[Marxism] Scott McLemee on American exceptionalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 22 06:11:22 MST 2012


Essay on American Exceptionalism [1]
Submitted by Scott McLemee [2] on February 22, 2012 - 3:00am

In November, Pew Research Center released a report [3] discussing the 
level of belief in American exceptionalism in the United States. It 
gauged this by asking whether interviewees accepted the statement "Our 
people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others." I have 
been interested in the history of theories of American exceptionalism 
for more than twenty years, and gave it a look. Formulating the idea 
that way struck me as obnoxious and fairly absurd. But then the Pew 
people are specialists in public opinion research -- and feelings of 
superiority (or rather, anxieties over it) do seem to be what is at 
stake as the expression American exceptionalism is used in U.S. politics 
lately. (It's worth noting that it's the authors of the report who make 
a connection between superiority and exceptionalism. The interviewers 
didn't explicitly ask about the latter.)

Republican candidates keep proclaiming their faith in American 
exceptionalism, or smiting Obama for his failure to believe in it. Not 
long ago somebody published a letter to the editor claiming that Obama 
hates American exceptionalism, which would seem to imply that he must 
believe in it, since hating something you don’t believe in sounds 
difficult and a real waste of time. But it’s probably best not to expect 
too much logical consistency at this point in the electoral season.

Obama himself is at least somewhat culpable for the whole situation. 
The furor all started in 2009 when, in response to a question, he said: 
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits 
believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek 
exceptionalism.” That, too, is a misreading of the term, equating it 
with something like national-self esteem.  But of a healthy sort -- well 
shy of narcissistic grandiosity, with plenty to go around. That's 
probably what got him into trouble.

Anyway, the Pew study yielded some interesting results. Pew's 
researchers have been asking whether people agreed with the sentiment 
"Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others" for 
at least 10 years now. In 2002, 60 percent of the Americans polled said 
they did. The figure fell to 55 percent in 2007. Last year, just 49 
percent of respondents agreed, with nearly as many (46 percent) saying 
they disagreed. “Belief in cultural superiority has declined among 
Americans across age, gender and education groups,” the Pew report said.

The same question was posed in surveys conducted in Britain, France, 
Germany, and Spain. The level of agreement was higher in the U.S, than 
elsewhere (Germany and Spain were fairly close) but the variations are 
less interesting than what held constant: “In the four Western European 
countries and in the U.S., those who did not graduate from college are 
more likely than those who did to agree that their culture is superior, 
even if their people are not perfect.”

Make of that what you will. For my part, the really odd thing about all 
the recent endorsements of American exceptionalism is that the very 
expression came into the world as the name for a Communist heresy.

The image of America as a city upon a hill -- uniquely favored by the 
Almighty and a light unto the heathens -- is older than the United 
States itself, of course. And it’s true that visitors to the country, 
including Alexis de Tocqueville, have long declared it “exceptional,” in 
one way or another, and not always for the better. Charles Dickens 
thought we were exceptionally prone to printing his books without 
permission, let alone paying him royalties. But the term "American 
exceptionalism" is more recent, and it took the Comintern to launch the 
Republican candidates' preferred way of recommending themselves these days.

Circa 1927-28, a group of American Communist Party leaders began arguing 
that, yes, the U.S. economy would undoubtedly succumb to the 
contradictions of capitalism, sooner or later, but it still had plenty 
of life in it yet, so the comrades abroad should keep that in mind, at 
least for a while. Their perspective was in accord with the ideas of the 
Bolshevik theorist Nicholai Bukharin concerning the world economic 
situation, and he was the one, after all, in charge of the Communist 
International. So all was copacetic, at least until the summer of 1928, 
when Stalin quit taking Bukharin’s phone calls.

Before long, the American leaders were called on the carpet by the 
authorities in Moscow, and found themselves denounced by Stalin himself 
for an ideological deviation: "American exceptionalism.” Stalin also 
told them, "When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you 
except your wives." That turned out to be a slight exaggeration, but 
they were promptly expelled from the party when they got back home -- 
taking around a thousand fellow American exceptionalists with them.

As it happened, all of this was just a few months before the stock 
market crash on Black Tuesday, which made the whole debate seem rather 
moot. But a catchphrase was born. Stalin’s speeches blasting American 
exceptionalism were printed as a pamphlet [4] in an enormous edition. 
The pro-American exceptionalism Communists went off to start their own 
group, which had a strange and complex history [5] that deserves better 
scholarship than it has received. But that seems like enough esoterica 
for now.

David Levering Lewis puts the neologism into a wider context with his 
essay “Exceptionalism's Exceptions: The Changing American Narrative,” in 
the new issue [6] of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ journal 
Daedelus. Levering, now a professor of history at New York University, 
received one Pulitzer Prize each for the two volumes of his biography of 
W.E.B. Du Bois.

