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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