The New American “Exceptionalism”

Posted on February 21, 2013 by

Greenwald doubts American Exceptionalism

Barack Obama’s re-election has opened a divide on the American Left.  For many of us, this president represents an epic shift toward a more diverse, tolerant and liberal America – an affirmation of our country’s better nature.

While we don’t deny our nation’s severe problems, extreme inequality and historical contradictions, we’re celebrating – even gloating in – our triumph over our political opponents and look with great pleasure at the prospect of further marginalizing the republican right.

At the same time, we’re being warned by progressive “thought leaders” that we shouldn’t get carried away, that the U.S. is deeply flawed and a destructive global force.

This position was persuasively argued in a recent piece by Glenn Greenwald, who took us to task for buying into notions of American Greatness and “Exceptionalism”:

It’s certainly true that Americans are justifiably proud of certain nationalistic attributes: class mobility, ethnic diversity, religious freedom, large immigrant populations, life-improving technological discoveries, a commitment to some basic liberties such as free speech and press, historical progress in correcting some of its worst crimes. But all of those virtues are found in equal if not, at this point, greater quantity in numerous other countries. Add to that mix America’s shameful attributes – its historic crimes of land theft, genocide, slavery and racism, its sprawling penal state, the company it keeps on certain human rights abuses, the aggressive attack on Iraq, the creation of a worldwide torture regime, its pervasive support for the world’s worst tyrannies – and it becomes not just untenable, but laughable, to lavish it with that title.

I agree – in part – with Greenwald and others that American Exceptionalism has been horrifically abused as pretext for immoral policies.  And I recognize that right wing demagogues distort American Exceptionalism to create a populist, conservative, “constitutionalist” mythology to defend all forms of free enterprise and exploitation.

But I also reject the Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky view of a sinister and menacing U.S.  I’ve settled on a more benign position about my country, one which enables me to proudly identify as an American and participate in patriotic rituals like Pledging Allegiance (although I still refuse to sing “God Bless America”).

My interpretation of modern history has certainly evolved since my “New Left” days of 40 years ago:

Post World War II America did indeed engage in much dirty business, but this nation had a pivotal role in containing and defeating communism, a system which was antithetical to any notion of just society, individual freedom and human rights.  The worst abuses and – yes – atrocities of the cold war (CIA coups in Guatemala, Iran and Chile and even the debacle in Vietnam) do not negate the essential role of the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment in extinguishing the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence.

And – as you would expect – my view of America in this post-post-World War II era confers on our military and national security apparatus a legitimate role in combating the barbaric and murderous strains among Islamic extremists.   Therefore, when I concede my general willingness to support the president’s drone attacks, I’m putting my faith in Obama as the personification of the good America facing up to the real dangers in this troubled and tragic world.

I prefer to offer an expansive, inclusive and progressive version of American Exceptionalism which celebrates the struggle for social justice, collective action, civil rights and more.

I admit that at this stage in my life, a positive and hopeful belief system about my country’s future is personally gratifying and restorative.  And I concede that my “feel good” nationalism may be partly a way to soothe a lifetime of political suffering.

Likewise, I wonder if some of  America’s harshest critics from the left are imposing their own unconscious pain on the rest of us?

Comments (4)


  1. Ben says:

    This is hard for me. Where do I start? If you are trying to “bait” some us into a debate, well, OK. Your suggestion that that “the US military and foreign policy establishment” deserve some credit for bringing down the USSR and its allies cries out for some response. I’m sure you have heard all the arguments, and so I won’t rehash them here. This is, after all, essentially the line that the US policy makers have been selling for the last six decades or so. Just let me say that I hope people with progressive and humane ideas, such as you, don’t continue to fall for this stuff in the age of the post Cold War world. Now is the time for the US–including those in the F.P. Establishment–to show our better nature and lead by example. That might take rolling up our sleeves and sitting down eyeball to eyeball with people that the State Dept and Pentagon like to say that we have nothing in common with, listening to their concerns and trying to find alternatives to endless war. Now would be a good time for us to do it, while we are still the most powerful nation on the planet. That is my hope, and I believe the hope of many Americans, for our country beginning with the Obama presidency.

  2. nodrama says:

    Ben, I agree with you. For too many years we have propped up really despotic dictators around the world who allowed their citizens to wallow in poverty and die while we lined the pockets of the “leaders.” Too often we have done what has been convenient and profitable for our corporations rather than what is good for the world. I won’t even bring up the genocide of the original Americans, the ethnocide or the racism.

  3. Brad Cagle says:

    How “we” have progressed since the days of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement…

  4. Ben says:

    Thanks Brad. I had heard about Michelle Alexander’s book, but had never actually seen or heard her speak. OMG! We still have so much to do!

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