Category Archives: Current Affairs

A Slow Day or Debating American Exceptionalism

It’s a dismal and rainy day here in central Virginia and one that begs for a late afternoon nap.  But before I do so I took a quick tour of the blogosphere and came across a wonderful dialog over at Richard Williams’s site.  Richard goes after another one of those dangerous leftist academics who refuses to acknowledge America’s exceptional place on the world stage.  The post is the standard nonsensical and meaningless complaint, but it’s the comments section that is truly entertaining.  A reader by the name of Vince engages Richard with a number of very reasonable questions that he fails to satisfactorily address.  Enjoy:

Vince: I might have missed it somewhere, but could you give me a precise definition of “American Exceptionalism”? I’m having a hard time of sorting it out in my mind.  Yes, the United States is different from the rest of the world in many ways. And yes we’ve tackled the problems of society better than everyone else in many ways and worse than others in some ways. What exactly are people arguing about?

Williams: Hello Vince. Loosely defined . . . the notion that the United States holds a special and unique place in world history in regards to freedom, liberty, wealth, power, moral principles, the rule of law, and opportunity.  Each of those points could be broken down into greater detail, but I believe that is a basic definition. It is primarily those on the left who are “arguing” or, more accurately, opposing or denying AE.

Vince: Thanks, Richard. Could you explain what “holds a special and unique place in world history” means, or what its practical implications are? Is this a policy question? Or a historical question?  Reading the linked article, I was unclear how a lot of those paragraphs connected to one another. Historian A looks at WWII and sees US positives. Historian B looks at imperial wars and sees US negatives. Historian C looks at what makes the US unique and finds European roots. (A question to the author of the HNN article:) Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?

Williams: Vince – is this a rhetorical question? That the US “holds a special and unique place in world history” is a given in my world.  Practical implications? Patriotism, gratefulness, responsibility, stewardship all come to mind.  Policy question? Policy should project the practical. Obviously something not being done now.  A historical question? No, a historical fact.  “Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?”  It shouldn’t be. We live in an imperfect world. Only Progressives seem to believe in utopia.

Vince: I’m not sure I understand then your problems with the historians mentioned in the article. Let’s take Eric Foner. He asserts “some strains” of how Americans perceive themselves (i.e., some versions of American Exceptionalism) have directly led to serious policy mistakes in “interventions abroad.” (I assume Vietnam, post-invasion Iraq, etc.) This seems like a pretty basic historical critique supported by research.   Then, he suggests an American self-perception doused with American Exceptionalism could be detrimental to Americans who live in a more globalized world. That seems pretty obvious to me, too. Think of all the companies that took way too long to wake up to the reality of international competition. (I’m currently sitting in a grad student office in a business school of a prestigious university with the student composition: four from China, three from Turkey, one from Brazil, one from India, one from Iran, and two Americans.)  So, how do you connect what Foner is saying with self-loathing?

Williams: I’m not sure I understand your problems with AE and the need to defend Foner’s known leftist bias.  Most of the “globalization” to which you refer is only possible due to AE and the free market that unchained the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans.  I’m assuming a certain level of knowledge with those reading here. I’m confident you have that knowledge. No one would argue that AE can’t and hasn’t been taken to extremes in some cases. For the sake of this discussion, there is no need to point out the obvious. The article is discussing the issue in broad terms. Its not a thesis. I believe the tone of Foner’s comments are as much to provide cover for his more radical opinions than anything else. His opposition to AE is much deeper than he’s letting on in this quote.

Vince: I guess the point I’m getting to is that this question of American Exceptionalism from the Fox News article seems to be framed in such a way to complete[ly] avoid any meaningful debate but allow people to say whatever they want. It’d be like asking whether Technology is good or bad…you’d get nowhere.  I myself very much prefer precisely defined historical or policy questions whose possible answers can be compared to one another and tested using primary sources and data. Asserting something based on the tone of comments of on an online article seems a little unconvincing to me. For example, it would help me to see something more substantive/specific in Foner’s writings…perhaps something in the introduction to one of his books? (I actually don’t know anything about Eric Foner other than that he wrote a supposedly good book on Reconstruction which I haven’t read.) Seeing a discussion played out that way would better help me figure out what’s really going on.

