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American Exceptionalism

Our current President forever lost my support when in April 2009 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.” As James Kirchik wrote later that month in the LA Times,

“If all countries are ‘exceptional,’ then none are, and to claim otherwise robs the word, and the idea of American exceptionalism, of any meaning.”

Mind you, even the very liberal Kirchik was offended at the offhand way in which the new President (and latest liberal icon) had dismissed American exceptionalism as being, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. In fact, the problems that have risen during this Presidency are directly attributable to this President’s inability to identify what American exceptionalism is and why our past reliance on it has always overcome even the most overwhelming obstacles.

So, what is American exceptionalism? The  idea was first expressed by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America. In 1835, the United States did not have an economy the rest of the world envied. We had few factories, few railroads, and our merchants were forced to trade in British pounds sterling or gold bullion. Our military was not feared, large, or respected. In fact, the 1835 graduating class from West Point totalled only 56 officers – of whom, 38 quit the Army after their 5 year commitment.

So, if the United States did not have the trappings of power that might lead a European gentleman to presume a national exceptionalism, what did we possess? How could a relatively poor and weak nation so impress this man that he would write a series of books about so seemingly absurd a concept as American exceptionalism?

The answer lies in the very nature of what America is, and what it means to be an American. Unlike any other nation in the history of mankind, the United States of America is unique in our very makeup: we are not of a single ethnicity, we are not defined by natural borders and our history is not rooted in the misty memories of the prehistoric tribes that roamed the rest of the world. Alone among nations of the world, to be American is to pledge fealty not to a man, nor a religion, nor a piece of land, but rather to an ideal: the idea that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights -and that government’s principle duty is to secure those rights for every person.

I hadn’t given much thought about this until our current election. After all, the hew and cry over Mr. Obama’s giving short shrift to the concept of American exceptionalism  had come from both the right and left (although, to be certain, it was more pronounced on the right). So it seemed reasonable that the American people understood what made America an exceptional nation, even if the President didn’t. And I kept thinking that, up until Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton secured their respective party’s nominations.

I’m sad to say that it seems most people today have no idea what American exceptionalism means, or where it comes from. There are those who think it comes from an inherent nativism, forgetting that one of the most crucial aspects of Americanism is that anyone, from anywhere, regardless of wealth or circumstance, can become an American. This concept is emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty. You know, the bit about “Give me your tired, your poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? That poem isn’t talking about the economically depressed (although the vast majority of immigrants in our country’s history have been far from wealthy). It’s telling the rest of the world, if you value freedom & liberty above all else, this is the place to come. It’s the message that brought my family here during the Cold War. It’s the message that brought everyone’s family here.

Then there are those who think American exceptionalism is rooted in being the greatest economic power on earth. They either don’t know, or don’t want to believe, that the United States’ period of economic dominance was a short one, lasting about 30 years. And it only came about because alone among the world’s actors, the United States wasn’t physically devastated by the Second World War. It has nothing to do with greater industriousness or intelligence of the American worker. If you don’t believe that, I can point to a whole world of people with as strong a work ethic as you’ll find in America.

Many of our fellow citizens think American exceptionalism is a byproduct of military might. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong military, but that’s hardly exceptional. Comparatively speaking, even at it’s strongest our military was a mere shadow of the Macedonian army under Alexander or the legions that secured the Pax Romana.

Each of those are things that any nation can take pride in, but they are hardly exceptional. Other nations have, at other times, established preeminence in trade and military might. Think of the British Empire of the 19th century, the Romans, the Persians, the Egyptians. But none of those nations could truly lay claim to being something exceptional, which is to say, something that nobody had seen before or since. Something unique.

In addition to our national identity being forged of the ideals of liberty and equality, there is one other thing that makes us exceptional. That is our willingness to be introspective and during that introspection, to demonstrate to the world that we are both strong enough and wise enough to understand that we haven’t perfected our society. After all, it took us 90 years to get from announcing to the world that all men are created equal to codifying that precept, and it took another 100 years after that before those laws began to be enforced. What other nation in history has undertaken such monumental efforts, not closeted but openly? Can you imagine the awe of the common Chinese citizen when they compare Tiananmen’s brutal repression with the March on Washington?

That is liberty. That is freedom. That is the “poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

And that is American exceptionalism. I fervently hope those of you who’ve forgotten it remember, before this nation and her ideals are left to rot in the ash heap of history.


Happy Independence Day!

Today, as we enjoy time with our friends and families, revel in the fireworks and devour our barbecued food, we’re celebrating the 236th Birthday of our great nation. But more importantly, we’re celebrating 236 years of independence – independence from tyranny and oppression.

We all know that the Declaration of Independence was signed by the 56 members of the Continental Congress on this date 236 years ago. Most of us even know how the powerful statement contained in it’s beginning; a statement that has defined Americanism throughout our history. But how many of us have read through the entire document, where the grievances of the original states are enumerated? The American Revolution was far more than a tax revolt. We’re taught in history class that the Stamp Act and Tea Tax were the sparks that ignited the insurrection against the British crown. While far from popular, the reality is that the imposition of those taxes were but symptoms of a far larger problem for the Americans. That problem was the  way the British government disregarded the basic liberties and freedoms of the American colonists, granting or revoking them as it saw fit.

