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No other aspect of culture is a better reflection of its greatness than its literature. The same holds for America.

American Exceptionalism – Myth or Reality?

The idea of American exceptionalism is a hotly-debated topic, and there are valid arguments on both sides. It was first coined by de Tocqueville, and then widely adopted by other statesmen and analysts of the American experience, so much so that it had become shorthand, an encapsulation of America's uniqueness.

De Tocqueville lists five values which he deemed as having been crucial to America’s success, and these are: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. In de Tocqueville’s mind, those qualities defined what he called “the American Creed,” indicative of the absence of feudal and hierarchical structures in such governmental entities as monarchies and aristocracies, England included.

There have been many additions since to this list political virtues in de Tocqueville’s treatise, the idea of meritocracy (and, therefore, of the abolition of class barriers) being the most important; but that was just an icing on the cake if you ask me. Needless to say, the idea of American exceptionalism has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche to become the modus operandi, the motive, and the explanation of America’s superiority in all matters ranging from cultural dominance to military might.

It’s not too far-fetched to assume that the term “exceptionalism” is at the root of the controversy, because “exceptionalism” implies a certain uniqueness, a one-of-a-kind type of experience, the absolute. Well, let me dispel this notion by citing from Seymor Martin Lipset  "Exceptional" in this context is to be interpreted as ". . . qualitatively different from all other countries."

That’s as neutral a definition as I can think of, relatively speaking value-neutral and inoffensive. And I tried to buttress this idea by arguing for a relative (or comparative) use of the term rather than an absolute one, for a temporal and history-bound kind of excellence rather than any singular, never-to-be replicated uniqueness, for the here-and-now and the concrete rather than the eternal abstract. Well, apparently these nuances have been lost on the opposition, so let me try again.

Throughout history, there have always been centers of civilization and culture: the ancient Greece during the Periclean era; Rome when it was still a Republic or even under Augustus; the Italian city-states, Florence (which gave us Dante) and Venice (the Medicis), which both gave rise to international trade, commerce and banking, and spearheaded the Renaissance; the Elizabethan age, or “the Golden Age” as some have called it, and whose most vocal exponent was Shakespeare; France under Le Roi Soleil, along with Moliere, Corneille and Racine; France again, during the Age of Enlightenment and the philosophes; and then the British Empire during and after the Industrial Revolution.

For all of the hardships that had come with the times, there was also an unprecedented flourishing of culture, arts, and political philosophy: John Stewart Mill and George Bernard Shaw, Keats and Shelley, Robert Owen and the emancipation movement, Yeats, Sean O'Casey, Oscar Wilde, and the Fabians. It was a glorious age, or in Charles Dickens’ memorable phrase, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It’s no different with America, I daresay, except that it’s “new.” So perhaps therein lies the stumbling block because it’s always more difficult to acknowledge greatness in our contemporaries than in the ancients. But let’s try nonetheless. Let’s enumerate some of her achievements, her unprecedented successes, the virtues which made her the leader that she was and is. And here, I can think of no better way to proceed than to look at her literature, never mind the causes.

Perhaps no other aspect of culture reveals better the nation’s potential, its hopes, aspirations and dreams, its birth pangs, its stresses, strains and fissures, its successes and failures, than its literature does; and indeed, American literature for the past hundred years or so has definitely been more dynamic, more vibrant, more energetic and comprehensive than any literary output from around the globe.

Consider. From the Wild West experience and the gold rush to Al Capone and the Prohibition era; from the antebellum South and the carpetbaggers to the industrial North and the life in the big city; from the Jazz age of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the life of the rich and famous to the horrid conditions in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; from the Great Depression so brilliantly portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath to a small-town mindset in Peyton Place; from the brilliant crop of Southern, regional writers to black humor and moblike mentality in The Day of the Locust or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; from   Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Color Purple and To Kill a Mockingbird; from Jack London and Theodore Dreiser to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal — all these speak volumes to the breath and the intensity of the American experience. No other country on earth could possibly produce literature so rich and in such quantity as America had because no other country offered their novelists such an incredible wealth of human experience – ever new, ever happening, ever on the cutting edge. That’s the raw material from which the novelist draws his or her inspiration, and the literature is but a mirror.

Why in America? you might ask. I suppose, there are as many explanations as there are people, but in my mind it all comes down to the following: it was the most open society ever known to humankind; and with that openness, there had come a complete breakdown of all traditions because no sooner were they made, they were liable to be broken.

The very influx of peoples from all parts of the globe — the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Norwegians, the Poles (not to mention all those who’ve been abducted (like the Chinese), coupled besides with the Native Americans and the blacks) — all that had made for the most colorful mix of humanity ever assembled in one place they would eventually call home. Only Alexander the Great had a dream that had approximated and foretold of the far distant future – I call it “America” – but it was short-lived and he died prematurely, before realizing the implications. Well, ours is his dream come true, the best and the worst of times.

And indeed! You can only expect the best and the worst when you put together such a mix of unruly, ethnically-diverse and contrary peoples at shoulder’s length. The question is – and that's the miracle of it all! – what held them together rather than tear them apart and be at one another’s throat? The American Dream is what I say, the one chance in a thousand. The everlasting promise!

