn’t socialist, but as long as you could keep your population focused on the other side’s evils, you could minimize opposition to your own. Syllogism: The Communists were evil (true); the US opposed the Communists (true); therefore the US must be good, or at least have good intentions. This may seem transparently silly to us now, but it worked extremely well.

As for the difference between Arbenz’s or Allende’s fate and Chavez’s or Correa’s: are you suggesting that that’s a matter of changes in US purposes or changes in US power? I’d say it’s pretty obviously the second. We hate Latin American insubordination just as much as Dulles and Nixon did, but we’ve squandered too many resources and too much international good will to be able to just send in the CIA with bagfuls of cash and poison pills. This is how we have to do it now: http://www.globalresearch.ca/how-america-does-latin-american-coups-in-the-new-political-era/5395552.

Carter may have been sincere in his rhetorical embrace of human rights — I imagine he was — but if he’d noticed that we were supporting some serious human-rights violators (eg, Somoza, the Shah, Pinochet, Saddam, the Indonesian and Argentinian generals) and decided to do everything in his power about it, he would have been cut off at the knees. Even his largely symbolic commitment earned him the ridicule of the governing class.

141

Andrew F. 09.02.14 at 12:18 am

JH, suprematism… aren’t we simply distinguishing between descriptive exceptionalism and normative exceptionalism?

In any case, my curiosity got the better of me and I actually went to the College Board’s AP US History page for a glance. Scrolling down, I noticed an essay by Thomas Bender, Rethinking American History in a Global Context.

Kurtz quotes from the essay in his article, but reading the essay brings one into more direct contact with the source of Kurtz’s objections.

Bender illustrates his idea of “rethinking American history in a global context” by discussing briefly how the “origins” of the United States might be taught. He would begin around 1500, describing the growth of capitalism and the slave trade in the context of global history, of which story the colonies and the United States form but one small part and perspective.

He finishes by writing:

This account has been severely compressed, but I hope that one can see from it that the beginning of American history is not only about utopian dreams of opportunity or escape, whether from religious persecution or from poverty. It is also about the beginnings of capitalism, and it is about capture, constraint, and exploitation. In fact, more Africans than Europeans made the Atlantic transit in the colonial period. This early history is neither proto-national nor self-contained. American beginnings were the product of many interconnected histories, and the outcome was quite contingent and unpredictable.

The purpose of this rethinking is indeed political:

To the extent that we as historians teach the nation’s history in isolation from its historical relations, we bear some responsibility for the ways Americans understand (or misunderstand) their relation to the world. I do not want to exaggerate the influence of history or historians, but I do believe that the way we have taught history has reinforced what might be called a unilateralist understanding of the United States in the world — a conception that encourages surprise and anger whenever the world intrudes.

So at bottom the objection to “internationalizing” US history is really an objection to de-emphasizing forces and actors within the United States in favor of shifting perspective to a much more global view – and thereby encouraging students to view the US as merely another nation, one national vantage among many, less the product of aspirations or ideas or individuals, more an offspring of global institutions like capitalism and slavery, as contingent as the room number in which the class is taught.

Put differently, if one were to think about a national history in a similar sense to a biography (yes, an analogy imperfect and heavily laden with assumptions – it makes the point though), an “internationalized” US history is like a biography that emphasizes sociological frameworks, and the biographies of other individuals, while shading the individual subject as a coherent entity with self-efficacy.

That is certainly one way to teach history, and it has its advantages. But, to the extent it captures what “internationalizing” US history means, I don’t think it’s a good way to teach US history to high school students. Understanding the history of a nation, especially as a citizen of it, requires learning that history as one might that of one’s grandparents – being aware of the larger context, of course, but also delving into the interior contradictions, struggles, failings, successes, and aspirations, of the individual.

Useful reading in general on the idea of American exceptionalism:

Schuck, Peter H., James Q. Wilson and American Exceptionalism (2013). Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 310; Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 479. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2330375

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John Quiggin 09.02.14 at 12:21 am

Coming in way late, Australian exceptionalism is embodied in the epithet “The Lucky Country”, from Donald Horne’s early 1964 book of the same name. The full statement, known to many, but not all, who use the term is

Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck

Horne was scathing about this, but 50 years later we have come to accept the idea that our luck is almost entirely unmerited, except insofar as we haven’t done much to mess it up.

