A couple of weeks ago I had said that someone had said that a friend and I just destroyed 60 years of “American Exceptionalism” for him. That got me to thinking, and in the Hillsdale College publication called Imprimis, there was an interesting article by Norman Podhoretz, former Editor-in-Chief of Commentary Magazine, entitled “Is America Exceptional?” Over the next few weeks I will be reading from it during this editorial. Here is the first part:
ONCE UPON A TIME, hardly anyone dissented from the idea that, for better or worse, the United States of America was different from all other nations. This is not surprising, since the attributes that made it different were vividly evident from the day of its birth. Let me say a few words about three of them in particular.
First of all, unlike all other nations past or present, this one accepted as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. What this meant was that its Founders aimed to create a society in which, for the first time in the history of the world, the individual’s fate would be determined not by who his father was, but by his own freely chosen pursuit of his own ambitions. In other words, America was to be something new under the sun: a society in which hereditary status and class distinctions would be erased, leaving individuals free to act and to be judged on their merits alone. There remained, of course, the two atavistic contradictions of slavery and the position of women; but so intolerable did these contradictions ultimately prove that they had to be resolved—even if, as in the case of the former, it took the bloodiest war the nation has ever fought.
Secondly, in all other countries membership or citizenship was a matter of birth, of blood, of lineage, of rootedness in the soil. Thus, foreigners who were admitted for one reason or another could never become full-fledged members of the society. But America was the incarnation of an idea, and therefore no such factors came into play. To become a full-fledged American, it was only necessary to pledge allegiance to the new Republic and to the principles for which it stood.
Thirdly, in all other nations, the rights, if any, enjoyed by their citizens were conferred by human agencies: kings and princes and occasionally parliaments. As such, these rights amounted to privileges that could be revoked at will by the same human agencies. In America, by contrast, the citizen’s rights were declared from the beginning to have come from God and to be “inalienable”—that is, immune to legitimate revocation.
As time went on, other characteristics that were unique to America gradually manifested themselves. For instance, in the 20th century, social scientists began speculating as to why America was the only country in the developed world where socialism had failed to take root. As it happens, I myself first came upon the term “American exceptionalism” not in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where it has mistakenly been thought to have originated, but in a book by the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who used it in connection with the absence in America of a strong socialist party. More recently I have discovered that the term may actually have originated with Joseph Stalin, of all people, who coined the term in the same connection but only in order to dismiss it. Thus, when an American Communist leader informed him that American workers had no intention of playing the role Marx had assigned to the worldwide proletariat as the vanguard of the coming socialist revolution, Stalin reputedly shouted something like, “Away with this heresy of American exceptionalism!” And yet Stalin and his followers were themselves exceptional in denying that America was exceptional in the plainly observable ways I have mentioned. If, however, almost everyone agreed that America was different, there was a great deal of disagreement over whether its exceptionalism made it into a force for good or a force for evil. This too went back to the beginning, when the denigrators outnumbered the enthusiasts.
Notice the three things that Podhoretz said which made America exceptional:
- A self-evident truth that all men are created equal.
- To become a full-fledged American, it was only necessary to pledge allegiance to the new Republic and to the principles for which it stood.
- In America, the citizen’s rights were declared from the beginning to have come from God and to be “inalienable”—that is, immune to legitimate revocation.
Other characteristics had come about in the 20th century that also made America exceptional, but for the purposes of today’s editorial I will focus on these three just briefly because these three have caused a lot of controversy today. Numbers 1 and 3 go together because we see them in the Declaration of Independence with the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL MEN (i.e. humankind) are created equal, that they are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR WITH CERTAIN INALIENABLE RIGHTS, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This proves that America was founded on a JUDEO-CHRISTIAN heritage. However, not many believe we were founded on a Judeo-Christian heritage, and I will be devoting an entire show to it. I will say to start of with that if Jefferson were to see what people had done to the phrase “Separation of Church and State” today as opposed to when he wrote it in 1802, he would be livid.
The second cause of what made America exceptional deals with citizenship. Not only were we the first nation to say that if you pledge allegiance to the Republic and the principles for which it stood, then you are a citizen but I will go ONE STEP FURTHER and say that if you recite this when you are a child AND you are born here, irregardless of your parents’ citizenship status, then you ARE A NATURAL BORN CITIZEN. Many people say that the ONLY time children are national born is if their citizens are parents, and that is so far from the truth it is unreal. I can spend an entire show on this in the future, and I will, but today is not the day to do it.
Look for me to bring these three issues out in a later editorial and possibly show. America IS and ALWAYS HAS BEEN exceptional, and I aim to bring that out more on this show.