American Exceptionalism

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

American Exceptionalism


In Europe, the exceptionalism of the United States has never been in serious dispute ["Still the Exceptional Nation?" WQ, Winter '00]. Anti-American sentiment and a fascination with a unique political and economic system that promises the "pursuit of happiness" have just been two sides of the same coin. No doubt, the United States will remain the exceptional nation for a long time to come even though globalization and the end of communism will act as general equalizers over time.

I would like to add two additional comments on Seymour Martin Lipset's commendable essay. No doubt, the general tendency of Europeans to move toward the right after the Cold War has narrowed the gap between statistleaning Europe and meritocratic and individualistic North America. But distinct differences remain. Take the frightening possession of hundreds of millions of firearms by private American citizens, and the rash of violent incidents in public schools. This is exceptional indeed. Or take the overwhelming acceptance of capital punishment in most of the United States. True, this exceptional country brought freedom and democracy to Germany and most of Europe after World War II and helped bring about the collapse of communism. But during the same period, hundreds of human beings have been executed in U.S. prisons, leaving this country ranked close to the Congo and Iran in executions in 1998, behind communist China. It is worth noting that for this reason the United States would not qualify for membership in the European Union.

My second comment concerns education. I have great difficulties accepting Lipset's dictum that "the United States has led the world in providing the kinds of general education needed to get ahead." Having taught students from both sides of the Atlantic, I have always been struck by the lack of Basiswissen (fundamental knowledge) displayed by U.S. students and by the absence in the American school system of appropriate vocational training. It may be true that in the United States the proportion of citizens graduating from high school and enjoying college and postgraduate training is higher than everywhere else. But the United States has a system that, despite all its tax advantages and public and private subsidies, exacts a larger share of family income for college education than almost any other system on the planet. Thus, it is not surprising that the gap between poorly and highly educated students is higher in the United States than in almost all other developed countries.

Hanns-D. Jacobsen

Berlin, Cennany

The Cultural Prestige of Rome

Michael Lind ["The Second Fall of Rome," WQ, Winter '00] is right to assert that, since the French Revolution, classical Rome has been given short shrift, but wrong to conclude that "it is in the realms of literature, art, and philosophy that Rome has the most to offer us today." His error is rooted in the presumptions of those against whom his attack is directed. V/hen he alludes to ancient Greece, he writes in the manner of the Romantics--as if Athens had been its only city, ignoring not only Thebes, Argos, Corinth, Miletus, Syracusa, Massilia, and other cities, but classical Sparta as well. Again, like the Romantics, he presumes that Schiller was correct to call the Greeks naive and the Romans sentimental: He disagrees only in preferring the supposedly sophisticated to the putatively primitive.

Lind would do well to pay more attention to what the Romans themselves had to say with regard to their comparatively meager accomplishments in literature, art, and philosophy. Virgil spoke for his compatriots when he wrote, "Others will cast more tenderly in bronze/Their breathing figures, this I believe,/And draw from the marble the lifelike visage;/Plead with greater eloquence, gauge precisely/With instruments the paths of the heaven/And foretell the rising of the stars." The author of the Aeneid knew his place: Like Cicero before him and Seneca thereafter, he was an imitator of the Greeks. …

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