Allan Powell: Think you're different? You're not alone

June 08, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

During the primary phase of the 2012 presidential election, there has been a noticeable acceleration in the use of the term “American exceptionalism” by candidates and political writers.

The obvious purpose was to inflate the image of the candidate as a certified patriot and to cast doubt on the opponent. Their patriotic cant was self-serving.

Should we not be cautious in accepting the claim of special patriotism on the part of a candidate who is now known to be a party to avoidance of income taxes by secret banking in the Cayman Islands?

Mitt Romney then sings about his special affection for America. We are seldom fully aware of the true stance of those who proclaim loyalty.

We need to “un-pack” the idea of exceptionalism — American or that of others. But a common sense disclaimer is needed first. This is not a put-down of the desirability of respect and honor for achievements that are rationally and properly part of a nation’s history. The simple and clear point is that we have been warned against unrestrained pride by both sacred and secular thinkers since antiquity.

In ancient Greece, pride (hubris) was the thorn in the flesh of heroes — the primary cause of their downfall. Later, Gregory the Great (540-604) placed pride as number one on a list of seven deadly sins.

A precise definition of the word “exceptional” is in order: Extraordinary, uncommon and superior are some of the synonyms used. When they are applied to a nation, they clearly imply the quality of sui generis or “in a class by itself.”

It is this connotation of superiority that is of concern. In a common sense way, it is a truism that each nation (as with each person) there is a uniqueness that is inevitable. However, it is questionable that we can stretch uniqueness to superior.  

Sociologists and anthropologists have pointed out their discovery of statements from almost every tribe, clan or nation claiming special origin and greatness.

The idea of being a “chosen people” is more widespread than is generally supposed. Following is one such claim expressed by a well known English leader, Oliver Cromwell. “The dispensations of the Lord have been as if he had said, England thou art my first born, my delight amongst the nations ... The Lord hath not dealt so with any of the people round about us.”

It is certainly true that England had a future that was truly remarkable. So great was its contributions to the arts, science and industry that England may have rivaled the glory of ancient Greece at its height.

No wonder it is said that so great was the power, influence and expanse of Great Britain that “the sun did not set” on its reach. We owe much to England for so much that we have borrowed. Nonetheless, we recognize they are no longer a great power. They, like other former great powers have experienced a shift in the tide of power. France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Portugal, and other contenders for empire now realistically accept this historic shift.

We are now a great power and it is our troops that are scattered over the globe. We now have people replicating Oliver Cromwell with proclamations about our exceptionalism. We surely must think about the folly of supposing that we are beyond the lessons of history about the fate of those obsessed with hubris.

There are other measures of greatness than battles won or troops deployed. Until we excel in dispensing justice, achieving a more equitable sharing of our wealth, reducing the amount of poverty, providing for the health of our people, and protecting our environment from ruin, we have no moral authority to claim exceptionalism.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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