Monday, September 16, 2013

What American Exceptionalism is Really About

Since Russian autocrat Vladimir V. Putin raised the question of American exceptionalism this is a good time to remind ourselves what it is all about.

The best way to start is to show that President Obama's idea of American exceptionalism, as addressed in his Strasbourg news conference in 2009, is all wrong and misses the point.  In answer to a question about American exceptionalism he said:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
That, Mr. President, is exactly what American exceptionalism is not about. America is not a tribe or a nation state based upon a state church and a Volk as originally thought up by the German Romantics.  It is a universal state for people that define themselves not by race and ethnicity but as individuals responsible individually to God.

Most people define themselves by their place, their family, their clan, their tribe, their race.  And they experience their national existence as a war against other nations, a fight in a cruel world of scarce resources.  But American exceptionalism tries to put all that on the waste heap of history.  I like to say that we Americans are People of the Responsible Self.

That is why we are individualists: not because we are selfish and egoistic, but because we experience ourselves as individually responsible for our lives, to God if we believe in God and to the people we know, and to society in general.

The reason that President Obama hesitates as he did in Strasbourg is that liberals don't believe in American exceptionalism.  Their whole world-view is a revolt against American exceptionalism, its individualism, and the idea of the individual as a responsible self.

Liberals have returned to the idea of the state as a robber band, plundering and pillaging the world for free stuff to give away to its members.  Liberals have returned with their identity politics to the definition of people by their tribal membership -- in race, class, gender -- rather than their universal individual humanness.  Liberals believe in the color of your skin, not in the content of your character. Liberals have turned politics into a scramble for loot and subsidy.  Liberals encourage people to think of themselves as victims, denied their rightful share of the world's benefits.

I like to say that this view of politics goes right back to our chimp ancestors.  In that world the welfare of the troop depends on the food supply, and the food supply, mostly in fruits, depends exactly on the ability of the males to extend their territory by border warfare.  Obviously this chimp world is a zero-sum world, because the food-bearing territory that the males conquer must be taken away by force from the neighboring chimp troop.

It all sounds very familiar.

The point about the modern world is that everything depends not upon the food-producing land that we occupy, but upon the ingenuity of each individual human to produce good and services for other humans.  Wealth does not consist in land or in natural resources but in "intangible capital," the skills and knowledge of humans and their ability to work together.

But people that have just arrived in the city don't yet understand this.  And so they respond to community organizers that tell them that they are being oppressed and exploited.  They are in a tough place, of course, because they don't yet know how to contribute to society with their skills and knowledge.  That makes them second-class citizens.

Let's give our liberal friends the benefit of the doubt.  They believe in their world view.  They believe that they are doing the right thing by handing out free stuff to the traditionally marginalized.  And it sure doesn't hurt that getting free stuff from the local patron is what the traditionally marginalized understand from their lives in the country as peasants.

But American exceptionalism says we are called to something higher, something better.  We are called to be People of the Responsible Self that think first about what we can do and what we contribute, and only second about what we will get and what we deserve.  This culture seems to have started in the cities in the first millennium BC, at the birth of the modern religions from Hinduism to Judaism to Christianity in the so-called Axial Age.

On this view Islam is something of an outlier, because Islam, in its very name, is a religion of the Submissive Self, not the Responsible Self.  It is a religion of warrior tribes, not cooperative city dwellers.

In How Civilizations Die David P. Goldman says that civilizations die by not having children.  See Europe, Russia, Japan, American liberals, and Islam.  People with a faith in the future have children. People that have given up do not.  American conservatives and American immigrants have children. American liberals do not.  Indeed American liberals worship the idols of creativity and abortion and population control and non-heterosexuality which lead to an empty crib and no grandchildren.

Goldman predicts a glorious future for America.  That's because of our American exceptionalism.  But obviously we can't really get a grip on the future until Obama and his liberal friends exit stage left.

And after the end of Obama the American people will need to declare, with their vote, that they are a People of the Responsible Self.

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