Of course, not everyone shares in the luck, most obviously not the original Australians.

143

Rakesh 09.02.14 at 12:43 am

Andrew F,
But your grandparents had parents, and those great grandparents in the American case came from across the globe. To put the point more abstractly: the great grandparents could be said to be the Glorious Revolution led by merchants enriched by a slave-based Atlantic trade and West African kingdoms imploding under external and internal pressures. US history does not make sense out of such developments. Americans are indeed the offspring of developments across the globe. I don’t see how this is ideological.

US industrialization a century later can probably be best understood in a global context. For example, it required an elaborate system of protectionism, given British industrial power (if Ha-Joon Chang is to be believed); moreover, Britain indulged US (and German) protectionism and absorb US goods because it could balance its books on the back of its colonies, India in particular.

“Britain earned huge annual surpluses in her transactions with India and
China that allowed her to sustain equally large deficits with the US, Germany
and the white Dominions. True, Britain also enjoyed invisible earnings
from shipping, insurance, banking and foreign investment but without Asia,
which generated 73 percent of British trade credit in 1910,
Anthony Latham argues, Britain ‘presumably would have
been forced to abandon free trade’ while her trading partners
would have been forced to slow down their own rates of industrialization.
The liberal world economy might otherwise have fragmented
into autarkic trading blocs, as it did during the 1930s

“‘The US and industrial Europe, in particular Germany,
were able to continue their policy of tariff protection only because of
Britain’s surplus with Asia. Without the Asian surplus, Britain would no
longer have been able to subsidise their growth. So what emerges is
that Asia in general, but India and China in particular, far from being
peripheral to the evolution of the international economy at this time,
were in fact crucial Without the surpluses which Britain was able to earn there,
the whole pattern of international economic development would
been been severely constrained.’ “India, of course, was the greatest
captive market in world history, rising rom third to first place among
consumers of British exports in the quarter century after 1870.

British rulers,’ writes Marcello de Cecco in his study of the Victorian
gold standard system, ‘deliberately prevented Indians from becoming skilled
mechanics, refused contracts to Indian firms which produced materials
that could be got from Britain, and generally hindered the formation of an
autonomous industrial structure in India.’ Thanks to a ‘government stores
policy that reserved most govt purchases to British products and
by the monopoly of British agency houses in organizing the
import-export trade,’ India was forced to absorb Britain’s surplus of
increasingly obsolescent and non competitive industrial exports.
By 1910, this included 2/5ths of the UK’s finished cotton goods and
3/5ths of its exports of electrical products, railway equipment, books
and pharmaceuticals.” –Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts

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Ze Kraggash 09.02.14 at 12:55 am

“the way we can divide and delegate procedural power and legitimacy and still manage to substantially enslave and exploit the world”

You’re overthinking this. Every country has a US embassy, and for some of them it’s the command-control center.

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Rakesh 09.02.14 at 1:00 am

Or how can we appreciate what Isaac Kramnick has described as the revolutionary development of forbidding religious tests for political office without appreciation of the religious wars that had wracked Europe (See The Godless Constitution)? It seems to me that the transnational turn in American History and Studies is most welcome.

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Andrew F. 09.02.14 at 1:10 am

Rakesh, the typical American student in AP classes will have spent a year on “global studies” or something similar, and a year on European history, before studying American history.

So the context is quite firmly provided, and of course context is an important part of any story. That’s not the issue. In fact, frankly, framing the issue around “internationalization” is actually misleading in my view.

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Rakesh 09.02.14 at 1:14 am

Yet, Andrew, global studies is not and should not be devoted to the study of global history relevant to the American experiment.

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ZM 09.02.14 at 1:42 am

John Quiggin,

“…Australian exceptionalism is embodied in the epithet “The Lucky Country”, from Donald Horne’s early 1964 book of the same name. The full statement, known to many, but not all, who use the term is

“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck””

For those not following Australian news and its ironies, our Prime Minister a few days ago declared the publication of The Lucky Country was a defining moment in Australian history (his other choices in defining moments were just as much or even more controversial and bumbling)

““I hope that the defining moments of 1964, for instance, might include the launch of the [Murdoch press] Australian newspaper as well as the publication of The Lucky Country.””

