Ordinary as Brown Dirt

Just a quick Fourth of July note. Hope you set off lots of fireworks, and eat lots of hamburgers. But here’s also hoping that you do it with a clear head.

This civil holiday celebrates resistance to tyranny. And of course, some of the most ardent participants at such events are those who want to justify contemporary tyranny, the kind who want to keep everybody well occupied over celebrations of resistance to yesteryear’s tyrants.

Advocates of the new global neo-conservatism have been pressing heavily on what they call American exceptionalism. There is a trick here, so I want everyone to follow closely. I agree that America’s founders were exceptional men, and they established our form of government on an exceptional document, unlike anything in the history of the world up to that point. So I do believe in a form of American exceptionalism.

But what was exceptional about it? Here is the trick. They knew that Americans were not in the slightest bit exceptional. That’s exceptional. A patriotic pride in your nation being the apex of whatever it is we are doing on this planet — a belief that “we” (whoever “we” might be) are somehow unique — is as ordinary as brown dirt.

Calling yourself exceptional isn’t. Recognizing that we are mortal men just like other mortal men, and that we are vulnerable to all the same temptations, is rare. Boasting in American achievements barely manages to clear that Ozymandian low bar — it is the kind of ordinary hubris nailed in a poem that was written before we defeated the Nazis, landed on the moon, built the space shuttle, and started selling iPhones that could serve as navigation systems for the space shuttle — and when we invite mighty observers to look on our works and despair, we are acting like pretty much everybody else in the history of the world.

The neocons don’t get this at all. Our founders did. They did not revolt against the king because he was British (or German, whatever), but rather because he was a tyrant, acquiescing in Parliament’s unconstitutional power grabs. And they built a form of government that presupposed that Americans were every bit as likely to fall victim to a lust for power, and they put as many firewalls into the founding as they could think of. Why did they do this? They did it because America will act just like every other nation has when it has gotten fat and sassy. Congress could easily become Parliament and worse, just as it has.

The founders knew that tyrants could easily come to occupy the positions of authority in our nation, and they tried to protect against it. But our modern apologists serve up a notion of American exceptionalism that pretends that we don’t need to protect against it. This is dangerously wrong, and it is idolatrous to boot.

So set off the fireworks . . . but only if you are teaching your children what they mean.

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