Williams: Vince – one of Foner’s earlier books (and I believe that is the one) is actually quite good. But if you delve more into his more recent writings and comments, his leftist bias becomes clearer.  “In the course of the past twenty years, American history has been remade. Inspired initially by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – which shattered the ‘consensus’ vision that had dominated historical writing – and influenced by new methods borrowed from other disciplines, American historians redefined the very nature of historical study.” – Eric Foner

2010 Is Not 1861

It’s incredibly disturbing to hear a former president compare the extreme political polarization that we are currently experiencing to the state of affairs that led to the Civil War and the destruction of a large section of the country.  To reduce our current political climate to Red v. Blue states completely misses the crucial point that no issue currently dividing Americans does so in the way that slavery did.  Our politicians are not beating one another in the Senate chamber.  President Obama did not enter office following the secession of any one region of the country and it is safe to say that he will never have to order out the military to put down a rebellion.  Comparing 2010 with 1861-65 not only grossly distorts the past, it clouds the salient conditions that led to Americans butchering one another for 4 years.  It trivializes our Civil War.  President Carter’s rhetoric only adds to the perception that what we are currently experiencing in our political culture constitutes a dangerous and new shift.  Just study the political world of the 1790s if you have any doubt about this.  In other words, CALM DOWN!

New York Times Butchers a Civil War Analogy

[Hat-Tip to Caleb McDaniel at Clippings]

Today’s editorial in the New York Times serves as a reminder of just how easily we can sink into conceptual confusion when trying to make sense of the ongoing wave of fear surrounding the building of an Islamic Cultural Center in the vicinity of “Ground Zero”:

As the site of America’s bloodiest terrorist attack, New York had a great chance to lead by example. Too bad other places are ahead of us. Muslims hold daily prayer services in a chapel in the Pentagon, a place also hallowed by 9/11 dead. The country often has had the wisdom to choose graciousness and reconciliation over triumphalism, as is plain from the many monuments to Confederate soldiers in northern states, including the battlefield at Gettysburg.

The analogy simply doesn’t work because Muslims (Islam) did not attack the United States on September 11, 2001.  McDaniel is correct in pointing out that the very analogy “undercuts the editorial’s absolutely correct insistence that (despite what a dismaying number of New Yorkers and Americans believe) ‘Muslim’ does not mean ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist sympathizer.’”  Finally, anyone familiar with the evolution of monument building on the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields would not fall into the trap of characterizing it as reflecting “graciousness and reconciliation over triumphalism.”

We Could Just As Easily Have Waited For the Civil War Bicentennial

Gettysburg College historian, Allen Guelzo, has a short op-ed piece in the Gettysburg Times on the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Guelzo assumes a rather gloomy posture owing to the small number of states that have organized commissions, the inability of the federal government to get involved, and the continued difficulty to attract African Americans to Civil War related events.  All of these point, especially, the last one, deserve our attention and even concern, but I tend to think that Guelzo’s skepticism is misplaced.

To be completely honest, I am surprised as to what has been done already to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the war.  There is no reason why we must officially acknowledge this milestone.  We could just as easily wait for the bicentennial year.  It would be nice to see a few more states approach the level of activity to be found in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, but let’s not hold our breadth.  What Guelzo misses entirely is the number of museums along with state and local historical societies, which will organize events, teaching materials, and other resources for their local communities.  How about the attention that the National Park Service will bring to all of this?  Yes, their exhibitions and events will vary in quality, but that should not be of any great concern.  Perhaps Guelzo’s concern about the number of state commissions is more about how it reflects on Americans’ overall attitude to its collective past.  He may be asking, “Are we this disinterested in our past?”  Yes and no.  On the one hand we are in the middle of a pretty bad recession, which has no end in sight.  It’s no surprise that remembering events that took place long ago through the spending of millions of dollars may not seem like the best use of tax dollars.  I happen to agree with that sentiment. On the other hand, perhaps one can make the case that there is no longer a need for a top-down model of national historic commemoration.  Information is much more easily shared via the Internet and information is much more easily accessible by a broader spectrum of the general public.  We can see this in action here in Virginia as local communities are taking the lead in organizing Civil War commissions.

Guelzo concludes with the following:

There is a much to celebrate in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There is also a great deal of anger and disappointment, and in some places, downright contempt. The Civil War re-enactment community mistrusts academic Civil War historians; the academics, in turn, are regarded by the public historians as gate-crashers of their collections and exhibitions; public historians suspect relic and memorabilia dealers of piracy; and the general public seems interested in history only when it’s painted-up in bizarre, horror-movie formats. These are all obstacles in the path of a worthwhile Sesquicentennial. But the greatest challenge of the Sesquicentennial will be how to synthesize the Civil War’s “old” story of battles-and-reunion with the Civil War’s “new” story of race and gender. Until that begins to happen, and until the competing re-enactment, academic, and public empires decide that they all have a common stake in the Sesquicentennial, state legislatures, historical societies, and organizations are likely to take the safe road, and call the whole thing off.