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Collin Street 09.02.14 at 1:51 am

> I don’t think it’s a good way to teach US history to high school students.

If you don’t understand the british domestic political response to the issues raised by the french revolution, most of what happened in the US over the 19th century will make no sense. And most of what does depends on knowledge of the spanish response.

[I mean... tell me the vendor's issues wrt the louisiana purchase. For extra bonus points, tie it to the war of 1812.]

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Kaveh 09.02.14 at 2:18 am

Andrew F Understanding the history of a nation, especially as a citizen of it, requires learning that history as one might that of one’s grandparents – being aware of the larger context, of course, but also delving into the interior contradictions, struggles, failings, successes, and aspirations, of the individual.

I don’t see how this is different from “internationalized” history, unless you want to teach history as a collection of edifying stories rather than a ‘scientific’ discipline concerned with causes and effects. History should have an intellectual as well as social and material dimensions, and I doubt that Bender was suggesting history teachers should be indifferent to the former–to ideas, aspirations, &c. And then these too have their ‘international’ dimension which would be threatening to the likes of Kurtz (e.g. what is the relationship between the ‘American’ and earlier utopian projects? what is the significance of contact with the Ottoman Empire and China in formulating those projects?)

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Kaveh 09.02.14 at 2:41 am

Also, Bender himself seems to have a very Eurocentric outlook, he identifies the major changes in the global economy with European expansion, but there were rapid economic & demographic changes happening in Ming China and the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere throughout the 16th century (including in the 1st half of the century), which had relatively little to do with European maritime trade.

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John Quiggin 09.02.14 at 2:53 am

@ZM I missed that!

Following up on the Australian theme, a classic statement of Australian aspiration occurs in the movie The Dish, about the tracking stations involved in the moon landing. The Prime Minister is speaking to a local dignitary and political aspirant who has mentioned the possibility of something going wrong

PM: You know, we have a saying in the party. Don’t fuck up ….
Aspirant: And?
PM: That’s it

The saying is a pretty realistic summation of Australian aspirations on the world stage.

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js. 09.02.14 at 3:05 am

Australia and Canada notwithstanding, the idea that the US is alone in having a mythic exceptionalist self-conception—even in the specific senses of conceiving of itself as a uniquely virtuous nation or as having a unique destiny—is laughably false. I did my primary schooling in India, and mythic exceptionalist discourse is alive and well there. Hell, India beats the US hands down by having multiple exceptionalist narratives, corresponding to the various senses of its ‘founding’.

PS. Re bianca steele @93: I think I pretty much agree with all of that, tho at times I’m more than happy to the “oppose not equality in reality, but US discourse about equality” line.

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LFC 09.02.14 at 3:33 am

geo @140
As for the difference between Arbenz’s or Allende’s fate and Chavez’s or Correa’s: are you suggesting that that’s a matter of changes in US purposes or changes in US power?

A somewhat complicated question, imo, but I would incline to say a bit of both. The end of the Cold War made leftist govts in Latin America less of an obvs. or perceived security threat to the US, and the backlash vs CIA covert ops from the mid’70s (Church commission) resulted in certain legislative restrictions on the CIA. I believe the CIA is, for ex., barred by statute from assassinating foreign heads of state (and others?) and has been since the mid-70s. Anyway, thanks for the link to that piece about Correa, which I’ll read.

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floopmeister 09.02.14 at 3:56 am

…a classic statement of Australian aspiration occurs in the movie The Dish, about the tracking stations involved in the moon landing…

The part I love best in The Dish is when one of the characters says to another (regarding US opinions of the radar dish and the work they do):

“The Yanks’ll never take us seriously” (paraphrased)

Of course, as he says this they’re all standing around inside the radar dish playing cricket…

Oh, and then there’s the local kid’s version of the US anthem:

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Brett Bellmore 09.02.14 at 10:07 am

“Putting aside for purposes of this comment the aptness or not of the verbs “enslave” and “exploit,” “

You really shouldn’t put this aside. While it’s certainly possible to go astray while correctly using words, once you throw their meanings away, you’re utterly without a compass.

