Answering American Exceptionalism

Richard Cohen takes a crack, arguing that the right erroneously suffuses the phrase with religiosity, creating a dangerous situation where we view all our acts as justified, because God’s on our side. To him, the American right, led by the likes of Palin and Gingrich, wields exceptionalism like a shield against error, in the process taking on the kind of comical delusions of grandeur normally reserved for the heroes of unexpectedly hilarious songs by otherwise contemplative rock icons.

…and Hot Air answers by conflating the arguments of two separate paragraphs to purposefully miss the author’s point. Let’s not dwell on this, but oh, good times.

Cohen’s not wrong, but nor does he really have the whole picture. Exceptionalism, to the right, isn’t about the rest of the world, which rarely (if ever) even factors into conservative calculations. It’s about reviving the old canard from the Bush days — that liberals who question American military action abroad must hate America — slapping a new coat of paint on it, and trotting it out for a new era. The trick works abnormally well alongside a President with some notion of diplomatic grace, and some interest in cultivating, rather than using and abandoning, international friendships. And if the punch lands, conservatives can continue to cast liberals, for another generation, as the begrudging and prodigal heirs of their nation’s greatness, rather than those who, in almost every era, have shepherded the nation to its next historic achievement.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that Cohen’s critique does nothing to remedy. If we question the idea of exceptionalism, rather than its application, we’re already playing on their ground, and we’ve already lost. More, we’re doing a disservice to a genuine and important idea, one that mattered to us long before the right appropriated it as the preferred way to impugn the sitting President’s patriotism. America is or should be an exceptional nation — we have been before, but as Fagles put it, in his preface to the Aeneid, exceptionalism must be earned:

The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.

Behaving ourselves is how we became exceptional, and how we’re to maintain it. Instead, today’s right uses the concept as a quick way to silence their critics, and brush away serious moral failings that themselves jeopardize our exceptional nature. Conservatives would have us become remain the only civilized nation that tortures its captives… and, for that matter, the only civilized nation to retain the death penalty, and deny equal rights to gay couples. That makes us exceptional — as in, the exception to all basic norms of human decency — but it’s probably not how the honorable members opposite mean the term.

By word and deed, the Republican Party, and especially the 2012 presidential slate would have us behave like the last heir of a noble house, trading on his father’s fame while mortgaging the ancestral castle to cover gambling debts. And they presume to instruct us on the meaning of exceptionalism?

Update: John McCain gets it, reminding us what a good man he is when he’s not reduced to a puppet of his party’s fringe. The Senator:

What is at stake here it the very idea of America. The America whose values have inspired the world and instilled in the hearts of its citizens the certainty that no matter how hard we fight, no matter how dangerous our adversary, in the course of vanquishing our enemies we do not compromise our deepest values.

Both as soldier and as victim, Senator McCain knows what he’s talking about in a way that the rest of his party simply doesn’t.

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74 comments

  1. Set aside that the immorality of abolishing or restricting proper punishment for misdeeds is a way to enable uncivilized barbarian, to say “only civilized nation that retains the death penalty” is a Eurocentric falsehood. The death penalty – and corporal punishment – is retained throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. So… Singapore and Japan and China and Trinidad and Tobago etc aren’t civilized?

    1. I’m going to echo Steve here – I’m incredibly curious as to how you define ‘civilized’ nation. And is that an academic term?

    2. Yeah that was probably careless. I don’t mean civilized as in, the rest are uncivilized, but civilized as in, peer nations to whom we compare ourselves regularly. Of Steve’s samples, only Japan fits that bill.

      1. Ames – liberals are the only people that make a hobby out of comparing the US to other countries. The problem is that it’s a ridiculous game of apples and oranges. I think even Lanfranc has pointed that out before. (And honestly I think you should probably just retract the word ‘civilized’ completely and not try to redefine it in a way that makes no sense).

      2. oneiroi · ·

        And the opposite coin of that is….conservatives are the only ones who want to throw out real world examples and replace it with faith and guess work?

        Yes, you’re right, it’s not the same. At the same time, throwing every example of real world governments instituting real world policy, because conservatives preemptively disagree with said policy, is foolish.

        We should be looking at examples around the world, we should look around, see what works, what doesn’t, here, and abroad, and use different information to make our policies better.

        1. Using empirical data is fine. Disregarding data that doesn’t support the desired conclusion isn’t. The “only civilized nation” argument looks a whole lot like the latter.

        2. Oneiroi,

          That might work just fine with regards to economics or some kind of quantifiable data. Gay marriage and the death penalty? Hardly black & white. Social forces play a HUGE role in both of those debates and those are unique to our country.

