The other side of American Exceptionalism

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Dyed-in-the-wool patriots know that the United States of America is God’s gift to the world. Policymakers have risen the story to doctrinal status. It’s referred to as American Exceptionalism, and it basically means if we say it or do it, it’s ok.

It’s a nice thing to be backed up with this doctrine when you have ambitious plans for the rest of the world. And nobody else has it. Only the United States of America. In fact, the rest of the world can’t even imagine having a doctrine like it, but it doesn’t doubt that we act like we have it.

Is there a plausible explanation for this widely asserted doctrine? In other words, taken seriously as an idea, what, in the American historical experience, as distinguished from that of other states, could account for this difference?*

The argument in support begins with the country’s founding documents and the beautiful ideals expressed in them. Much effort has been put into the manufacture of a steady, upward national trajectory from these revolutionary ideals, thereby idealizing the present as well.

The explanatory power in this case is limited in that it can only account for things that do not contradict the story it is attempting to prove. This is bound to be unsatisfying for anyone investigating the links from past to present who finds a great deal of contradiction. An opposing view to the utilitarian version that is sold to Americans can be argued from the same standpoint, that of American Exceptionalism, to yield a non-utilitarian version with historical relevance.

What makes us exceptional, and what has it led to? The United States is the only western country where slavery was legal from the day it was founded. The U.S. republic was founded in 1776, with legal slavery. As just one alternate example, the French republic was founded in 1789, the same historical era as the U.S., but without legal slavery. After more than 200 years of evolution, the two states are quite different. In two areas of public policy, France has federal universal health care, a legal communist party, the Parti Communist Francaise, and a large, and at least until the 1990’s, communist industrial union, the Confédération Générale du Travail.*

As an example of how slavery, as a historical experience, may affect the evolution of a state, we can cite the absence of universal medical care in the United States.*

In slavery, the slave is the property of the owner and the maintenance of the slave, as property, is the responsibility of the owner and, specifically, not the state. In the evolution of such a state away from slavery, where the slave evolves into an employee and the slave owner into an employer, the slave owner’s provision of medical care to slaves would naturally evolve into the employer providing medical care as a fringe benefit to employees. In such a state, evolved from slavery, it would be alien for the state to provide universal medical care to its citizens.*

Another U.S. historical experience which can be traced to its evolution from slavery is the violent U.S. reaction to communism. The slave era analogue would be the slave owner’s violent reaction to the pre-Civil War abolition movement.*

Going on, the slave owner had to be deeply suspicious of the slave because of the natural resistance toward being a captive. Escape was always a possibility. Group activity was especially suspicious as it might signal rebellion. Slaves either accepted their complete subordination to the master or were dealt harsh punishment. Since they were worth more alive than dead, beatings had to be administered with cost in mind.

With the end of legal slavery, the legal control and punishment of the former slave population was passed onto local, state, and federal enforcement agencies. The evolution of this is an outsized criminal system (by far the world’s largest) notoriously known for incarcerating a strikingly large number of black prisoners. In a bizarre echo of the past, it is economically more sound to keep these prisoners alive than to execute them.

The slavery experience was not one of shared economic interest. To a black under slavery, there was no economic interest outside of the tightly controlled owner/slave relationship. The owner’s economy was the slave’s economy. Any question of “economic interest” belonged strictly to the owner.

In transitioning from an owner/slave relationship to an employer/employee relationship, the employer takes on the role of the owner in regard to the economic interest of the employee. Is it inexplicable why so many people vote against their economic interest? Not if it’s seen as today’s capitalists enjoying the same mastery over the economic system that former slave owners once enjoyed. The modern wage earner in the U.S. has been conditioned to accept the pay grade and to let economics run as a matter of course. Today’s wage earner has no economic interest…not that they can see.

By having chosen as a starting point the same year, 1776, but instead of building from a set of professed ideals incorporated in founding documents we build out from the corporeal reality of a slave nation, a different trajectory emerges and American Exceptionalism is turned on its head.

What country would dare birth itself in language unsoothing to the ear? Better to watch what it does. And by choosing another year, 1945, a chance emerges.

In that year, the United States again marks itself as the exception among nations in that it becomes the only country to ever drop atomic bombs on cities full of people. Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided the experimental proof of what the blasts’ initial heat output — hotter than the surface of the sun — could do to a city and its inhabitants, while the Soviet Union learned the lengths a country could go to when it no longer felt obliged to have “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. Winston Churchill was so moved by the weapon’s tangible display that he suggested dropping one on the Kremlin.

How has this exceptional national experience affected the evolution of the United States in its foreign policy, and how does it differ from countries that have never dropped atomic bombs on cities?

As a result of their defeat, Japan adopted a pacifist constitution and Germany enacted very liberal asylum laws. The United States went on to develop more atomic bombs. It is a matter of U.S. state policy to keep the nuclear threat alive in all disputes. No other nuclear capable state threatens their offensive use.

As a result of its established military superiority, the United States expanded its base footprint. Today it has overseas military bases in every country that it commands, around 800 in 80 countries, comprising 90-95% of the world’s foreign military bases. Put another way, the U.S. total of overseas bases is 9-19 times more than all the rest of the world’s countries combined.

The Soviet Union, the country that played the greatest role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, didn’t make it into the 21st century. With no more rivals in sight, the United States pushed the NATO bloc steadily east toward Russia. Now, with a real chance at world domination, peaceful coexistence and cooperation was not an option. Throughout all the post WW2 years, the foreign invasions and interventions never ceased, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The U.S. is no longer restrained by international laws and conventions or, for that matter, even U.S. law. Having put idealistic notions aside, the world is what the United States says it is. Indefinite detention is what it says it is. Torture is what it says it is. And planning, initiating, and waging a war of aggression against a sovereign nation is what it says it is.

The Declaration of Independence held certain truths to be self-evident. Truth, as a concept, is an intellectual tool useful in winning arguments, and this is how it is used in the Declaration.

As seen from the perspective of a state evolved from strict power concepts, truth is the weapon of the weak. This explains why purveyors of American Exceptionalism have no need to resort to it.

(Note) *These five paragraphs are taken from a private communication with Otto Hinckelmann ( that provided the concept for the essay. The author’s contribution is one of embellishment.

James Rothenberg writes on U.S. social and foreign policy.



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