Take what we did with Kuwait back during the Gulf war. Saddam invades, we drive him out, and then let the old leadership of Kuwait, (Which had fled en mass ahead of the invasion.) come back. All we did was put the place back the way it was.

No protectorate, didn’t seize the resources. We still pay for any oil we get from Kuwait, and don’t even get a better price on it.

We had our phase of empire, aping Europe, but it didn’t last long. We haven’t actually enslaved anyone since the Civil war, and our idea of “exploiting” people is to simply buy what they’ve got to sell, at the market rate.

In fact, this is one of the reasons we’re suffering from imperial over-reach: Running an empire is an expensive business, and we, unlike other empires, have been rather lax about collecting tribute.

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David J. Littleboy 09.02.14 at 12:06 pm

“PM: You know, we have a saying in the party. Don’t fuck up ….
Aspirant: And?
PM: That’s it

The saying is a pretty realistic summation of Australian aspirations on the world stage.”

IMHO, it’s a fine aspiration. We Americans have recently adopted it in the form “Don’t do stupid shit.” At least in our case, it would have avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths over the 60-odd years of my lifetime.

Some of us had it right even back in the day: http://www.pbase.com/davidjl/image/119895297/large

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J Thomas 09.02.14 at 2:07 pm

#156 Bellmore

Take what we did with Kuwait back during the Gulf war. Saddam invades, we drive him out, and then let the old leadership of Kuwait, (Which had fled en mass ahead of the invasion.) come back. All we did was put the place back the way it was.

No protectorate, didn’t seize the resources. We still pay for any oil we get from Kuwait, and don’t even get a better price on it.

How do you know we don’t get a better price? Did we do it for Kuwait? Did we perhaps do it for Saudi Arabia? Do you know whether we get a better price on Saudi oil?

One of the reasons we put it back like it was, was that we thought Saddam was our buffer between Iran and the nations to the west. During the Iraq/Iran war, Iraq was the only nation that had an army that could stop Iran, except possibly Egypt could do it if we decided to let them have the weapons they’d need, which we would not do because of Israel. Or possibly our NATO ally Turkey.

Iran had no territorial ambitions, but we didn’t know that. So the goal was to weaken Iraq enough that they wouldn’t feel like invading Kuwait again, but leave them strong enough to be a buffer against Iran.

Later we decided we didn’t need Saddam between Iran and the arabs to the west, and we’ve been upset about the consequences ever since.

Whatever you think about prices, don’t we act like it’s our oil?

Assuming we really don’t get better prices (or kickbacks) that the rest of the world, why not?

One possibility — if we really do treat most of the rest of they world like we own them, why would we care about the pricing? We will send our various properties the amount of oil we want them to have, and the official payments don’t matter much.

But if I follow up that reasoning, what about China? Do we own China? It’s hard to believe. The Chinese Communist Party owns China. And yet we invest in China as if we owned it. American investment has transformed China into a fast-growing giant economy that ships us lots of consumer goods, undercutting our prices enough we have massive unemployment. We talk like China is a rival, so why would we allow that? We let the middle east sell China all the oil they want. China has been using more energy than we do since 2010, and is about to become the biggest oil importer. And as the dollar gets devalued, they get an increasingly better price for oil imports than we do (not counting kickbacks etc). Why would we allow that?

It’s hard for me to believe the USA owns China. It’s an intensely xenophobic nation, highly nationalist and ethnocentric. Why would we think we could give them the new factories and our best technology and they would just do what we wanted? Well, but maybe somebody owns both nations and we do what that somebody wants because they tell us to? Not a matter whether our policies are good for us, but whether they’re good for our owner?

Well, but why would somebody who owns China think they can keep owning China? Why would the Chinese put up with that when at any time they can take over for themselves?

If the owners of China are Chinese, and they also own the USA, that would explain it.

But none of these explanations really make sense. I can’t think of any explanation that makes sense.

I think at this point the best hypothesis is: “This situation just plain does not make sense.”

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Brett Bellmore 09.02.14 at 2:14 pm

“Whatever you think about prices, don’t we act like it’s our oil?”