        3. America is not a closed system.

          1. Social policy is not a ‘system’. Look at guns. We are an anomally among most First World nations. Trying to determine US policy based on international examples is lunacy.

          2. That’s sort of a different thing. Guns aren’t a human rights issue, really, no matter how much the NRA tells you they are.

            1. But they ARE a social isse.

              And for the record, gay rights aren’t a human rights issue either at this point in US history. Core discrimination problems have all been addressed. Now it’s a civil rights issue but surely you know that is on a lower tier.

            2. That redefines circular logic. Gay rights aren’t a human rights issue because they’re non-core, and…

              Wait. Maybe it’s just assuming your own conclusion. Either way, fallacy.

              1. Human rights issues are basic ‘life or death’ stuff. Food, freedom, shelter. The gay rights struggle in this country has secured all of those things. Now you are on to 2nd tier civil rights issues.

                Unless you want to contend, as a gay acquaintance of mine did a few months ago, that marriage is a human rights issue?

                1. Civil rights are a subset of human rights, not a different tier from them. And the right to marriage and a family life are indeed protected human rights. (Universal Declaration, §16)

                  1. Can human rights ever be taken away legally? What about civil rights?

                  2. Mike, you’re confusing the issue — the point is that human rights are with reference to external norms of justice and human dignity. Things like gun control are “social” issues broadly-called, but clearly a society-by-society issue. Unless you think having a gun should be a basic human right.

                    1. But conflating gay marriage with basic human rights is also incorrect. Surely you don’t contend that it inhabits the same space as the right to freedom or food?

                      Civil rights exist within the legal framework of a given country. Surely you acknowledge that a country’s civil laws areat least party a reflection of that country’s unique values and if so, is this wrong?

                    2. If your point is that love is higher on the pyramid of self-actualization, you are correct. If you use that fact to assume that it’s unimportant, you are incorrect. It appears to me you’re trying for the latter, which is very disingenuous.

                    3. I’m simply saying that gay marriage isn’t a human right and should be less or non-dependent on international consensus.

                  3. The UDHR wrongly elevates all sorts of bullshit to “human right” status. And civil rights are indeed lesser rights than the two human rights.

                    Marius, having a gun is an element of self-defense, which is one of the two human rights.

  2. A few of my thoughts on the subject (and I have to say Ames this is one of your better posts):

    http://districtofcolumbiadispatches.blogspot.com/search?q=exceptionalism

    1. Thanks! And it looks from those like you and I substantially agree. I like the title of the last especially, “American Exceptionalism – the force that begets our downfall as an Exceptional Nation.”

      1. I try to get pithy once in a while . . . .

  3. “…conservatives can continue to cast liberals, for another generation, as the begrudging and prodigal heirs of their nation’s greatness, rather than those who, in almost every era, have shepherded the nation to its next historic achievement.”

    This kind of self-aggrandizement really borders on the obscene. I feel like you and your post need to get a room.

    1. Best comment ever.

      1. Or you could change your Facebook status to:

        Ames is in a relationship with this post

      2. Ah, tempting! But I don’t want to disappoint the women of America. Still single; apply within!

        Alternately, if we’re going to go to Facebook relationship hijinks, I’ve always wanted to do, “Ames is married to: The Sea.”

  4. Ah, American exceptionalism. Truly the concept that is to American history what “feudalism” is to European medieval history: No one can ever agree on what it means, and yet the term can’t be avoided either, because there is apparently something almost ineffable going on in American history and society that needs to be described somehow.

    I guess in the end, it’s the kind of concept whose meaning depends on what you’re looking for.

    1. I guess in the end, it’s the kind of concept whose meaning depends on what you’re looking for.

      Or not – it really is an internal dialogue issue for those who want the U.S. to stand above other countries because that means we can do, as a nation, whatever they think we should. Those of us living in the real, complicated world, will never equate it with Feudalism, which was an actual approach to governance.

      1. Hum, I closed my html tag . . . .

      2. Fixed it for you :)

  5. It may have been an overly technical reference, but the problem is that there isn’t even remotely any consensus among historians on the defition of “feudalism” – Marxist historians use it to describe the exploitation of peasants by the aristocracy; “Ganshof-ists” use it in the sense of a network of military obligations among the nobility; “Bloch-ists” view it as a much larger sociological construct tied up with manorialism; and so forth. Most likely, none of those ideal types existed in actual reality, and some are questioning whether it even makes sense to use the term at all.

    My point is that “American exceptionalism” inhabits an analogous position within American historiography and societal discourse, in that its definition will vary depending on how you interpret the broader meaning of “America” in a more fundamental sense.

