Column on What’s so Bad About Exceptionalism?

What’s so Bad About Exceptionalism?

Tibor R. Machan

is nothing amiss with exceptionalism, never mind the slurs against it
by the likes of NYU Law Professor Ronald Dworkin (in
The New York Review of Books).
 To regard the United States of America as a country that’s
exceptional–meaning the likes of which cannot be found, provided the
reason for this is laudable–is no liability, yet some people consider
it so.  Let’s see what is exceptional about the US.

For one, it is has a system of laws, via its
constitution, that lays out some rather firm principles according to
which the citizenry is supposed to have its individual rights to life,
liberty, etc., vigilantly protected.  For example, this is probably the
only nation in which (government) censorship is explicitly forbidden;
 one in which religion and government are explicitly kept apart; one in
which it is against the law to force someone to testify against himself
or herself (the fifth Amendment bans coercing anyone to incriminate
himself or herself); one in which at least a reasonable attempt was made
to protect private property rights (also in the fifth) even though this
has been eroded by a repeated and perversely statist misinterpretation
of the interstate commerce (Art. 1, Section 8, which mostly likely meant
to regularize commerce, not have the government meddle with it
constantly) and the takings clauses. And let’s not forget the fact that
America has been relatively hospitable to commerce and came quite close
in some periods of its existence to amounting to a fully free market,
capitalist economic system. All of these were exceptional when compared
to most nations around the globe and are so even today.

the country began with a declaration that explicitly demotes the
federal government from being a sovereign ruler to that of a hired
servant of the citizenry.  This is quite exceptional, too.  

even if one leaves aside these somewhat legalistic features of America
and simply looks at the country’s history, which other country has ever
had a civil war that amounted to an adjustment in its laws to conform to
its initial revolutionary doctrine of everyone’s equality under the
law?  More generally, few societies elsewhere have nearly completely
abandoned rigid social classes the way these have been in America.
 (Sure there are economic classes but they are always in flux and
membership is never legally inherited.)  Moreover, which country in the
world, other than perhaps Australia, has opened its borders to so many
millions who wanted to live there and absorbed the immigrants so readily
as has America?

course, the country hasn’t existed without flaws such as its early
unforgivable slavery and its vicious treatment of the natives (who,
however, weren’t entirely flawless themselves).  Even among early
African and American blacks some engaged in the slave trade.  

Exceptionalism does not mean being pure, only having a markedly better record vis-a-vis justice and liberty compared with other countries in history and around the globe.

it used to be a struggle to land on America’s shores and millions still
made the journey, the exceptionalism was nearly self-evident, for many
of the reasons listed above.  And hardly any intellectuals disputed
this, although there have always been some detractors who wanted to
demean the country precisely because of its exceptionalism.  But in our
time, when hundreds of thousands of European intellectuals have come
here, many to take up influential positions at universities and colleges
and in the media, the values to which exceptionalism had been related
have gotten diluted, muddied, obscured and even denounced.  

have personally sat in the audience when a famous British philosopher,
just one among many others, who had abandoned the UK for several US
positions in prestigious academic institutions attacked nearly
everything for which America has been taken to stand over the years and
when asked how come he came here anyway, mumbled something about how it
was a personal matter.  

am myself an immigrant and often express criticism toward my new
country.  Mostly, however, this is because of how determined so many are
to throw overboard the principles that made the country exceptional,
those laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of
Rights.  There is little question, however, that on the whole America
has been exceptional–mostly in a good way but in some measure bad, as
well.  No one should accept the efforts of too many prominent people to
deny this.
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