Barack Obama says that there is no such thing as American Exceptionalism as much as there is British Exceptionalism or Greek Exceptionalism. Well there are many reasons to make America MORE exceptional, and I brought it out in last week’s editorial. Now we will discuss just how people had lost sight of American Exceptionalism.
At first, anti-American passions were understandably fuelled by the dangerous political challenge posed to the monarchies of Europe by the republican ideas of the American Revolution. But the political side of anti-Americanism was soon joined to a cultural indictment that proved to have more staying power. Here is how the brilliant but volatile historian Henry Adams—the descendent of two American presidents—described the cultural indictment as it was framed in the earliest days of the Republic:
In the foreigner’s range of observation, love of money was the most conspicuous and most common trait of the American character . . . . No foreigner of that day—neither poet, painter, or philosopher—could detect in American life anything higher than vulgarity . . . . Englishmen especially indulged in unbounded invective against the sordid character of American society . . . . Contemporary critics could see neither generosity, economy, honor, nor ideas of any kind in the American breast.
In his younger days, Adams defended America against these foreign critics; but in later life, snobbishly recoiling from the changes wrought by rapid industrialization following the Civil War, he would hurl the same charge at the America of the so-called Gilded Age.
We see a similar conflict in Tocqueville. Democracy in America was mainly a defense of the country’s political system and many of its egalitarian habits and mores. But where its cultural and spiritual life was concerned, Tocqueville expressed much the same contempt as the critics cited by Henry Adams. The Americans, he wrote, with “their exclusively commercial habits,” were so fixated “upon purely practical objects” that they neglected “the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts,” and it was only their proximity to Europe that allowed them “to neglect these pursuits without lapsing into barbarism.” Many years later, another Frenchman, Georges Clemenceau, went Tocqueville one better: “America,” he quipped, “is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilization.”
The main reason for the enduring power of the cultural critique was its fervent embrace, beginning in the late 19th century, by the vast majority of the writers, artists, and intellectuals who followed Tocqueville. And so it still goes in 2012, when the putative materialism and crassness of American life are harped upon in movies, television shows, novels, volumes of social criticism, and op-ed pieces too numerous to count.
Like Tocqueville and the foreigners cited by Henry Adams, moreover, these more recent works attribute this crassly philistine attitude to the love of money and “the exclusively commercial habits” that went with it—in other words, to the species of freedom that has done more than anything else ever invented to lift masses of people out of poverty and that would later be known as capitalism. America, these critics were declaring, was exceptional all right—exceptionally bad, or even downright evil.
We had seen the decline of American Exceptionalism in the late 19th century with the advent of the Gilded Era. This was also about the time that the government decided that they are best suited to teach out students and also when many had thought America was a democracy and not a Republic, but I will get to them in a later editorial. Today we see many not interested in politics (when it is all around us) or even sat that greed is bad and we need to share the wealth. That is NOT what American Exceptionalism is supposed to be about, and the more we fall down that path the worse off America will be.