There is something to this, but it smacks of arm-chair navel gazing.  The divisions between various constituencies cannot be so easily drawn and in the case of the relationship between reenactors (general public) and academic historians, I would argue that it is simply false.  I also think that Guelzo’s characterization of the general public’s interest in the past is also way off the mark.  It doesn’t explain the popularity of Glory or the fact that last year’s Signature Conference, sponsored by the University of Richmond and Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission attracted over 2,000 people.  Guelzo is absolutely right that the biggest challenge is expanding the general public’s understanding of the war beyond the battlefield, but even here I would suggest that he misses the mark.  Here in Virginia I’ve traveled to numerous historical institutions for exhibits and lectures over the past ten years that focus on issues of race and gender.  You can even find it at the Museum of the Confederacy. ["Before Freedom Came" takes us all the way back to 1992.]  No doubt, public historians have struggled with the question of how to attract African Americans to Civil War related events, but there is no magic bullet here.  All you can do is continue to work to present the general public with projects that reflect solid scholarship and a commitment to inclusiveness.

The extent and scope of our national Civil War commemoration will reflect local urges to take steps to organize.  No doubt, we will see much more of it in certain places around the country, but we should keep in mind that it does not have to be all or nothing.

“Ground Zero,” Civil War Memory, and Contested Landscapes

Like many of you I’ve been closely following the heated controversy surrounding the plans to locate the Cordoba Institute within a few blocks of “Ground Zero” in Manhattan.  While I have an opinion about this I’ve tried my best to maintain a safe distance from the debate in order to take in the broader picture.  Admittedly, such a step is difficult for me to maintain since I lost my cousin on 9-11.  Alisha Levin was 34 yrs. old and worked as a Human Resources manager for Fuji Bank in the South Tower.  She left a message on her parent’s answering machine to say that she was safe just after the first tower was hit.

For those of us interested in the emotion that often accompanies questions about how to commemorate historical landscapes this recent debate is instructive.  The lines between different historical memories are already well entrenched.  The many interest groups who lay claim to the site of 9-11 are also easily delineated.  Various stakeholders in this contest have already voiced positions on the architecture of the proposed new complex as well as a planned memorial for the site.  That an Islamic Center located 2-blocks from Ground Zer0 – as opposed to the schlock that has been sold on the actual site for some time – can generate such a response is also instructive.  It should come as no surprise that the debate has been defined by such passion given the nature of the attack, the scale of the destruction, and the death toll.  In my view every American has a stake in how the landscape is shaped in the coming years regardless of the legal and constitutional questions involved.

At the same time it is clear that the strong passions of those who claim ownership of this site are a function of different factors.  The families are moved by the memories and loss of loved ones; others are clearly using this issue for political purposes; and, a third group is driven as much by fear of Islam as they are by a sense of national loss and a desire to assign blame.  Of course, the spectrum of interested parties is much broader.  How our collective memory of this site will shift in the coming decades is anyone’s guess.  After all, it was probably difficult to imagine reunions between Japanese and American veterans of Pearl Harbor in 1941.  The passage of time shifts our focus as subsequent generations become more removed from the emotions of those who lived through the event.  With time we are able to explore aspects of a remembered past in a way that cushions still latent emotions.  At some point those emotions are more a result of choice than a direct connection to the generation that directly experienced some aspect of the event.  Even for those who experienced the event itself or as an extension of one of the victims the passage of time leaves the rememberer in a very different place.

This controversy has also reinforced my own understanding of the way in which certain people lay claim to our Civil War past.  You don’t have to look far for the passions that stir our personal and intellectual connections to the Civil War in reference to a public space or document.  I experience it first hand on this blog in the form of comments and private emails that express bitterness over something I’ve written.  Of course, I do my best to parse out the content from the emotion, and while I am interested in both I give much more attention to the former.  It would be a mistake to judge the emotion as right or wrong, but I do question its legitimacy.  I don’t believe that the emotion attached to people’s Civil War memory today ought to be understood as a moral claim on the historical event in the way that competing memories of 9-11 continue to do so.  The difference for me is the relative remoteness of the rememberer.  I find it difficult to pinpoint the psychological difference between the two examples, but I have a sense of what is going on here.  On the one hand the events of 9-11 are part of our lived history.  It’s a history that for many of us has left a void in the structure of our immediate families; even for those removed from the personal tragedy of the story it continues to give meaning to our lives and to the way we view the nation and rest of the world.  I simply fail to see how such a dynamic holds for descendants of Civil War soldiers (Union and Confederate) and the rest of the general population.  We may feel connected to some aspect of the war, but the overly moralistic tone and claims to an exclusive ownership of the past or even some aspect of the past is in my view completely unjustified. It’s what I understand when I hear: “Get over it.”  Perhaps a better way of putting it is: “Get over yourself.”