National Review: America Not So Exceptional

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In a National Review cover story, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru asserted that President Obama was uncomfortable with "American exceptionalism"--the idea that America's history makes it unique among nations. (Wire coverage here.) On Thursday, their National Review colleague Conrad Black does some historical fact-checking and concludes that America isn't quite as exceptional as they think.

He takes as a starting point their statement that "America has always had 'a unique role and mission in the world; as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it.'" He proceeds systematically, dismantling their argument through counterexamples. Though his remark about the American Revolution being "essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes" is not to be missed, here are some of the more damaging counterarguments:


In its early years, the U.S. had no more civil liberties than Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia. About 15 percent of its population were slaves ... (If America had stayed in the British Empire for five years beyond the death of Jefferson and John Adams, the British would have abolished slavery for them and the country would have been spared the 700,000 dead of the Civil War.)


After the country was established, there was almost no focus on foreign affairs generally until John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root, and then Woodrow Wilson ... The propagation of democracy emerged as a goal only in the Cold War, and exceptions were made for all manner of dictators, from Franco to the Shah, Sadat, and Chiang Kai-shek.


It is more dynamic because of its size, the torpor of Europe and Japan, and the shambles of Russia. But Americans do not do themselves a favor by not recognizing the terrible erosion of their country's education, justice, and political systems, the shortcomings of U.S. health care, the collapse of its financial industry, the flight of most of its manufacturing, and the steep and generally unlamented decline of its prestige.

Black is not, ultimately, saying that America isn't special. The Canadian transplant seems to retain a good deal of affection for his adopted home, despite currently residing in an American prison. "The people [of America]," he says, "are hard-working and productive; not demotivated and pretentiously world-weary like Europeans, nor encumbered by hundreds of millions of primitive peasants like the Chinese." But while the U.S. remains "the world's greatest power," Black clearly thinks Ponnuru and Lowry have overstated their case, particularly given that "half the horses of American exceptionalism have already fled." The one area in which he agrees with them is that Barack Obama is making things worse. But their American exceptionalism schtick isn't helping on that front:

The problem will not be improved by the time-worn mantra about American virtue and superiority, as if they were entirely intact, incanted as if by Victorian elocution-school students shouting "C-A-T spells cat."
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