The American Exception, Again

Barack Obama at the Victory Column in Berlin just now marks another stage of “rejoining the world” and “rebranding” the American voice out there on the globe. It’s an astonishingly rapid transition in these dog days of July, 2008. Obama on tour is becoming “the cause of all mankind,” as Thomas Paine once said of our country. What would it mean, or require, for Americans to see ourselves this way again? This is the puzzle Ted Widmer sets himself in Ark of the Liberties, whose title comes with express irony from lines that Herman Melville wrote with irony as well, in White Jacket: “And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world… We are the pioneers of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours.”

Ted Widmer, curator of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown, is a connoisseur of political rhetoric — an American historian and, among other things, editor of the Library of America’s compendium of great speeches. I put it to him in conversation: who thinks we’re “the last best hope of earth” after the war in Iraq? Who looks at our pretty lowly rank in international measures of equality and life expectancy, and says: “lead on, America!” What is it that is still exceptional about this world nation of ours? Do we even want to be exceptional anymore? And would a President Obama make us feel more comfortable with the neighbors, more like them, or yet rarer, more blessedly peculiar?

The world has become a lot more like us. We are more like the world and the world is more like us. Democracy is successful on every continent, immigration exists everywhere, most countries have constitutions and very few monarchies are left on earth. One hundred years ago, it was still a relatively rare thing to have a self-sustaining democracy with its own constitution. So our model has won. We won in a million ways in the 20th century and other countries are like us. I’m hopeful that if [Obama] is elected, it will lead to the latest American renaissance and that it will inspire people again in our capacity to lead. I think that was badly damaged, but I now object to a lot of books by liberals, even though I am a democrat. There’s this huge wave of pessimism crashing over the marketplace and you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing 20 books about how we

blew it…

Ted Widmer in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, July, 2008.

I reminded Ted Widmer, and myself, that the great William James thought we’d blown it, and exposed the fraud of “exceptionalism,” in the occupation of the Philippines a century ago. “God dam the U.S. for its vile conduct,” James fulminated (anticipating Reverend Jeremiah Wright in the taking of prophetic liberties with his language). James went to the heart of the “exceptional” question:

We used to believe… that we were of a different clay from other nations, that there was something deep in the American heart that answered to our happy birth, free from that hereditary burden which the nations of Europe bear, and which obliges them to grow by preying on their neighbors. Idle dream! pure Fourth of July fancy, scattered in five minutes by the first temptation. In every national soul there lie potentialities of the most barefaced piracy, and our own American soul is no exception to the rule. Angelic impulses and predatory lusts divide our heart exactly as they divide the hearts of other countries. It is good to rid ourselves of cant and humbug, and to know the truth about ourselves. Political virtue does not follow geographical divisions. It follows the eternal division inside of each country between the tory and the liberal tendencies, the jingoism and animal instinct that would run things by main force and brute possession, and the critical conscience that believes in educational methods and in rational rules of right.

William James, “Address on the Philippine Question” in William James: Writings 1902 – 1910, Library of America.

Ted Widmer remembered that Mark Twain, too, went volcanic about the Philippines and the imperial transformation of the American eagle. Twain’s revision of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” began, “Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword / He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored…”

Mark Twain was very angry about the Philippines. America’s most beloved writer in many ways, and yet he had a most acute political conscience… He might have had to explain to a judge in 2008 why he was writing the anti-governmental things that he was writing around the time of the Philippines insurrection, which was the ugly aftermath to the Spanish American War. Those guys are brilliant and, I think, with William James you get something closer to what the Puritans would have said, which I find a more honest message, and it’s what Lincoln was saying too, which is that if you believe that God is favoring you more highly, then you also have further to fall and you have a higher accountability. It seems to me that we’re lacking the accountability. We’re trying to take the good part of this and we’re rejecting the other part that comes with it. Lincoln, many of the Puritans and William James all felt that if we’re failing to live up to our incredible, special position in the world – we’re so lucky, we live far from all these other wars, we have so many natural resources, we have this great system of government – if we’re screwing it up, God’s going to be very angry at us. And that I just find a more honest way of looking at it. There’s a dark side of exceptionalism as well as a light side.

Ted Widmer in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, July, 2008.

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  • RC32

    A conversation with another Democrat.Gotta love the political diversity Open source brings us. Oh and another topic that revolves around president Obama,who would have guessed.What a suprise.

  • citizenkoine

    Is it just me, or is Open Source broken? Lydon, have you got any production assistance at all? Your website is barely up-to-date. What is worse, the trickle of traffic you do have consists 100% of post-recording commentary – not, as is the stated mission of the site, a blogging community which generates a podcast. What gives? Why isn’t there discussion of audience-suggested topics? Why nothing ‘Warming Up’? The impression is that you are, Oz-like, trying to maintain ‘the global-conversation-thing’, but alone, from behind a web-site/curtain.

