Ending the Doctrine of Exceptionalism
– by David Matthews 2
One of the sadder moments in the downfall of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was when the Alaskan governor was asked whether or not she supported the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism. Her fumbling about on the answer was reminiscent of a high school student trying to answer pop quiz they never studied for, or when President Bush fumbled about the question of Tribal Sovereignty in regards to Native Americans.
It was sad, because the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism is the very doctrine that justifies America meddling in the affairs of other nations, including the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
You can thank the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville for coming up with the concept back in 1831. He believed that America had a unique place in the world because of its system of government and its emphasis on freedom. So unique that de Tocqueville considered it to be the model by which all other countries should try to emulate.
It was that philosophy that justified our interference in the affairs in other nations during the Cold War. We would prop up and support tyrants and thugs; supposedly under the notion that they would eventually emulate our way of life, but eventually just because they promised to NOT support Communism.
It was that philosophy that justified us imposing our will around the world after 9/11. Hunt down terrorists, not just for what they did, but because they threatened that very “exceptional” way of life. We then used it to morph our war against bad guys into the War in Iraq.
But perhaps given the Governor of Alaska’s fumbled, jumbled, and bumbled response to whether or not she adheres to that doctrine, we should seriously consider abandoning it once and for all.
I know that’s akin to blasphemy to those that wrap themselves up in the American flag. Getting rid of their very reason to “spread democracy around the world”? Absurd, right?
Or maybe it is something that we have to consider in order to remind ourselves how it came about.
Here are the key reasons why we should at least think about putting this concept to the dustbin of history:
People don’t know what it means! It’s not just the simple-minded Governor of Alaska. I’m sure a lot of people were scratching their heads when they saw that interview and wondering just what the hell the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism was. And no doubt they would also have given the same kind of high school fumbled response if put in the same situation.
Why prop up something that nobody understands?
Actually that’s a pretty dangerous argument in and of itself. Most people don’t understand what the word “respecting” means in the First Amendment either. That doesn’t mean that we should just get rid of it.
It is akin to Manifest Destiny. Both Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism came during a period of intense evangelism, where religion really did everything possible to integrate itself into government. De Tocqueville himself praised the Puritans, even though they also were responsible for some of the worst forms of torture in human history, they were the most restrictive of religions, and that the very expansion of many parts of the Northern half of the American Colonies were because of the people who were banished from those Puritan enclaves BECAUSE they dared to challenge the status quo. Look at the history of Rhode Island and look up the name Roger Williams if you don’t believe me!
De Tocqueville believed that this “greatness” that he loved to talk about came as a gift from God, even though the very birth of this nation came not from religion, but from those willing to DEFY the power structure that believed it WAS operating with God on its side.
Both American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny heavily rely on and incorporate religion into society. Yet we condemn the notion of “Manifest Destiny” when it is employed by other nations. We were prepared to go into all-out nuclear war if countries like Russia or China suddenly operated in what we believed would be a “Manifest Destiny”. The very nature of a theocracy, such as the one in Iran, or the pre-9/11 Afghanistan, operates under the nation of “Manifest Destiny”. Do we REALLY want to be associated with that?
The days of expansion have ended! Both “American Exceptionalism” and “Manifest Destiny” were created during the days when there were plenty of places to expand and grow. The days of colonization on this planet are pretty much over with. We either have to go underground, underwater, or go into space in order to expand.
It is self-righteous, self-serving, pompous, and arrogant! Think of the logic involved with this concept of “American Exceptionalism”. We are great because we are great! That’s what it all boils down to. We are great because we have this doctrine that says that we have this system of government and that makes us great. We are telling ourselves that we are great BECAUSE we are great.
That has opened the door to a lot of pompous and arrogant actions. We can do whatever we want to BECAUSE we are great. We can act in any way we choose BECAUSE we are America and we are great BECAUSE we are great!
We complained when Soviets would send its people to Siberia to die. Today, however, we have suspected terrorists that we are holding in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba that we are deftly afraid of ever releasing or even trying them for their suspected involvement in terrorism. We want to hold them there indefinitely, seemingly for the rest of their lives. But that’s supposedly okay, because we’re Americans, and we’re “great”.
We condemned Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party for the creation of the Abu Graib prison and the tortures that went on there. And yet when we took over that country, what did we do? We put prisoners in there and did the very same thing! And our government doesn’t want to hold the people directly responsible for it to any kind of accountability. Why? Because we’re supposedly “different”. We’re Americans. We’re “special”. We even have a doctrine that says so!
If we’re going to use that doctrine as a universal “Get out of Jail FREE” card for any kind of accountability, then that doctrine certainly needs to go the way of the Whig Party.
But perhaps THE most important reason why we need to seriously consider ending the “Doctrine of American Exceptionalism” is this…
We’re NOT living up to it! If the American system of government is so great, why haven’t we been able to spread it to other nations of late? We took over Iraq and helped them write their Constitution and hold their first elections. So… why is their system different from ours if ours is so great? Did they get something wrong? And if they did, why didn’t we correct them on it?
If our system is so “great” and our doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” DEMANDS that we share this “greatness” with other nations so they can be “great” as well, then why are we doing such a crappy job of it? We’re talking flawed quality service here, folks!
Let’s get brutally honest here… if we don’t know what “American Exceptionalism” is, and we don’t know WHY it is exceptional, how can we be expected to then spread it to other parts of the world as per that same doctrine?
The problem is three-fold. First, we have the clueless, like Governor Palin, who don’t know what the doctrine means. Then we have the arrogant like neo-con writer Ann Coulter, who declared that we need to either kill all the Muslims or else convert them to Christianity, using the doctrine as the justification for doing the very thing that we condemn Muslim extremists of doing. And then, because we don’t know WHAT it is, we’re intentionally selling the wrong product to the rest of the world.
So what HAVE we been selling to other nations? Democracy. The concept of majority rule. We’re selling THAT to the other nations, and to ourselves, and pompously thinking that freedom itself would magically follow.
IT DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!
If you want people to be free, then you have to SELL the concept of freedom to them! THEN you have to work on the mechanism for freedom to survive and flourish. You DO NOT sell the mechanism and then expect freedom to just follow. That is like buying a car and being given a gallon of gasoline and being told that the car would just materialize once you have the gas.
Greatness is a matter of DOING, not a matter of BEING. You are not great just because you have a doctrine saying that you are great. You are great because you do the things that MAKE you great! If you STOP doing the things that make you great, then at that point you are not great! Then you are just a delusional pompous jackass in sorry need of a comeuppance, and that kind of delusion usually ensures that there is no lack of parties looking to issue that comeuppance.
In order for us to once again recognize that greatness, America first needs to get rid of the self-serving doctrines and rhetoric and actually DO the things that make us so! If we want to really be the example that other nations should emulate, then we have to live UP to that image instead of declaring that we are already there and expecting the world to do what we are too lazy to do ourselves. That is not Exceptionalism. That is nothing more than exceptional arrogance and sheer incompetence.