How American exceptionalism became a contested concept in the culture wars is an interesting, significant story. I only know part of the story, and don’t plan to piece together the parts I don’t know tonight. I’ll say this much: 175 years ago, Tocqueville said Americans were exceptional, and we believed him because he was right. Now we want to ask whether he’s still right, whether we should believe him yet. One hundred seventy-five years covers a lot of ground. Perhaps we were exceptional then, but are no longer. Or perhaps we’re exceptional in some ways now, but not in the same ways we were then.
I mention Tocqueville because he was the first to write about American exceptionalism at length. In fact, we had 175 years to become exceptional before he wrote about it. Back then, exceptional meant different from Europeans. Europeans came over to this side of the Atlantic and became different. In fact, that’s the reason many came to America: here was a place you could change.
Now we try to keep people out. We’ve tried to do that before, but we seem more determined about it now. We never erected a high fence before. We didn’t round people up and deport them in such great numbers. Nativism has always been ugly, but people kept coming here in large numbers nevertheless. That’s why you saw nativism in the first place: people were coming here in such high numbers. Now we want to take people who are already here and get rid if them.
When people say immigration reform, I’m not sure what they mean, but I don’t think it’s something good. When people use the word illegal as a noun, as in, “We don’t like illegals around here,” I know what they mean. They know what they mean, too.
So, does American exceptionalism just come down to our thinking we’re better than other people? Is that all it means? Honestly, Tocqueville might have said as much, but he could have saved himself a lot of words if that’s all he had to say. It appears to be the limit of our thinking now. The critics say, “Obama doesn’t think we’re better than other people. We don’t want a leader who thinks we’re just like everyone else.” Perhaps when a country has come down as far as we have, people have to swagger a bit to compensate.
Here’s where a belief in American exceptionalism truly gets us into trouble: when we think bad things can’t happen here. If you believe that, then people with power can commit crimes and tell you they didn’t. If you give liars the benefit of the doubt, they will take advantage of you. They will get you to participate in their lies, to endorse them, prop them up and make them appear real. Ask Earl Warren. Ask Colin Powell. Some people cannot decline to participate. Ask the taxpayers who paid for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the families who lost a son or a daughter over there.
Theologian James Douglass titled his book about Kennedy’s assassination, JFK and the Unspeakable. Some acts are so evil, we cannot speak of them. What if 9/11 were a false flag operation? Would we have the will to speak of it? How many people would want to place a truth like that in front of their eyes?
When I read Jesus’ words in the New Testament, “the truth will make you free,” I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. It could be another general statement about the means of redemption: believe that I am the Son of God, and I will free you from death. The saying means more than that, though. At the least, it means that falsehood will make you a slave. If we believe the things that powerful people tell us, they will enslave us. They won’t control us they do other private property, but they’ll control us sufficiently that they won’t suffer constraints on their own freedom of action.
That should be enough for tonight. I won’t try to bring everything I’ve said in this post together. I will say that if our concept of American exceptionalism prevents us from discerning the truth, if it makes us believe liars and disbelieve truth tellers, we have descended a long way from the days of Jacksonian Democracy. Of course liars existed then, as did corruption in high places. The question is whether we would give liars and criminals the benefit of the doubt, or how much we would tolerate them. If we want to save our freedom now, we have to track down the truth with no partiality about what we find.