    You need help. As part of Brown U. it shouldn’t be this difficult to get production interns. Do you still have a producer? Mary hasn’t made herself felt since May of last year. Get help. Reach out, Chris.

  • The link seems to be broken, but it’s just a matter of extra text on the front end. This one works:

  • also, since you seemed to have missed the memo, citizenkoine, open source is back from the grave due to lack of funding. It’s not what it once was, but it’s better than nothing.

  • archylgp

    Although I rarely post, I have taken a lot from Open Source over the last several years and I still find it to be a valuable source of intellectual material. Thanks!

  • citizenkoine

    I have followed the dramatic resurrection narrative, demarconia, but it is hard to swallow ROS pretending to be something it’s not any longer; if there are ongoing problems, they can be addressed rather than hidden in someone’s institutional closet. There was a good faith effort to reach out and communicate with the Open Source community around funding issues et al, and then it seems like ‘everything else’ fell off a cliff, leaving Chris dangling by one hand, just able to produce a weekly podcast with the other.

    Here, Chris, a metaphor you might be able to appreciate: what is the audio equivalent to transparency? What is the current status of the all-out, grand, no-holds-barred ROS experiment? Is it really just you there, in the shade of the Watson Institute at Brown? Perhaps, as demarconia suggests, a weekly podcast from you is ‘better than nothing’, but is that all you’re aiming at? My objection is to the sterility of denial. I want to help.

  • hurley

    I’m glad Chris took exception to Widmer’s many egregious comments on the American exception. “Half-kidding” not half good enough, with its blithe endorsement of war as a liberal panacea Europeans are simply too rich and lazy to embrace. Really. Una vera brutta figura.

  • samizdat

    hey i wouldn’t mind being “fat & lazy” instead of working myself to death for meager wages… maybe i’ll move to Europe..

  • nother

    I took the following from the wiki on Tocqueville (speaking of the first arrivals to this land):

    “Any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life. Sparse elites and a number of landed aristocrats existed, but, according to Tocqueville, these few stood no chance against the rapidly developing values bred by such vast land ownership. With such an open society, layered with so much opportunity, men of all sorts began working their way up in the world: industriousness became a dominant ethic, and “middling” values began taking root.”

    I think American exceptionalism stems from that beginning.

    Obama is the embodiment of that line “men of all sorts.”

    American’s feel in every fiber of our being that we are the only country where “men of all sorts” can create their own destiny. And the men/women who have risen in this land, tend to share some common traits: pugnacity, self-reliance, strong faith, and above all, enthusiasm.

  • Eenusch

    Barack Obama may be trying to “soften the exceptionalism” to use Chris’ phrase, but it’s interesting that the very nature of his world tour, is in itself, an example of American exceptionalism.

    Look at Berlin. Could one imagine a German candidate for Chancellor, coming to New York, addressing a crowd of 200,000 in Central Park…in GERMAN!


    The fact that only an American could get away with this, and one who is only a candidate for the presidency at that, is proof enough that America is no ordinary nation.

  • citizenkoine

    Briefly, an apology; to ROS; for changing the subject.

  • Potter

    Before I read the others here and right out of the gate, the American revolution was not bloodless as Widner said. I was surprised.

    This was a good conversation;just the right amount of “hmmm” and push-back.

    I disagree that McCain and Obama have that much similarity. Perhaps the words, but that may be all. And then McCain has been parroting Obama. There is quite a choice between one and the other even with the disappointment on Obama’s dissembling and surprising postions on issues such as guns and FISA. McCain is as dull as they come not eloquent, not above being mean-spirited.

    I especially appreciated Chris’s worry about whether we are examining fully enough, deeply enough what went wrong these last years and whether recovery should mean back to domination and unilateralism. But also I think Widner had a point, or was leading to a point that the Europeans post war are leaving dire situations in the world (that may call for military action) to us with the luxury of knowing that we would eventually act.

  • huff

    anybody having a problem getting the podcast to dload in iTunes?? Keeps timing out.

  • Potter

    I download to my desktop from here and then open itunes and transfer it to itunes. I don’t know if that makes a difference but I don’t have a problem. You might try one click on the link above and just listen from here.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    “America…just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.” — Hunter S. Thompson

  • Wow! What a love-fest.

    The really exceptional thing about America is its ideological belief in its exceptionally exceptional exception and how easily it erases history so it can mirror mirror on the wall and see itself as a force for good in the world.

    A country where the top 10% of the people have 70% of the wealth and the top 1% almost 40%. Now that is exceptional, indeed.