Thursday, April 14, 2011

I Take Exception

Amongst the most spectacularly ridiculous claims the modern GOP has chosen to make about progressive politics is the fact that we liberals can't agree with them about American exceptionalism.

I'm a history teacher, and so I know a bit about this claim of exceptionalism.  In a nutshell, the notion of American exceptionalism is the claim that the American nation, the ideas which generated our revolution, and those that govern our institutions (looking at you, Constitution), are exceptional.  As in better than any other idea every conceived, evidence that God loves us best, and proof that we should run the world.

If that sounds ridiculous to you, that's because it is ridiculous

I'd be the first person to suggest that the promise of the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution ---- one of a nation conceived in the notion that all people are created equal --- is pretty terrific.  Exceptional, even.  But when the rubber hit the road here in the USA, circa 1776, quite a few people got left out of the rights and liberties parade.  Slaves, for one.  Lots of other people of varying colors and cultural traditions had some trouble (nativism, anyone?).  And then there were women, who may have been citizens but who couldn't vote or otherwise participate in American political decisions.  I believe this is called taxation without representation.

So it is that Martin Luther King will patiently organize thousands of people to ask the American government and the American society to deliver on the promissory note of freedom.  And President Johnson and Congress deliver, in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  By then, women had been voting for more than 40 years.  And the revolution was 190 years old.  Which is to say it took us nearly 200 years to actually agree that the promise of liberty and political equality could be guaranteed for us all.

That isn't hypocrisy on the part of our nation as much as it is the long arc of justice taking its sweet time to make the journey.  Yes, the power of the American promise is great.  And I presume that y'all will excuse me for getting a little teary-eyed when my students and I read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  I believe in these ideas.  But I'm not a fool and I can see with my own eyes the fact that we didn't always live up to our promises.  We don't always live up to them now, in 2011.  But we are trying.

In that, we are human.  So I take exception to the claim of American exceptionalism.  It's too simplistic to accurately characterize the sacrifices made on behalf of these ideals.  It conveniently forgets the folks for whom the promise went unfulfilled for generations.   I want to live in a nation that delivers on that promise of political equality by providing education and health security to us all.  I want to live amongst people who look out for one another, who the do the right thing (even if no one is watching), who believe in something bigger than themselves.

My guess is that living that way might very well make us a good society and nation; a place where opportunities and freedoms belong to us all and we make the world better because of it.  That's the sort of exceptionalism to which I aspire.


Shark Butt said...

"I want to live amongst people who look out for one another, who the do the right thing (even if no one is watching), who believe in something bigger than themselves."

Me too, the prevailing sense of "what's in it for me?" is disheartening.

Nichole said...

Yes, yes, yes. America has surely come to define exceptional as wealthy instead of as compassionate, healthy, happy, and honest. I mean, we can never expect people to all be rich or middle class, but as truely exceptional Americans we should be able to use something other than wealth to determine how exceptional we are.