I have been a subscriber to National Review since I was a junior in high school or thereabouts, and so that means I have been reading those guys for around 40 years. I think this should give me the right to say something. Well, first, I should say thanks. I owe them all a great deal.
Having said that, let me move on to the cover story in the current edition, a piece called “Defend Her: Obama’s Threat to American Exceptionalism,” written by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru.
First, let me set the pieces on the board. American conservatism is not Toryism, fighting to protect long-established aristocratic privileges. This leads to an obvious question.
“What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our nation has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.”
And we begin to get gummed up almost immediately. Many of the things that Lowry and Ponnuru point out about the American personality are quite true (at least for the present), and on that level, I found myself agreeing with most of the article. But this language of exceptionalism grates — let us call it our American grateness.
Our nation is still freer (for the most part) than most other nations in the world. True enough. But not all. The 2010 Index of Economic Freedom puts us at #8, right after Canada. That’s not even in the medal round. We did better in hockey than we are doing in freedom. We are now ranked as “mostly free,” and for those just joining us that is not a good thing. Ahead of us are Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland, and Canada. So are those nations ahead of us allowed to begin speaking of “Irish exceptionalism,” or “Australian exceptionalism”? Would it grate on our ears if they started to do that? Would we suddenly see the difficulties with the expression?
On top of this, there is the small matter of history. True, we are freer now than the English are. But the Englishmen of several centuries ago were freer then than we are now. So why are we exceptional in this, and they aren’t? When they are freer, better, stronger militarily, and so on, is it to be chalked up as a fluke? And when we become the hegemon the credit goes to our own wonderful selves? The language of American exceptionalism doesn’t pass the smell test.
So what is the creed of American exceptionalism?
“Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin-Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.”
In their description of the American personality, I certainly recognize a lot of my own reactions and impulses in there. I see the same thing in my friends around me — even those who think they have transcended the whole business.
And I also know that by objecting in the way I am, I can just be pointed to as yet another textbook example of American cussedness — and I guess I would plead guilty. But having an ornery cussedness streak is not a creed. It is not Scripture. It is not a flaming torch to light up all those other benighted nations. It is not a gospel.
These things that we have (and we do have them) are blessings. They are gifts. Other nations have had them before we did, and they threw them away by offending Heaven, just as we are currently doing. There is nothing exceptional in this at all. Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked. Nobody names their kids Jeshurun anymore, but they sure could.
“The retreat from American exceptionalism” led by Obama (and lots of other Americans) is one that Lowry and Ponnuru lament, and are trying to stand against. I wish them well, but they really have misdiagnosed the problem from top to bottom. We will not be saved by our American “religiousness.” Religiousness didn’t bleed and die for us, and religiousness was not raised from the dead on the third day. Religiousness can go to blazes where it belongs.
The article concludes with this:
“But Americans are right not to want to become exceptional only in the 230-year path we took to reach the same lackluster destination as everyone else.”
Sir John Glubb once wrote a small booklet called The Fate of Empires, and I referred to his review of western history in my recent book Five Cities That Ruled the World.
“Cities, like the men and women who live in them, have life spans, and that life span is approximately 250 years. John Glubb pointed to this seemingly obvious truth, but one that is still routinely missed: ‘Any regime which attains great wealth and power seems with remarkable regularity to decay and fall apart in some ten generations’” (p. xviii).
Whatever you might want to say about it, it is not an exceptional achievement to die right when your insurance company predicted you would.