Sunday, April 26, 2009

Are we special? Should we be special?

At some point in college a professor introduced me to the concept of "American Exceptionalism," which he described as the idea that there is something special and unique about America and its place in the world.

This professor wasn't advocating for the notion that America has a special place in the heirarchy of nations; In fact, he went to great lengths to try to convince us otherwise. In his view, the United States was nothing more than another name in the roll call of countries, somewhere between Uganda and Uruguay.

But the idea of American Exceptionalism stuck with me, and even seemed to reinforce some of the things I had felt, but had never really been able to express. American Exceptionalism, in my mind, came to mean the idea that America had a role to play as leader of the world, to be the defender of concepts like individual liberty, free speech and free enterprise.

I was never able to articulate that idea very well, and then along came Ronald Reagan, who pretty much nailed what I had been trying to say when he said:

"I've always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way, that some divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the Earth who had a special love for freedom and the courage to uproot themselves, leave homeland and friends, to come to a strange land. And coming here they created something new in all the history of mankind -- a land where man is not beholden to government, government is beholden to man."

It was exactly what I had been trying to articulate. Of course, to believe that America is part of a divine plan, you have to believe in a divinity. You have to feel as though God has a plan, and is at work in our world, and I recognize that many of my friends on the left will reject that idea. But that's a discussion for another day.

But that concept became the cornerstone of what I believed about America and its place in the world. It was American's unique place that helped hold the world together. When Nazis and Communists threatened, we were the "Arsenal of Democracy" that helped put them down. Whenever there was trouble around the world, it was America that was asked to help - and that always answered the call. Whatever the country's faults - and there are many - I found it easy to overlook them since our motives were pure.

And I realize that this sounds a bit naive, but I was always taken aback when someone else even questioned the concept. In debates with my lefty friends, I often posed the question this way: Would the world be better off if more countries were like America - with a democratically-elected government, a free enterprise economy and constitutionally-guaranteed liberties, or would the world be better of if fewer countries were like America?

After Reagan was diagnosed with the disease that would end his life, he wrote his good-bye letter and concluded it by saying "For America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead." And I agreed, and always believed it. The idea that American democracy and liberty would continue to be the dominant force in the world was something I never doubted.

Until recently.

While in Europe, President Obama was asked if he believed in "American Exceptionalism," and he was dismissive of the idea, saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

It was all part of the same message he's been sending around the world, apologizing for America, schmoozing up America-hating dictators and bowing down to an Arab king. (See April 2 blog post.)

Which has led me to think: How long can the idea of American Exceptionalism flourish when the leader of the country doesn't even believe in it?

During the Carter years - mercifully brief as they were - and during the Clinton years, I disagreed with various policies and positions, but I never doubted the future of America. I never worried that this nation of freedom and liberty and opportunity might not be there for my children and grandchildren. And perhaps I'm being an alarmist now - or just becoming a cranky old man - but for the first time in my life, I wonder: Can this "shining city on a hill" (more Reagan, of course, quoting John Winthrop) stand against Islamic nuclear weapons, North Korean missiles and the rotting-from-the-inside that happens when the people of a country no longer believe that country holds a special place in the world?


  1. Wow, Tim! Awesome - and sobering - blog today. I will be sharing this with many who I know, like me, share your love of this country and fear for its future. Keep up the good work!

    The Fetching Mrs. Harker :)

  2. Want to brighten your day? Ask Annie where Reagan is on your screen. She should point to the right guy!