24 June 2010

Uncommon Commentary #117: Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

Although I consider myself a Domanist rather than a "conservative," I do align with nearly all positions that are considered "conservative"; I must, however, totally reject "American [sic] exceptionalism," which phrase I had never heard until quite recently, and which I would like to never hear again.
I've never heard or seen this concept defined, but the idea seems to be that (the United States of) "America" is radically different from every other country in the world.  Culturally, the USA is one of the most unexceptional places on Earth, being almost undistinguishable from its northern neighbor. (In fact, Canucks generally view themselves and Yanks as fellow North Americans—one might perhaps designate them together by my coinage, "Yankanucks"—and regard the US-Canadian border, which people have crossed in both directions for generations, as an inconvenience.)  An indignant patriot, if forgetful of the fact that we have jettisoned our own "melting pot" ideology in favor of its antithesis, "diversity is our strength," might retort that our status as a "nation of immigrants" sets us apart from others.  In reality, other New World destinations, especially Canada, have shared in the waves of immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere, and even Old World countries like Great Britain often have more ethnic heterogeneity than people on this side of the Atlantic Ocean realize.  It should be noted further that some things thought of by us as quintessentially "American" really are of foreign origin; for instance, the cowboy hat was developed in Canada, and baseball is basically the same as "rounders," a game played by British children.  In centuries long past we might have evolved into a unique civilization, but, because of such forces of globalization as mass media and international commerce, the peoples of the world are growing closer together rather than farther apart.
Attendance at houses of worship reportedly is higher in the USA than in almost any other heavily industrialized land, but, if one were to ignore that statistic and base one's assessment of our piety on statistics related to moral issues, one would have no reason to conclude that religious belief is more characteristic of our country than of the nations of Europe, with which we are always being contrasted.  At the beginning of the 1990's, for instance, 420 abortions were induced every day in the United Kingdom; in the USA, at the same time, the number was 4400.  Adjusting for the fact that the US had some 4½ times the population of the UK, an unborn child was well over twice as likely to be murdered here in the USA as in that supposedly more secular European state.  Even worse, churchgoers reportedly are no less likely than anyone else to become foeticides. (This doesn't necessarily mean that we are in more moral jeopardy than is the average Western polity.  We're all in the same boat, and it's going down; whether the bow, i.e., the Americas, or the stern, i.e., Europe, sinks first is of little consequence.)  The one distinction between us and Europeans in this category, therefore, apparently is that we are hypocrites; Europeans at least admit that they are no longer religious, whereas we Yanks say "Lord, Lord" but don't do as He tells us.
Yanks have a reputation (at least in some circles) for favoring smaller, less-paternal government than do Europeans, Canadians, &c., but this is not quite deserved.  First of all, this distinction, cosmetic as it may be anyway (see below), dates only to the period just after World War II, when many nations imitated the reforms made by the National Socialists ("Nazis") in Germany; in fact, during the 1930's, because of the great expansion of Uncle Sam's rĂ´le that occurred under President F. D. Roosevelt, we were actually more socialistic than countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, the latter of which had, since the mid-Nineteenth Century, been the world's leading advocate and practitioner of free trade, quite unlike the USA.  Second, even before Obama ascended the throne, the US government was far larger and more overweening than perhaps the typical person knew; the combination of State and federal taxes already put a greater burden on businesses in our economy than in any other save that of Japan, and per-capita government spending was higher (even after accounting for price differences) here than anywhere else except Luxembourg, Qatar, Norway, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France.  Indeed, the ostensibly communist People's Republic of China is more truly capitalist and laissez-faire than the USA these days.  Third, opposition to a planned economy and so forth is far from universal in Yankeedom, and this has been the case for as long as Jeffersonians have liked to think of us as the champion of free markets.
Perhaps at least some of the "exceptionalists" are stuck in the past (which, admittedly, is a better place to be stuck than the present, now that we've become the Obama Nation).  Having been founded on a political instead of an ethnic basis, the USA had a stronger claim to singularity when it was new—but what about Switzerland and the Austrian empire?
Our civilization is not exceptional even in deeming itself exceptional, assuming that this is even majority sentiment.  The classical Greeks, for example, felt the same way, but they, as the devisors of logic, philosophy, science, and theatre, had far better cause than we do for thinking thus. (And the opinion was not limited to themselves; it used to be thought that the ancient Greeks must have been a unique race, so much greater were their accomplishments than those of any other people.)  The Jews of Old Testament times vaunted themselves as a chosen people in a promised land, but, according to the Word of God, they were.
Naturally, the content of the preceding paragraphs doesn't prove that the USA is identical to any other state, even to Canada.  This is probably the one country (at least so far) to which people believe they have some sort of God-given right to emigrate, legally or otherwise—but don't you think that when "America" is pronounced "exceptional," this is meant in a good way?  The truth is that self-congratulation, whether the self is an individual or a personification like Uncle Sam, is to be avoided.  The New Testament and the Church Fathers tell us that we are only sojourners in this world, and that our true home—our true country—lies in Heaven; Heaven may be a difficult place to come home to, if one has dwelt chauvinistically on how special one considers one's homeland to be.