    So you get Tocqueville viewing America in the context of early 19th century France; Marxists in the early 20th century trying to explain why advanced America was not turning socialist; the religious “shining city on a hill” interpretation; the “let’s try to be better than we are” interpretation; Bush’s “we’re exceptional so we can do what we want” interpretation; and of course even the “we’re not worthy” interpretation of Howard Zinn and his ilk.

    Are any of those closer or further from an “objective” definition of exceptionalism? I have no idea which standard you’d use to evaluate that.

  6. (Continuing the rights discussion from above)

    This is not a simple issue, so it’s important to keep the definitions straight.

    Human rights are those that all human beings are entitled to simply because they are humans. They mostly find their expression in normative instruments such as the Declaration of Human Rights.

    Then there are legal rights, which are derived from a (legally binding) constitution. They are often, but not necessarily, also human rights. The US right to bear ars would be a good example of a right that is legal but not human.

    Regardless of derivation, rights can be further divided in different types, such as civil or political, social, and economic rights. But that does not mean that we can establish a hierarchy between the types – you couldn’t say that a man shouldn’t yet have the right to self-expression just because he doesn’t have enough to eat, either.

    Also, while legal rights may differ among countries, human rights cannot be allowed – for the simple reason that otherwise, it would be much more difficult to criticise i.e. China for their human rights violations. They could just claim that the right to fair trial isn’t a part of their national values, after all.

    1. “Also, while legal rights may differ among countries, human rights cannot be allowed – for the simple reason that otherwise, it would be much more difficult to criticise i.e. China for their human rights violations. They could just claim that the right to fair trial isn’t a part of their national values, after all.”

      And that is my whole point. Ames is suggesting that the US is ‘uncivilized’ because it doesn’t have gay marriage. I disagree.

      1. But it seems that you’re thinking along those lines, by arguing that marriage is a secondary right and dependent on a country’s “unique values”.

        1. No – what I am saying is that since civil rights are based in a country’s unique legal framework then comparisons to other countries for an assessment of our ‘civility’ is pointless.

        2. Except civil rights are, here, an instantiation of human rights.

          1. You’re going to have to elaborate on that one in a less-lawery way Ames.

    2. Hmm. I think you’re missing something there, Mike.

      1. ” Conservatives would have us become remain the only civilized nation …to retain the death penalty, and deny equal rights to gay couples.”

        and

        ” I don’t mean civilized as in, the rest are uncivilized, but civilized as in, peer nations to whom we compare ourselves regularly.”

      2. I don’t know how much more plain I can be. Rather than retreating from your poor use of the phrase ‘civilized nations’ you decided to press forward with new definition of, ‘ peer nations to whom we compare ourselves regularly’.

        I pointed out that comparing nations is a pointless game but you pressed your point even further by stating that America is not a closed system. I said that with regard to social policy each country functions uniquely and gave gun rights as an example. You stated that gun rights are not human rights, implying that gay marriage IS a human right.

        Do I have things right? You see marriage as a human right?

        1. You stated that gun rights are not human rights, implying that gay marriage IS a human right.

          Which is correct.

          1. Not according to US law. marriage is a civil institution.

            1. That just means it is not a legal right in the US. It is still a human right.

              1. I don’t think the law supports that position. There is no right to marriage that comes along with our humanity. It is a social construct.

                1. Lots of rights are social in nature. Democracy is essentially one big social construct. So is a court of law. Yet the right to political participation and to a fair trial are still very important human rights. Same with the right to marriage.

                  Besides, it’s also in the Int’l Covenant on Civil Rights, which has been ratified by the US, so I assume that is indeed current law.

                  1. I don’t follow the logic of citing a Civil Rights covenant to bolster your claim that marriage is a human right. It seems you simply don’t differentiate between the two even though most legal systems do. Not sure how to further the conversation in light of that position.

                  2. Okay, I think this is the third time I try to explain this. A “civil right” is not something distinct from a “human right”. We’re talking about two different axes of distinction here – “human right” vs. “legal right” on the one hand, and “civil right” vs. “economic right”, “cultural right” and “social right”. The former distinction has to do with their derivation, where the right comes from, while the other has to do with their application, what the right addresses.

                    For instance, the right to free speech is a civil human right – civil, because it involves the political sphere and a human right because it is derived from the body of human right instruments. In the US, it is also a civil legal right – civil because it’s political, and legal because it’s in the Constitution.

                    Along the same lines, the right to marriage is a civil human right because it is recognised by the various human right instruments, and it’s a civil legal right for straight people in the US.

                    1. The simplest answer is that if they were the same there would only be a need for one term to describe them. Human rights originate in our humanity. Civil rights originate with our government. you acknowledge their differences above and still call them the same. i’m honestly at a loss for how to even digest that.