I don’t know about you, but I rarely pay for anything that I regard as already mine. So I’d have to say, no, we don’t act like it’s our oil.

“I think at this point the best hypothesis is: “This situation just plain does not make sense.””

I think at this point the best hypothesis is: “You’re wedded to some premise which is counter-factual, and will never be able to make sense of the situation until you abandon it.” See, here’s the thing, (Channeling Rand.) Whatever is, IS. If you’re not making sense of it, that isn’t the fault of what is. That’s the fault of what’s going on in your head.

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Trader Joe 09.02.14 at 2:36 pm

Kurtz and many of the comments completely miss the boat about the US AP History exam.

Its an exam – not a curriculum.

Its sole purpose is for bright high-school juniors and seniors to earn early college credits and/or exempt out of intro level college courses. These are kids that will have already had 10+ years of indoctrination on every fact and fairy tale that comprises US history, world history, state history and much more.

Whats changed or changing, is how that will be tested for the sole purpose of this exam. If there is 1 school in 100 that tailors its K-11 history curriculum toward eventual success on the AP History exam it would be remarkable. Usually only a fraction of the brightest college bound kids even take the test. Its far from a mainstream offering in public schools (better represented in private schools).

The point of the change was to move away from memorizing and reciting lots of facts and data and towards interpreting them. What’s set out in the AP US History Framework is how the interpretations will be assessed.

The framework is 140 pages long – it covers every topic you can think of and gives a road map so AP US History instructors can teach the students what will constitute a “good” answer that can get top points and what will constitute a weak answer that wont. Like most standardized tests – the purpose of the test is to do well on them and so the teaching is done toward the test. No one thinks that the SAT is indicative of the vocabulary that college students speak with any more than the AP US history test is indicative of how US history is taught in either public or private schools.

Its a test. First, last and in the middle. If anything, its more a reflection of how history is taught in colleges for which the exam earns credits, than the way its taught in K-12.

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J Thomas 09.02.14 at 2:37 pm

I don’t know about you, but I rarely pay for anything that I regard as already mine. So I’d have to say, no, we don’t act like it’s our oil.

If I’m starting a company that sells to the US government and I want the perqs that the US government gives to a minority-led business, I have no objection to hiring a black woman as CEO and paying her a good deal. I don’t even mind blacks having 51% of the stock provided I can find somebody who hates her to have a slice of it.

It’s a lot cheaper to pay the Sauds to run Mecca and release our oil on an orderly schedule, than to run Mecca ourselves.

I think at this point the best hypothesis is: “You’re wedded to some premise which is counter-factual, and will never be able to make sense of the situation until you abandon it.”

Very likely. I just haven’t found it yet. Or maybe it isn’t that I believe a counterfactual so much as there’s some important fact I’m missing. And I haven’t found that yet either.

162

Ronan(rf) 09.02.14 at 2:56 pm

“A somewhat complicated question, imo, but I would incline to say a bit of both. The end of the Cold War made leftist govts in Latin America less of an obvs. or perceived security threat to the US..”

Yeah I agree (and with the rest) and I think it highlights another problem with viewing *all* (or most) of US foreign policy as primarily respondent to the interests of some coherent ‘class of capitalists’ (if such a thing could be defined)
From a layman’s perspective, I’d be open to the idea that (perhaps) a lot of International relations research ignores the specifics of how policy is formulated, and so misses a lot on what interests drive policy and settles too easily into apolitical, semi deterministic generalisations (balance of power considerations, regime type etc)
But the reality is that security concerns(real or imagined) *do* explain a lot of the ‘big problems’ (wars, interventions, coups, support for dictators etc) in US behaviour, and it’s quite difficult to trace that back to ‘business interests’ primarily (or even, at times, significantly)

On Chomsky and US exceptionalism – outside of the general (uninterested) public, nationalistic commentators and public officials, afaict pretty much no-one worth listening too would claim that the US is ‘exceptional’ or even that it’s foreign policy is not driven primarily by its national interests (the fact that it is seems to be largely a given in the lit)
What they would argue against are the specific mechanisms that Chomsky identifies as driving US policy, rather than the idea that the US is not a ‘benevolent’ international actor.

