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

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13 comments… add one
  • Vince Oct 2, 2010 @ 18:16

    Thanks (I think?) for the attention, Kevin 🙂

    It’s a fun exercise trying to take nebulous “rants” with modern political overtones about historical topics and then tease out specific historical questions…sort of a scientific approach to social phenomena with Civil War studies as a fascinating sandbox for testing that approach.

    Plus, as far as internet personalities go, Richard seems like a pretty decent guy, and at a different stage in my life I held political views very similar to his.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2010 @ 1:17

      Richard is definitely a good guy. I just thought it was funny to watch him try to deal with some very good questions. It’s like watching chicken little whenever he goes off on this topic.

  • Woodrowfan Sep 29, 2010 @ 16:03

    Maybe it’s true in whatever world Mr. Williams inhabits… Here on planet Earth the US has done some truly remarkable things and, sadly, other times we’ve done some horrendous things. In other words, we’re a nation made of of fallible people who sometimes make mistakes, and, sometimes, those mistakes are big ones…. ,

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2010 @ 16:10

      Which raises the obvious point of why can’t a legitimate position rest on wanting to sort out that complexity rather than issue a meaningless generalization that slants one way or the other.

      • Margaret D. Blough Sep 29, 2010 @ 21:23

        Kevin-The reason why some people reject what you propose is precisely because it requires them to think and to confront complexity.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2010 @ 1:32

          What is so curious is that Williams constantly criticizes teachers for bringing their own personal political agendas into their classroom to influence students. However, he seems to have no problem whatsoever criticizing people who do not bring his preferred moral evaluation of the American past into that very same room. Hmmm…I think that’s called hypocrisy. He claims that his understanding of the American past is based on fact, but that only points to his inability to properly distinguish between statements of fact and value.

          I’ve said all along that it’s not my job as a teacher to force my students to believe anything moral about the American past. My job as a history teacher is to give them the analytical tools to help them make those evaluations themselves.

  • Andy Hall Sep 29, 2010 @ 13:29

    Anyone who can type wearing a giant “We’re No. 1!” foam finger, as Mr. Williams apparently does, is pretty damned exceptional in my book.

  • Peter Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:44

    How is Foner against American exceptionalism? The last RW quote includes the statement “American historians redefined the very nature of historical study;” isn’t that an example of Foner arguing that there is a kind of American exceptionalism?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:48

      That’s a great point, Peter. It’s such an idiotic position and has nothing to do with anything approaching a serious reading of Foner’s work. I use Foner’s Give Me Liberty! in my AP class and it is an incredibly rich history of this nation. It is inclusive in the ways that you would expect of a good textbook, but he does not frame his his narrative around the idea that America is Exceptional; rather, he surveys the ways in which Americans at different times understood the concept of freedom. That, in and of itself, might constitute a reflection of America’s Exceptionalism.

      By the way, nice to hear from you.

      • Peter Sep 29, 2010 @ 13:26

        Well, RW hasn’t offered an explanation of why a “leftist” or “radical” can’t be an American exceptionalist. Arguably, the strongest proponents of American exceptionalism were the Progressives. They believed “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.” They also believed in “Patriotism, gratefulness, responsibility, stewardship.”

        This, in a sense, is beside the point. Anyone who disagrees with RW is clearly a leftist/elitist/radical (note the other neat trick; if someone says something reasonable, it must be to “to provide cover for his more radical opinions ” rather than any sincere expression of belief or thought).

        • James F. Epperson Sep 30, 2010 @ 3:01

          As a matter of fact, in RW’s book I’m sure I qualify as “leftist” or “radical,” and I think the US is pretty damned exceptional. RW’s problem is that he wants that exceptionalism to be taught as part of the narrative, and any attempt/desire to discuss the many warts in our history is part of a leftist plot to undermine American exceptionalism.

          • Brooks D. Simpson Sep 30, 2010 @ 9:08

            You are a leftist radical, Jim. You root for Michigan and that Russian-dominated “Red” Wings hockey team. I’m sure you have a warm spot in your heart for anyone who plays left wing.

            • James F. Epperson Sep 30, 2010 @ 9:54

              It’s worse than that, Brooks—I am left-handed!

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