Just like those brave men and women 236 years ago, we believe that the “inalienable rights” of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness cannot be impinged upon by any government – and that any government that tries is answerable to the people. It is what defines us as a nation and a people. It is the essence of American Exceptionalism – that a nation can be founded more on an ideal than a population or geography. To this day, we remain unique in this regard: no other nation can lay claim to such distinction.

Below is the full transcript. Read it through. Remember why celebrate the day, and why freedom loving people the world over celebrate with us.

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Why I’m a Libertarian

When I announce my political affiliation, the usual responses range from subdued chuckle to loud guffaw. “Oh no,” people say. “You’re not one of those crazies, are you? An anarchist, ready to abolish the government?”

Well, I am a Libertarian and have been for a quite a long time. And the reason is pretty simple: if I’m crazy, then so were men like Thomas Jefferson, Samuel and John Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. All, excepting Madison, signed the Declaration of Independence. You might have noticed that these men, the original Libertarians, while unafraid to fight for liberty – to give their lives in the cause of liberty, if needed – were hardly anarchists. In fact, when their first attempt at organized government yielded something much closer to anarchy than we even want to dream of today, they organized the first Constitutional Convention.

So, if that’s crazy, feel free to count me in.

“The Presentation of the Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

To put it simply, Libertarians believe that government exists solely to protect individual freedom. But our views on where those freedoms derive are much different than that of the typical Republican or Democrat; in fact, they are diametrically opposed. Ask yourself this question: is government the final arbiter of what constitutes essential liberty? If you answered yes, then you hold the same world view as the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats.

Before you answer that the idea of a government not being responsible for deciding what freedoms we should enjoy is the definition of anarchy, consider the very document that founded our great country, the Declaration of Independence. It is more than a 236 year old piece of parchment that hangs in the National Archives. It is the very embodiment of what makes America, and Americans, unique among other nations and nationalities.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Now consider the Preamble to the document that created the federal government, the Constitution for the United States of America. It is 11 years the junior to the Declaration, yet in it the nation’s founding principles are given their equal due – prior to prescribing the methods used to preserve Liberty.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, to establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

When you actually read the words, two things immediately become clear:

  • The essence of Liberty, of Freedom, is not something that comes from any government. It comes from a Higher Authority.
  • Government exists to protect those rights, not corrupt them.

Understanding the first point is essential to truly understanding the American concept of Liberty and freedom. The only way individual freedoms are absolute is if they come from an authority higher than that of either men or their institutions. Otherwise, individual freedoms are a caprice, something to be given or withheld as determined by the fancy of others. Governments, rather than working to protect those freedoms, become dishonest arbiters of disputes. Eventually, governments (and the people governing) no longer see themselves as members of the general society, bound by contract and convention to uphold liberty. They become oligarchs; a separate class that believes itself superior to the rest of society.

Does that last paragraph give you pause? It should, because we are witnesses to that very transformation. It is not a sudden transformation that occurred in the past two or three years, either – it’s been underway for most of my lifetime. Is it beginning to snowball, accelerating in pace and breadth? Certainly, and the quickening pace over the past few years makes anyone concerned about preserving liberty queasy.

Now, as to why I identify as a Libertarian and not a Democrat or Republican: the proponents of the two major parties are our modern oligarchs, who see themselves as more fit to determine which liberties are essential and which can be abridged by the government. There truly isn’t much of a difference between them, in that both see distinctions in liberties; the difference is only in which liberties they deem more essential. The things they spend their time arguing over are actually further limitations on those essential liberties and freedoms, disguised as concern for safety of the overall society. The reason they feel secure in their deliberations is that the Nation, once enamored of Liberty, is today concerned less with freedom than safety – or at least, the illusion of safety. The people fear deprivation of material desires than the loss of freedoms. They are convinced the loss of freedom for one party will not result in a curtailing of freedom for themselves – when the reality is that any loss of freedom for any American necessitates that all Americans lose some aspect of their Liberty.

Terrific examples come from exchanges I had this week with unabashedly partisan Democrats and Republicans. I fed the same quote to both, and their reactions were remarkably similar. The quote, from Ben Franklin, is “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither.” The Democrat’s response was that Franklin has been dead 200 years, and his ideals with him. The Republican’s response was that changing times require changing mores.

That’s the final point that our founding document makes, that most Americans either forgot or were never taught.

“—And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”

The nation’s founding principle is that the Liberty and the ideals of freedom supersede anything else. Liberty takes precedence over personal comfort, over wealth, over safety and even life itself, if necessary. The very ideal is worth fighting and dying for, as in the case of the American Revolution and the Civil War. What is more, if this principle is derived from an act of Divine Providence, then it does not disappear with the death of individuals nor the passage of time. It is an everlasting, eternal truth.

Because I am a free man and believe my freedom is not negotiable: That is why I am a Libertarian. Because I believe that the government is my servant, not my master: That is why I am a Libertarian. Because I believe that no man has the right to subject another to his will: That is why I am a Libertarian.

And if you believe these things, so are you.