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A H 09.02.14 at 3:44 pm

“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck”

I think the same thing can be said about the US, but to use an americanism, the national response is to act like we hit a triple, instead of admitting we were born on third base.

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Brett Bellmore 09.02.14 at 4:09 pm

J: So, you hypothesis is that the US acts like it owns the world, only, deviously, acts like it doesn’t own the world, in order to conceal this?

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geo 09.02.14 at 5:52 pm

Ronan @162: outside of the general (uninterested) public, nationalistic commentators and public officials, afaict pretty much no-one worth listening too would claim that the US is ‘exceptional’

In other words, since everyone except a few academics and a few leftists believe (or pretend to believe) that US foreign policy, unlike that of every other nation, is selflessly animated by noble intentions, US military interventions are generally given the benefit of the doubt and the US need not obey international law. QED.

driven primarily by its national interests

Except for not being annihilated by nuclear weapons or environmental catastrophe, there is no “national interest.” In every society, those with the power to do so define their group interest as the “national” interest. When you hear the phrase, you can stop listening to whoever is using it.

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J Thomas 09.02.14 at 6:45 pm

J: So, you hypothesis is that the US acts like it owns the world, only, deviously, acts like it doesn’t own the world, in order to conceal this?

Yes, of course.

So during the Cold War, we needed to mobilize whatever resources were necessary to defeat the USSR. We basicly ran the Free World economy while we pretended they were free. We admitted that we encouraged various dictatorships, but they were anti-Communist dictatorships, which we had to ally with because if we allowed democracy then the communists would take over and destroy democracy.

But now the communists are gone. (Except for the Chinese communists that we pretend are gone or reformed or something.) We don’t have to suppress self-rule to keep the communists from taking over. Of course in places like Egypt etc we have to accept military dictators taking over because otherwise the muslims will take over. But it isn’t us doing it, it’s the dictators taking over all by themselves, and we have to support them to prevent bad things from happening. And anyway they promise they’ll have constitutions and elections which they in theory might not win, etc. So that’s all right.

In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait etc we support actual kings who allow no hint of free speech, because we need them to pump oil. If there was a revolution and the kings were replaced by democratic governments they might choose to do things that damage international trade. And the new government might not be democratic anyway. It might be run by muslims, and we can’t have that.

In Venezuela the president didn’t agree to sell us oil at the price wee wanted, and we got very upset. We said he was likely to do something socialist and also rig elections. We supported a coup but it didn’t work out.

It’s as if we want to keep some deniability. And we don’t any longer have the excuse that we have to out-soviet the soviets or else we’ll lose, because the soviets have already lost. So the deniability is harder than it used to be.

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Ze Kraggash 09.02.14 at 7:05 pm

Capital is increasingly internationalized and national interests (even those of the national ruling class) are not the game anymore. ‘Empire’ has a different meaning; it’s more like financial empire, business empire.

168

Ronan(rf) 09.03.14 at 12:55 pm

That’s a weird reading, geo dude.

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J Thomas 09.03.14 at 1:01 pm

Capital is increasingly internationalized and national interests (even those of the national ruling class) are not the game anymore. ‘Empire’ has a different meaning; it’s more like financial empire, business empire.

So, the owners can live wherever they want and not worry about politics? Maybe. Various of the Rothschilds got out of Austria barely in time before the Nazis got them. But of course that sort of thing can’t happen again, right?

I remember Buckminster Fuller said his father told him that a whole bunch of owners settled in england because it was an island and they felt safer there. Later a whole lot of them moved to the USA because Britain didn’t look that safe and a nation with two oceans around it was better. I’m not sure how much to believe Buckminster Fuller’s father. But following his reasoning, where would you feel safe living now, if you could live wherever you wanted? Given ICBMs and 9/11 the USA doesn’t look all that safe. But China doesn’t either — not so many years ago they were executing people for the crime of belonging to banking families. They could expropriate their billionaires in hours if they thought they didn’t need them any more.

