Exceptionalism More a Fantasy Than Ever: 'Malcontents' Wish Moral Power Might Make US Truly Exceptional

By McCarthy, Colman | National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Exceptionalism More a Fantasy Than Ever: 'Malcontents' Wish Moral Power Might Make US Truly Exceptional


McCarthy, Colman, National Catholic Reporter


"America is a unique and exceptional nation."

--Mitt Romney

Along with flags pinned on lapels and hands over hearts during the national anthem, expressions of American exceptionalism are all but a requirement for anyone seeking political office. Mitt Romney's use of the phrase is a staple of his stump speeches, as it is of the other Republican candidates now roaming the land [ in the quadrennial exercise in self-promotion.

American exceptionalism is the belief that the American nation and its people are not only different from all others but are superior. Greatness is in our national gene pool. Our values are higher. We are leaders of the free world. No other nation can match our achievements. Our destiny is to be No. 1. We are the role model for the world, for what Lyndon Johnson called "all those little nations." We are "the land of opportunity" for those stuck in lands of no opportunity. The American way of life is the best way of life. The world looks to us and sighs, "Only in America."

Exceptionalism is traceable to Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America: "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one." Exceptionalism is the basis for American foreign policy, as when Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, said on Feb. 19,1998, as she demanded that Saddam Hussein "get rid of his weapons of mass destruction": Diplomacy is fine "but if we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future."

Exceptionalism is little more than national pride gone wild, a nation overrun by leaders consumed with bragging rights. The mouthings of the Romneys and Albrights lie somewhere between wishful thinking and self-serving myths, with neither having any discernable ties to reality. America--the name itself has Italian, not native, origins--is one nation among nearly 200 in the world, with the same share of virtues and flaws. Americans are about 5 percent of the Earth's population, the planet itself once described by Alfred North Whitehead as a third-rate rock spinning around a second-rate sun. …

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Exceptionalism More a Fantasy Than Ever: 'Malcontents' Wish Moral Power Might Make US Truly Exceptional
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