Say what you will, but the idea of the melting pot encapsulates the American experience – from spirituals to rock and roll and the blues, from Hollywood and Wall Street to Main Street and Saturday night, from hot rods and drag racing to taverns and soda fountains. James Dean, Elvis Presley, Luis Armstrong, John Travolta, and yes, Marilyn Monroe, too! They’ll al icons. America is all about icons. Darn it, we’ve invented the icon; and once we have, the world became an oyster.

And it’s been so ever since. The movies, Andy Warhol, pop culture, counter-culture and rhythm & blues, the Dairy Queen and McDonalds, the ugly American and the Snow White, Walt Disney and Stephen King, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and David Lynch. And don’t forget Microsoft. The whole world was waiting and salivating. Only America could provide it with excitement enough, with toys and diversions and all manner of escaping the ugly reality while entertaining the illusion that life could be beautiful again and worth living, if only for the moment, a short span, as short as the picture on your TV screen.

That’s how symbols and icons of culture get transferred for better or worse — from the center outwards. And then, there is the centripetal pull in the opposite direction, whereby whatever’s outside is drawn inwards, as if by a magnet. I dare you to contradict me.

I suppose we could all sit here and argue about America’s greatness until the cows come home. You have your ideas and I have mine. But let me tell you, I think it’s real and undeniable. The whole world is watching and following suit. How we turn, what decisions we’ll make, which direction we’ll end up to be going, so will the rest of humanity.

I’ve been accused of extreme patriotism and of the eventuality that love of my country had blinded me from seeing things as they truly are; that baseball and our other pastimes have distorted my vision; that my belief in the American way of life rests on false premises, or at least that it made me ignore our many faults.

Let me assure you, nothing is further from the truth. As far as I can see, it’s an objective appraisal of our past, our present, and hopefully, our future as well — as objective, I daresay, as the verdict that will be accorded us some day by future historians. Many powers in our historical past have earned the epithet of greatness. Well, America is one of them.

Which brings me to the natural connection between greatness and power. Natural, I say, because it’s a necessary one as well. And here, too, I’ve been criticized at length because power — in human hands at least — doesn’t come without abuses. But whereas it’s true that the latter   can’t be helped, it’s also true that the two are inseparable: you can’t have greatness without power, although this relationship doesn’t always work in reverse; we’ve had our share of “evil empires” in the past, and our future is not yet writ.

Perhaps Thucydides had it right when he intimated that in the final analysis, power needs no justification.

The incident concerns the island of Melos. The Athenians were particularly anxious to get absolute control of Melos because, as an island, her independence constituted a very bad example for the subjects of a maritime empire. A considerable contingent of the Athenian navy was detached to reduce the island, but before engaging in hostilities they communicated with the government of Melos and re-quested a conference.

What follows is an excerpt from the famous Melian Dialogue in the History of the Peloponnesian War:

ATHENIAN DELEGATES: On our side we will not make you long speeches – which you would not believe, anyhow – with fine phrases to the effect that our empire is a just one because we defeated the Persians or that our attack upon you now is due to wrongs suffered at your hands; and we must beg you to spare us likewise – that is to say, not to think you will convince us by saying that you did not join our side because you were colonists of the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] or that you have done us no injury, but let us try to get done what is practicable on the basis of real opinions of each of our governments, each side being well aware that in human terms justice is only in question which an equal degree of compulsion exists on each side, and that in practical terms the more powerful do what they can and the weaker yield what they must.

A commentary by David Grene:

What she [Athens] has thought the rest of the Greeks chiefly is to be aware of the creation of power in the name of nothing except itself and to consider the factor of the creation of power openly and rationally. In these two respects – and they go closely together – Athens was unique in terms of past history and, it may be contended, in terms of succeeding history until our own time.

And further down,

The extraordinary feature of the Athenian empire is that that the Athenians built it with nothing to stand between themselves and injustice they caused; that they faced it all together, every one of them, in individual moral responsibility all the time; and that what they tried to construct as explanation of their actions was no nationalist or semireligious fiction but, as they thought of it, a rational account of the manner in which all men everywhere have acted (pp. 4-6).

Though the Melian expedition, was a trivial affair in the larger scheme of things, the population of the small island was wiped out, and that was the end of it.

Now we’ve come full circle to the notion of American Exceptionalism. My take on it is that it is an advertisement. All empires in the past have tooted their own horn; it comes with the territory The Athenian city-state, for example, had once proclaimed itself to be “the school of Greece” in the immortal Funeral Speech by Pericles. With Rome, it was “Pax Romana,” the blessed peace which  fell on all territories under Rome’s control once the “belligerent” nations were conquered and brought into the fold. With the British Empire, it was Kipling’s memorable phrase of “The White Man’s Burden.” And with America, it’s “exceptionalism,” or the “Great Experiment,” or any other term that had come into use to propagandize its greatness. It’s the PR that power uses to justify itself, to present itself as more palatable, more humane, more acceptable to all those who are under its grip.

Foolish, perhaps, but all too human.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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