                    2. No. The rights that originate with the government are called legal rights. Civil rights can be either human or legal rights, and they’re called civil because they are political in aim, not because of their origin. This is an important distinction. Do I need to draw a diagram or something?

                    3. Are you saying that it looks like this?

                      I. Civil rights
                      – Human rights
                      – Legal rights

                      If so – that’s the first time i have ever seen it proposed that way.

                    4. “Derived from the body of human rights instruments” sounds a lot like a legal right.

                    5. Like this:

                      I. Human rights
                      – Civil/political rights
                      – Socio-economic rights

                      II. Legal rights
                      – Civil/political rights
                      – Socio-economic rights

                      Steve, the difference is that HRIs like the Universal Declaration typically do not have legal force, except when they’re also treaties – and even then only when ratified by a state. The Declaration on the other hand has universal, but only moral force.

                    6. I don’t see the breakdown that way, but for the purpose of moving on I’ll accept the premise. It doesn’t change my core disagreement with Ames’ post. Civil rights are not portable and do not transcend government (because they are dependent on the government for their existence).

                      Because of this dependence on each unique government I STILl don’t seen any reason why we would compare ourselves to other nations to determine whether or not we are civilized.

    3. Human rights are a fictional pile of crap. People are entitled to nothing but the right to do what they can and the right to kill anyone who tries to get in their way. Those “normative documents” are collections of evil lies written by self-righteous imbeciles who made a negative contribution to humanity and should be disregarded entirely. Only weaklings, fools, and other vernon believe in human rights.

      1. “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

        1. Exactly as it should be! The good survive and the weak are exterminated.

  7. I found a reference to in the American Convention on Human Rights that post-dates the covenant you cited. It says (emphasis mine);

    “The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to raise a family shall be recognized, if they meet the conditions required by domestic laws, insofar as such conditions do not affect the principle of nondiscrimination established in this Convention.”

    So it seems that domestic laws, so long as they are not discrimatory, trump any assignation of marriage as a human right. That means of course is that the government could effectively bar ALL marriages so long as it is applied equally. What that tells me is that it’s NOT a true human right in that it is at the mercy of lawmakers. Furthermore, i have to ask again, if US lawmakers determine the criteria for marriage, why would they consult other countries?

    1. The US has not even ratified the American Convention, so I’m not sure why you bring that up. But regardless, your argument is also wrong, because as you may notice, there are actually two other sentences in that paragraph. If there’s a complete ban on marriages, then the right to marriage is clearly not being recognised. Otherwise, we’re really going on a road trip to Orwell Country.

      And human rights are not “at the mercy of lawmakers”, that’s the whole point of the concept. It is a normative set of standards that nations are expected, but not necessarily forced to follow. To the extent that lawmakers do follow them, then they also become legal rights, as I’ve tried to explain above. Human rights are, if you will, the ISO 9000 of nations.

  8. Mike:

    I don’t see the breakdown that way, but for the purpose of moving on I’ll accept the premise. It doesn’t change my core disagreement with Ames’ post. Civil rights are not portable and do not transcend government (because they are dependent on the government for their existence).

    Because of this dependence on each unique government I STILl don’t seen any reason why we would compare ourselves to other nations to determine whether or not we are civilized.

    The fundamental problem here is that you’re using the term “civil rights” for what I call “legal rights”. Usually, I wouldn’t care what you decide to call things, but it’s a serious cause of confusion here because I use the term “civil rights” for any kind of politically-oriented right, whether or not they are human rights or (my) legal rights (i.e. your civil rights).

    The bottom line, to use an “inclusive” terminology, is that the right to marriage is a (my) civil right that can be both a human right and a (my) legal right/(your) civil right.

    Often, it is a (my) legal right/(your) civil right, and then you’re correct, it is dependent on the government, because that is the definition of a (my) legal right/(your) civil right.

    But it is also a human right, which apply universally (but usually only morally) to all governments. If they didn’t the whole concept of human rights, i.e. rights that all human beings enjoy, would be pointless from the start.

    I’m not sure there’s any particular profit in arguing about what governments are or aren’t civilized, or even using that term at all – but if we must, then yeah, I’d say that extending human rights to one’s citizens is a pretty good requirement.

    1. You DO realize though that in the US we use ‘civil rights’ to describe those rights which come from the Constitution and ‘human rights’ to describe those which come from our humanity? Right? While your own terminology is interesting, it would (I assume) be as confusing to most Americans as it has been to me.

