I am vacationing at the beach, and so, it should be expected that posting at RightWay has been on my mind. Normal people should shun such activities while they are supposed to be leisuring. But, what can I say? Posting here brings me joy. So, I will probably be putting forth as many ‘Quick Thought’ entries as I can manage. Here is the first…
American Exceptionalism is but a fact. I am not sure how one could look at our history and not come away believing that this nation has been uniquely blessed for all of it’s 236 year existence. That in no way denies that there have been national evils during that time period. Nor does it ignore the fact that we have dealt with the natural consequences of those evils.
There are at least two opposite, but equally wrong ways to think about American Exceptionalism.
One way is to deny that we are exceptional at all. This is a favorite position of the Modern Left. The essence of this argument, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it, is: “America Sucks”. People who believe this generally bring up a bunch of biased statistics taken out of context in an attempt to show more self-hatred than a conservative at a Manhattan cocktail party.
This line of thinking is self-evidently silly. What makes it more than simply annoying is that those who espouse it consider it a badge of honor to criticize America. Moreover, they hold visceral contempt for those who think America is indeed exceptional (rightly or wrongly, as we will get to in a moment). It is one thing to disagree with people and quite another to belittle the intelligence of those who disagree with you.
I am not sure where the seething hatred of all things American comes from. For some, it may be a misplaced feeling of guilt that America has been so successful. For others it stems from anti-colonialism thinking. Wherever it comes from, though the intention may or may not be worthy, denial of American Exceptionalism requires one to turn a blind eye to the good this country has done and focus entirely on the bad.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those (usually now on the Modern Right) who choose to ignore our nation’s past and present ills to support an unhealthy form of Nationalism. This type of thinking is unfairly derided as jingoistic, arrogant, and xenophobic. However, it must be stated that focusing only on the good we have done gives an incorrect historical perspective of the present.
Let me be clear, “America, right or wrong” can never be a truly Conservative way of thinking. We should not ignore slavery, FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, or the failure of the southern Church to stem the tide of racism during the Civil Rights era. All of these issues (and many more) require sober reflection.
So what is the correct way to consider American Exceptionalism?
I suppose it would be a bit presumptuous to believe I alone can offer the correct way of thinking for everybody. Instead, I will simply say that I believe my view is the most consistently Conservative view. And, for clarification, my current understanding of Conservatism is the intellectual succesor of Burke, Kirk, and Reagan.
American Exceptionalism is not something to deny or celebrate. We should consider it carefully, and we should also be thankful for it… but those should not be the end results of our thinking. The fact of American Exceptionalism creates a national responsibility.
We are to take care of our own, because we have been blessed with the ability to.
We are to help those in need around the world, because we are the shining city on a hill.
How we go about fulfilling those responsibilities is the stuff of political philosophy and so doesn’t need to be fully addressed here.
In closing, yes, America has had it’s share of moral failures. Yes, America has also been a great force for good in the modern era. But It is a waste of time to argue whether America has been more saintly or more evil.
The inescapable fact is that, yes, America is indeed exceptional and unique in the modern world.
Let’s start from there and then move on to figuring out how best to fulfill our moral obligations.