Book review: The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Here is my review of "The Myth of American Exceptionalism" by Godfrey Hodgson (Yale University Press, $26); from the FT.

In a celebrated speech in 1974, Ronald Reagan quoted the words of a 17th century preacher. "Standing on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast, John Winthrop said, 'We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us . . .'"

Godfrey Hodgson begins his debunking of American national mythology with this "urtext of American literature". Reagan got the name of the ship wrong: it was the Arbella. Winthrop most likely preached his sermon in Southampton, England, not off the coast of Massachusetts. "More important, he was of course not preaching to Americans about the future of the United States of America . . . He could not possibly have imagined a United States. He was preaching to Englishmen, and expressing his determination that the colony . . . [which] he and his friends were setting out to found would be an example to other English colonies."

A lot of what Americans think of as their history has been similarly repurposed, Hodgson shows, to serve the myth of US exceptionalism. The US is a great country - the author says he is an admirer - but less extraordinary than it thinks, much more rooted in European history, and for that matter not always an exemplar to the world. Indeed, Hodgson devotes one of his six chapters to "the other exceptionalism" - a catalogue of US failures in healthcare, education, inequality, race relations, crime and punishment, social mobility, international co-operation and human rights. To that list, given recent history, many would add capitalism itself.

The book is interesting and lucid as it examines the errors and exaggerations in the national self-image. But it lacks balance. Most, if not all, nations cherish national myths and, standing back from the current economic crisis, the US still has better grounds than most to be pleased with itself.

The system of government, shared prosperity, entrenched liberties and remarkable opportunities of the US are surely worthy of admiration. They certainly attract would-be immigrants from all parts of the world. Here and there the book acknowledges this, but the weight of countervailing material overwhelms the disclaimers.

Hodgson rightly says that it is better to get the record straight, because the truth about one's history is better than half-truths. But he also goes further: the US national myth is dangerous. If Americans are inclined to think of themselves as a uniquely virtuous nation, he argues, "this will affect the way they behave toward the rest of the world, over which they now have so much influence and so much power".

Hence, among other things, Iraq. "Oil was important," says Hodgson. "So was the wholly admirable commitment to support and defend Israel. But those concerns had been present for many years. By the 1990s the background to the growing obsession with Iraq among neo-conservatives was exceptionalist sentiment. Neither Saddam Hussein nor any other foreign leader must stand against the high historic mission of the US to bring democracy to the Middle East."

That charge can fairly be levelled at neo-conservatives, though not at everybody who supported the war. On the other hand, one should not forget that if a nation thinks of itself as virtuous, that may very well be a good thing, leading it to recognise obligations and shoulder responsibilities. Europeans have reason to be grateful for the myth of American exceptionalism, if it helped to move the US to rescue them from fascism and shield them from communism in the 20th century.

In the end, Hodgson finds the idea of American exceptionalism hard to bear only when it energises policies he disagrees with - that is, when it is married to stridently conservative politics and especially to neo-conservative foreign policy. His book is suffused with disgust at the presidency of George W. Bush, sometimes so much that it fogs the analysis. The Bush administration subscribed to the exceptionalist idea, staining it by association. The problem is, almost all US liberals are exceptionalists too.

The book was finished before Barack Obama's election victory. This makes some of Hodgson's judgments, and his continuing dismay at the "conservative ascendancy" - overthrown by the recession as well as the election - seem odd. In any event, Mr Obama's inaugural address relied as heavily on exceptionalist notions as did Reagan in 1974. And what Mr Obama said rang true. A predominantly white and supposedly conservative electorate had just chosen a black president. If the country thought, "only in America", this was a view shared by much of the world.

Consider the global excitement at Mr Obama's win. Whatever Winthrop's ship was called, the US is not just another country.