"On two sides by fish!"

Comedian Bill Maher said recently that he is “not one of those people who believes in American exceptionalism”. This has, of course, drawn the ire of the Conservatives, although the context of his statement shows him to actually be praising us relative to another country. (Afghanistan.)

Also, back in May, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post wrote an article called “The myth of American Exceptionalism“. The title alone is enough to upset Conservative writers, but he did not stop there:

“It turns out, however, that some of those most inclined to exalt American exceptionalism are simply using the imaginary past to defend their cultural tics — conventional marriage or school prayer or, for some odd reason, a furious antipathy to the notion that mankind has contributed (just a bit) to global warming… 

[American exceptionalism] discourages compromise, for what God has made exceptional, man must not alter. And yet clearly America must change fundamentally or continue to decline. It could begin by junking a phrase that reeks of arrogance and discourages compromise. American exceptionalism ought to be called American narcissism. We look perfect only to ourselves.” 

Mark Fitzgibbons, conservative writer for American Thinker, responded:

“Marriage, you see, is just a cultural tic to the Left.”

“What Cohen will never understand is that it is our system of freedom that makes us exceptional. It is freedom that allows us to maximize our potential, be peaceful yet respond quickly with strength to threats, to learn from failure, and succeed through personal responsibility, not because of the State. It is through freedom that individuals may reach their greatest potential, and that best benefits others. It is because of freedom that we are a prosperous and charitable people. “

The “American exceptionalism” debate is a fascinating one for so many reasons, but let me begin by saying that I take it from this that Fitzgibbons believes that “traditional” marriage ought to be defended, and that homosexual marriage should be forbidden. Odd, for someone who goes on to champion “freedom”.

It is interesting to see American exceptionalism justified on the grounds of freedom. We are very free indeed in America, but not so free (economically) as Hong Kong is, at least if you go by the Heritage Foundation’s measure. Socially speaking, many of the Scandinavian countries are a good deal more free than we are. (Incidentally, as Conservatives used to notice, Switzerland gives people much more freedom to keep and bear arms than we do.)

I do not intend to suggest that these places are better than the United States. But if we are better than them overall, it is not purely because of “freedom”. So, we might hypothesize that we are exceptional because we have found just the right mixture of freedom and restraint that is necessary to succeed. A pleasant, (perhaps slightly Panglossian) thought.

In any event, as I have remarked before, the definition of American exceptionalism is not clear. If it means that America is unique, well, that is certainly true. All countries are to some extent unique, due to geographical differences even if nothing else.

Moreover, America is a superpower, which is an even more exclusive club. But the Conservatives seem to me to insist on an even higher type of exceptionalism, one which seems to carry with it a certain hubris.

P.S. The title comes from a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “The Americans have contrived to be surrounded on two sides by weak neighbors and on two sides by fish!”  There does not seem to be any source for this quote, so I doubt he really said it, but I think it is amusing nonetheless.

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