During the US Foreign Policy field of my PhD exams, I quipped to my adviser that there weren’t any real American exceptionalists left among mainstream academics. That may not be completely accurate, but the deterioration of American exceptionalism is beginning to penetrate to the general American public. The recently launched HBO series The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing fame) and starring Jeff Daniels (of Dumb & Dumber fame), has produced this clip, which is going viral:
By all accounts, this is a great piece of television. CNN’s Todd Leopold has already broken down some of the numbers and ideas in this column, which I recommend checking out. I thought the debate would benefit from a little injection of historical perspective as well. After all, exceptionalism is nothing if not a matter of perspective.
Daniels’ character maintains a modicum of factuality, or at least empirical factuality, for the first half of his speech (until the “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about” and pause). This is easily the best half, from a rhetorical and aesthetic perspective. After the dramatic caesura, I wanted to ask him the same belligerent question he asked the “sorority girl.” Here, Daniels’ character uses a rhetorical tactic beloved of politicians (like exceptionalism), and equally as disingenuous: he idealizes the past to make cheap points about the present and/or future. Let’s take some of them in turn.
“We fought wars/struck down laws for moral reasons”
Perhaps. There is a lot of debate over the motivations for any state going to war. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt here and assume that all American wars before 1945 were some kind of holy crusade/bellum justum. …Isn’t moralizing the very problem with American defense policy and jurisprudence that many have decried over the past decade? Is the implication seriously that American politics would benefit from greater injections of morality? We’re off to a perplexing start.
“We cared about our neighbors…we never beat our chest”
It’s unclear whether he means “our neighbors” here in the sense that Christ did – any given person you interact with in life (suggesting domestic policy) – or neighboring states, which is implied by the foreign-comparative nature of the monologue. If the latter, this statement takes a rather bizarre interpretation of “care.” The Monroe Doctrine “cares” for our hemispheric neighbors in the sense that it threatens military force against European meddlers and was later adapted by Roosevelt I to justify military intervention in Latin America itself in the case of extra-American disputes. As for the absence of chest-beating, well, I could choose from thousands of examples, but how about John C. Calhoun giving a rousing speech about American wars and American chests? It’s the centenary of the War of 1812, after all -
Your committee would not cast a shade over the American name, by the expression of a doubt which branch of this alternative will be embraced. The occasion is now presented, when the national character, misunderstood & traduced for a time by foreign & domestic enemies, should be vindicated. If we have not rushed to the field of battle like the nations, who are led by the mad ambition of a single chief, or the avarice of a corrupted court, it has not proceeded from a fear of war, but from our love of justice & humanity. That proud spirit of liberty & independence, which sustained our fathers in the successful assertion of their rights, against foreign oppression, is not yet sunk: The patriotic fire of the Revolution still burns in the American breast with a holy & unextinguishable flame, and will conduct this nation to those high destinies, which are not less the reward of dignified moderation, than of exalted valour.
“We cultivated the world’s greatest artists”
I’m not an art historian, but I’m not worried about questioning whether this has ever been true, in any genre. Bluegrass, maybe?
“We aspired to intelligence – it didn’t make us feel inferior”
The US has a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism that unfortunately runs through our entire history. We began as a colonial state, and in that kind of arrangement it’s difficult to survive cultural or intellectual comparisons with the imperial center. As such, imperial myths about the rustic and uncouth colonists are appropriated and reshaped by the colonists themselves – “to hell with the effete, decadent British – Americans roll up their sleeves and get things done, including grinding out revolutionary victories on home turf.” You can argue that American separatism was predicated on an inferiority complex: the failure of Britain to honor the colonists’ rights as Englishmen (namely, in the cases of taxation). The thread continues running up through the present day. It’s not accidental that late-ninteenth century nativists called themselves the “Know-Nothing Party.” The term originated in the group’s omerta, but it carried powerful connotations about knowledge and corruption that have resonated with subsequent xenophobes.
“We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the past election”
This statement is increasingly trendy in American political commentary – that today’s hyper-partisanship is both unprecedented and potentially destructive to the country. While I don’t necessarily disagree about the destructive part, there is ample precedent for hyperpartisan politics in this country. In fact, some of the most vitriolic political polarization occurred early in our nation’s history, even on the watch of, *gasp* the Founding Fathers. The 1800 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was one of the nastiest we’ve ever had. Newspapers were unashamedly partisan and printed the most entertaining slander of the Republican or Federalist enemy they could imagine. On Adams:
…a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.
The riposte at Mr. Jefferson:
…a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.
America may not be the greatest country in the world anymore. As is evident here, that depends on how you measure. Nevertheless, kidding ourselves about our own past isn’t going to help us make any progress. For instance, it’s not immediately clear to me (and some preliminary googling didn’t make it any clearer) that the United States has ever led the world in literacy, math, life expectancy, infant mortality, or “labor force” (not sure what this means). It may have done for science immediately after WWII (when we reaped the benefits of scientists fleeing the Nazis), but that’s an elite level measure. The only metrics he mentions that we obviously have dominated are median household income and export values. In both of these, we rank #2 by the best and most recent data I could find. Median household income is a meaningless value; Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which adjusts for the cost of goods, has us behind Luxembourg. I don’t think anyone will lose sleep there. Our total exports slipped behind China’s some time in the past several years. There are many reasons why, but perhaps the most important one is that China is still a developing economy with almost no regard for the environment or the well-being of its workers. In short, it’s a lot cheaper to produce things under those conditions.
If you really wanted to press this argument, you could even problematize the rant about “freedom” and military budgets. Five of the nine countries Mr. Daniels’ character lists owe their “freedom” (as it is apparently being defined here) in part to American military intervention against “freedom”-denying regimes that had invaded them (France, Italy, Belgium) or hijacked them altogether (Germany, Japan). This is the what our world-beating military spending was spent on, back when we waged “moral” wars. Regardless of the derision being shown to military spending here, it’s probably the most common historical measurement of global ascendancy. Whether or not that’s advisable, it’s bizarre to ignore it in a rant that ostensibly periodizes our former greatness during times when we also had high military spending.
In sum, this clip and those who cheer it are not as clever as they seem. They ignore too many critical questions: when were we the greatest country on earth? What made us so? Who is now, if not us? Giving the crown to a country that lacks our responsibilities, like Finland, or one that lacks our standards of behavior, like China, is disingenuous. I will concede that this clip might stimulate debate about how to reverse American decline, but its actual content doesn’t move that discussion forward in any meaningful way.