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J Thomas 09.03.14 at 1:02 pm

More moderation. I wonder why?
Rothschild

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J Thomas 09.03.14 at 1:03 pm

Buckminster Fuller

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J Thomas 09.03.14 at 1:04 pm

Capital is increasingly internationalized and national interests (even those of the national ruling class) are not the game anymore. ‘Empire’ has a different meaning; it’s more like financial empire, business empire.

So, the owners can live wherever they want and not worry about politics? Maybe. Various of the Rothschilds got out of Austria barely in time before the Nazis got them. But of course that sort of thing can’t happen again, right?

I remember Buckmlnster Fuiier said his father told him that a whole bunch of owners settled in england because it was an island and they felt safer there. Later a whole lot of them moved to the USA because Britain didn’t look that safe and a nation with two oceans around it was better. I’m not sure how much to believe Buckmlnster Fuiier’s father. But following his reasoning, where would you feel safe living now, if you could live wherever you wanted? Given ICBMs and 9/11 the USA doesn’t look all that safe. But China doesn’t either — not so many years ago they were executing people for the crime of belonging to banking families. They could expropriate their billionaires in hours if they thought they didn’t need them any more.

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Ronan(rf) 09.03.14 at 1:17 pm

What kind of world are we living in when mentioning the Rothschilds gets you moderated?

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J Thomas 09.03.14 at 1:23 pm

Ronan, it wasn’t in fact the Rothschilds. That was my first guess, and it was wrong.

It was Buckmlnster Fuiier that gets you moderated.

What kind of world is it when mentioning Bucky Fuiier gets you moderated?

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Ronan(rf) 09.03.14 at 1:34 pm

I can’t even begin to imagine what sort of societal sickness would enable such a thing.

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geo 09.03.14 at 5:47 pm

Ronan @168: That’s a weird reading, geo dude.

Sorry, Ronan, but you seemed to be saying @162 that, by and large, the general public, the media, and the politicians all believe in American exceptionalism. Which is, alas, true.

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Ronan(rf) 09.03.14 at 5:51 pm

Sorry, I thought you were implying that I was arguing:

“US military interventions are generally given the benefit of the doubt and the US need not obey international law”

But that’s probably a misreading on my part.

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Ronan(rf) 09.03.14 at 5:55 pm

As I’m not an American, I dont really want to argue that X ‘believes’ Y .. from a distance it certainly seems US exceptionalism is useful rhetorically for political reasons. Whether public officials or nationalistic commentators (or significant parts of the pop) actually believe it, I dont know.

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roger gathman 09.04.14 at 5:56 pm

I have always taken American exceptionalism to mean that America represented a moral position in the world. And I think that this was the perception of, say, Thomas Paine, the first generation of French revolutionaries, and other among the trans-Atlantic democrats. An echo of this is found in Marx, who said that the workers in Europe looked on the United States as their thing.
This the heirloom idea, and it gets hauled out and revived from time to time. Most Americans, for instance, look at World War II through the lens of the US fighting the Nazis for moral reasons. Historians, of course, don’t see the causes in this way. On the other hand, it does raise morale.
So I suppose it is one of those things, American exceptionalism, that are what Plato called doxa – they have a half existence. It is why I think much of the world thinks Americans are hypocrites, saying one thing, and doing another. But even this indignation pays a certain homage to the myth of America as a moral force. I don’t think any historian can ignore this history, or these perceptions, as they actually function in the discourse all the way to the top. One of the reasons that the cause of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is still a debateable question is that it is mixed up with the idea that the US was acting as an armed moral force – the categorical imperative decked out with the weapons of shock and awe. But that idea suffered a big shock when it turned out that SH was not decking Iraq out with the WMD, because of course a moral force isn’t suppose to lie about its reasons for doing things.

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Andrew F. 09.05.14 at 11:35 pm

In addition to the essay by Peter Shuck which I referenced above, this essay in the The New York Review of Books by Brian Urquhart entitled “What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr”, reviewing Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, James Traub’s The Freedom Agenda, and of course Niebuhr’s obvious work, is also worth reading.

Taking all of this together, the impression one derives is that “American exceptionalism” means at least 4 or 5 different things, and none of the critics has it quite right.

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PJW 09.06.14 at 12:27 am

The idea of the United States as a moral force is in play again with the rise of ISIS. Hope to see a CT thread on ISIS soon.

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