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.