“[I]ts Soviet originators defined American exceptionalism as the 
colossal historical fallacy that imagined itself exempt from the iron 
laws of economic determinism,” Levering writes, “whereas most American 
academics and public intellectuals … avidly embraced a phrase they 
regarded as an inspired encapsulation of 160 years of impeccable 
national history.” One of the handful of figures to give the idea a 
careful, skeptical examination, Levering says, was Du Bois. In his 
masterpiece Black Reconstruction (1935), he wrote that “two theories of 
the future of America clashed and blended just after the Civil War.” One 
was “abolition-democracy based on freedom, intelligence, and power for 
all men,” and the other was “a new industrial philosophy” with “a vision 
not of work but of wealth; not of planned accomplishment, but of power.”

American exceptionalism was, in effect, the happy belief that these 
tendencies reinforced each other. That was not a credible idea for an 
African-American who received his Ph.D. from Harvard one year before the 
Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson [7] that endorsed “separate 
but equal” treatment of the races. For Du Bois, writes Levering, “the 
cant of exceptionalism survived mainly to keep the Moloch of 
laissez-faire on life support even as its vital signs failed in the wake 
of the Great Crash of 1929.”

The doctrine of exceptionalism proved hardier than Du Bois imagined, as 
the years following World War II showed. Levering mentions that Henry 
Luce “had already given the world its peacetime marching orders in ‘The 
American Century,’ a signature 1941 editorial in Life.” Eight other 
contributors, most of them historians, join Andrew J. Bacevich in 
assessing that line of march in The Short American Century: A Postmortem 
(Harvard University Press [8]), a collection of essays spinning off from 
a lecture series Bacevich organized at Boston University in 2009-2010.

“By the time the seventieth anniversary of Luce’s famous essay rolled 
around in 2011,” the editor writes, “the gap between what he had 
summoned Americans to do back in 1941 and what they were actually 
willing or able to do had become unbridgeable.” Unfortunately the 
editorial is not reprinted, and it loses something in paraphrase -- a 
bracing tone of stern moral uplift, perhaps, inherited from his parents, 
who had been missionaries in China. Here’s a sample:

“[W]hereas their nation became in the 20th Century the most powerful and 
the most vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable 
[after World War One] to accommodate themselves spiritually and 
practically to that fact. Hence they have failed to play their part as a 
world power -- a failure which has had disastrous consequences for 
themselves and for all mankind. And the cure is this: to accept 
wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and 
vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the 
full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by 
such means as we see fit.”

And plenty more where that came from [9]. “When first unveiled,” 
Bacevich notes, “Luce’s concept of an American Century amounted to 
little more than the venting of an overwrought publishing tycoon.” By 
the end of the war, that had changed: “Claims that in 1941 sounded 
grandiose became after 1945 unexceptionable.” The American Century 
brought “plentiful jobs, proliferating leisure activities, cheap energy 
readily available from domestic sources, and a cornucopia of consumer 
goods, almost all of them bearing the label ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ ” And 
all of it while, in Luce’s words, “exert[ing] upon the world the full 
impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such 
means as we see fit.”

Well, and how did that turn out? The contributors are not of one mind. 
“As international regimes go, much of the American Century, despite the 
chronic tensions and occasional blunders of the Cold War (and especially 
the tragedy of Vietnam) was on the whole a laudably successful affair,” 
writes David M. Kennedy. For Emily S. Rosenberg, “the period of maximum 
U.S. power and influence” was “a precursor to a global Consumer Century” 
that “proved highly adaptive to local cultural variation,” so that 
equating globalization with Americanization is a misnomer.

In counterpoint, Walter LaFeber rebukes Luce’s vision all along the 
line. He writes that the American Century “never existed except as an 
illusion, but an illusion to which Americans, in their repeated 
willingness to ignore history, fell prey.”

T. J Jackson Lears writes in praise of a “pragmatic realism” informed by 
the pluralism of William James and Randolph Bourne, and says it 
“requires a sense of proportionality between means and ends, as well as 
a careful consideration of consequences – above all, the certain, bloody 
consequences of war.” But his essay does not exactly portray the 
American Century as a triumph of pragmatic realism.  (C. Wright Mills’s 
description of the nuclear war strategists’ “crackpot realism” seems a 
little more apropos.)

Bacevich’s essay concluding the book brings us up the moment by 
stressing how interconnected the American Century and American 
exceptionalism have become. “To liken the United States to any other 
country (Israel possibly excepted) is to defile a central tenet of the 
American civil religion. In national politics, it is simply 
impermissible.” Luce’s vision “encapsulate[es] an era about which some 
(although by no means all) Americans might wax nostalgic, a time, real 
or imagined, of common purpose, common values, and shared sacrifice.”

Such yearning is understandable, but nostalgia is bad for you: it makes 
the past seem simpler than it was. And the world has probably had as 
much exceptionalism as it can stand. As the American psychologist Harry 
Stack Sullivan put it, we are all much more simply human than anything 
else. And it seems like there must be a better use of a political 
figure's time than assuring people that they are all above average.
Source URL: 

[2] http://www.insidehighered.com/users/scott-mclemee
[5] http://www.marxisthistory.org/subject/usa/eam/lovestone.html
[6] http://www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/daed/141/1
[7] http://www.lawnix.com/cases/plessy-ferguson.html
[8] http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674064454
[9] http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article6139.htm

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