      1. I was not really aware of that difference, no. The “human vs. legal” rights terminology is the standard in political science, especially to distinguish (your) civil rights from (my) civil rights, so it’s the one I’ve been trained in. But no problem, as long as we call it the same thing.

        So then the system looks like this:

        I. Human rights
        – Political rights (my former civil rights)
        – Socio-economic rights

        II. Civil rights (my former legal rights)
        – Political rights
        – Socio-economic rights

        1. I would say that is accurate.

          Agreeing on the definitions then, can we also agree that under US law marriage is defined as a civil right, not a human right meaning its existence is not based in our humanity but in our laws?

          1. No, because no government gets to decide unilaterally what is or isn’t a human right. Again, that’s a fundamental point of the concept.

            And besides, the US has both adopted the Universal Declaration and ratified the Int’l Convention on Civil Rights (which here means political rights), both of which which recognize the right to marriage as a human right.

            1. If you are referring to this…

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

              ..it seems that our ‘ratification’ came with some exceptions (emphasis mine):

              The United States Senate ratified the ICCPR in 1992, with five reservations, five understandings, and four declarations. Some have noted that with so many reservations, its implementation has little domestic effect.Included in the Senate’s ratification was the declaration that “the provisions of Article 1 through 27 of the Covenant are not self-executing”, and in a Senate Executive Report stated that the declaration was meant to “clarify that the Covenant will not create a private cause of action in U.S. Courts.”

              Where a treaty or covenant is not self-executing, and where Congress has not acted to implement the agreement with legislation, no private right of action within the U.S. judicial system is created by ratification. Sei Fujii v. State 38 Cal.2d 718, 242 P.2d 617 (1952); also see Buell v. Mitchell 274 F.3d 337 (6th Cir., 2001) (discussing ICCPR’s relationship to death penalty cases, citing to other ICCPR cases). Thus while the ICCPR is ostensibly binding upon the United States as a matter of international law, it does not form part of the domestic law of the nation.

              So again, per our exceptions to the Covenant domestic law trumps any international claim of marriage as a human right.

              1. That just means that ratification does not turn the human right into a civil right (“domestic law”). It’s still a human right, because domestic laws can’t “trump” human rights, they exist separately.

                Besides, there’s still the Universal Declaration which remains the primary expression of what human rights are.

                1. That just means that ratification does not turn the human right into a civil right.”

                  But that’s kind of a big deal. Specifically it explains my original response to Ames’ civil vs. uncivilized weirdness. Gay marriage and the death penalty are not subject to international consensus within the United States. Our exceptions to prior covenants ensure that. So…why would we consult other nations for guidance on how we should behave or for what constitutes ‘civilized’?

                  1. Since the human rights have mostly moral force, I guess it’s pretty much up to you guys what to do about it. But the United States does not exist in a political vacuum any more than all other countries on this planet, and there is a good point in that as more and more countries give straight and gay couples equal rights on this point, you’ll find that the pressure to do the same in the US will only grow.

                    1. If there is one thing I have learned in my 36 years it’s that international pressure has almost zero impact on US policy.

                    2. Cheerful thought. As more and more countries do the wrong thing and use the siren song of “human rights” as an excuse for their bad decisions, the US will have more pressure to get rid of the pitiful vestiges of the death penalty that the Supreme Court and 8th Amendment have left us with? Joy.

        2. oneiroi · ·

          To me, it seems that the argument over whether or not marriage is a “right” is moot.

          I mean, it’s like hospital visitation. No one has a guaranteed right to visits in hospitals…it wasn’t endowed to us by the creator or given to us in the Constitution.

          It’s kind of just trying to figure out whether or not we should be making a different set of rules for people who are in relationships with those of the same sex.

          Whether or not that relationship should be treated like every others, in the eye of the law and in our society.

          The proposed violation of rights isn’t really necessarily in “marriage”, but the treatment of these couples.

          I think you all kind of covered this, but just wanted to throw some cents in.

          1. I agree with all of that. We as a society within the United States can work through any number of important legal/moral issues on our own. It may take longer than some other countries or it may take less time (ex. I would argue that with regard to abortion we are far more liberal than much of Europe).

            My point was simply that comparing our own social issues to other countries is folly. Too many unique societal characteristics come in to play.

          2. I’m not sure I see much of a difference there. The right to marriage is not just about marriage itself, but of course by extension (and through the principle of non-discrimination) also about the various statutory rights that married couples enjoy in each country, such as hospital visitations.

            I also think that a set of specific rights are generally more useful to have as a reference point, rather than a more vague idea of “equality” – it’s great to say we should treat everyone the same, but it’s somewhat harder to figure out what that actually means in practice. The network of rights pretty much serves that purpose already, so it’s something that would have to be done anyway.

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