Anti-Americanism: Exceptionalism

Are Americans an exceptional people? Americans think so. They steadfastly spill our domestic agenda into the international arena. American leaders think so. They demand that the U.S. get special exceptions and/or complain that we shoulder special responsibilities. Even critics think so. They blame America for the bulk of the world’s problems. It takes a very exceptional country to have caused so much trouble all over the place.

In fact Americans ARE exceptional, but then so is every other country. As in Lake Wobegon, everyone is above average. A Japanese is no more like an Arab than either is like an American. Lists from other places would match the long list of American exceptions. But America is unique in its extreme power and influence. America can get away with more things and it matters more. No country in the world has ever had so much global impact. This makes the idiosyncrasies of the Americans much more important than those of everybody else. That is why people worldwide care who wins elections in the U.S.

And the world HAS become more like the U.S. in the last 200 years. The U.S. has the oldest living constitution in the world (the Brits have an older system w/o a specific constitution). When it was written in 1787, rule by the consent of the governed was rare and unpopular among theorists. Now it is common. Free markets have spread throughout the world. The U.S. was one of the first big common markets with no restrictions on interstate commerce. The English language has become the world’s way to communicate among different nationalities. Put a German, in a room with an Arab and a man from China and if they talk at all, there is an excellent chance it will be in English. Even if you add a Frenchman, chances are English will still be the . . . lingua franca.

It is not that others copied the U.S. (English, for example is not "ours") so much as that the U.S. got there first or made the successful adaptation. One reason for the phenomenal success of U.S. culture is, in fact, its promiscuity & proclivity to copy and adapt from others. American innovations work so well in the world market, because they are essentially market tested in a multicultural environment.

But to Americans and others it does appear that U.S. influence is spreading and people all over the world associate globalization with Americanization.

As some of you know, I have been "thinking on paper" about this topic all week and wrote a couple of posts on it. I have seven factors that I believe affect the U.S. image. I developed some ideas on each. Your comments are appreciated. Thanks. Below are the factors.

Ubiquity & Scrutiny

Iraq, Afghanistan & GW Bush

Religion, Certainty & Morality

Legacy of Revolutionary Socialism (communists and fascists). The images & propaganda they developed against capitalism, Jews or the U.S. is still used by anti-Americans worldwide.

Power & Security

Aggressive Isolationism

“Insufferable Optimism” & Free Markets

Posted by Jack at June 9, 2006 1:21 PM
Comment #156046


Did you see the Frontline show on Saudi Arabia and US involvement last night? I think arrogance and smugness is the surest way to stumble blindly about the world. And if you have a large footprint, you can do a lot of damage.

Please try to contain those impulses. They are not attractive.

Posted by: Mental Wimp at June 9, 2006 1:50 PM
Comment #156058

Yes, mental, a very exceptional country reponsible for most of the good things and all of the bad things worldwide.

Posted by: Jack at June 9, 2006 2:18 PM
Comment #156064

It seems we keep ourselves in check pretty much. No one is more critical of America than Americans.

Posted by: Brian B at June 9, 2006 2:28 PM
Comment #156069

I’m still trying to figure out what “and exceptional” means. I’ve never come across a “professional” site with so many grammatical errors. I think this child was left behind.

Posted by: nutty little nut nut at June 9, 2006 2:40 PM
Comment #156074

Thanks Nut…good imput.

Posted by: Squirrel at June 9, 2006 2:55 PM
Comment #156080

While working in South America, I came to the conclusion that the USA’s impressive achievements as a society can be traced to two unique circumstances when this nation was founded in the area of politics and religeon.

POLITICS: Most of the people who emigrated to the US were unhappy with the old country power structure which was an inherited monarchy. Those from England had some experience with representative democracy and expanded the practice here.

RELIGEON: Most of the people who emigrated to the US were also seeking freedom of religeon. They were the reformers who were branded heretics and persecuted in their home country. They made sure that the US was set up without a state religeon but based on commonly accepted Christian principles. This also had the effect of encouraging honesty and doing your job without bribes.

In contrast, the countries of S. America were primarially settled by people who came from totalitarian countries (Spain, Portugal) where the King was absolute ruler. They were also accustomed to the absolute rule of the Pope in the Catholic church. The concentration of the power structure in an elite few continues to this day.

Posted by: Michael E. Meehan at June 9, 2006 3:10 PM
Comment #156089

Americans would be wise to remember the lyrics of “A Song of Peace,” a hymn written by Lloyd Stone sung to the tune of Sibelius’ Finlandia

Pay particular attention to the parts I have bolded. It reminds me that Americans and America, while indeed “exceptional” as Jack points out, need a little humility and perspective:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:

O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Posted by: Steve k at June 9, 2006 3:24 PM
Comment #156091


I hate to be the person to defend you, but here it goes…

SPELLIN (Yes pun intended) shud not rally matter here.

Lets be realistic. We read a post and comment on it quickly. That is our nature. There is no spell check here. OI know we should not need it, but in a hasty response spelling errors happen.

Posted by: Vincent Vega at June 9, 2006 3:32 PM
Comment #156108


I don’t proofread well. It is sort of a flaw, like being a drunk. Yes I don’t proofread well and sometimes I am not so smart, but I do remember stories well. I would recommend the one with Churchill and Lady Astor next time you figure on writing something w/o thinking.

Vincent, thanks.

This guy is right about the writing. I do this for fun. In my day job I have people who check these things for me.

Posted by: Jack at June 9, 2006 4:30 PM
Comment #156119


What exactly are you basing your statement, “No one is more critical of America than Americans,” on? I can think of a host of other nations far more critical of us than we are of ourselves. They may not be able to proactively voice this opinion, but just travel abroad and bit and find out.

I also think that keeping ourselves in check has more to do with controlling the actions of our executive branch than merely being critical which, if you think about it, doesn’t really amount to much.

Posted by: Zeek at June 9, 2006 4:58 PM
Comment #156130

I love this post Jack!
here are my comments.
America is a great idea - the rule of law, no state religion imposed upon it’s people. Ethical behavior assumed as the norm etc. All the things the founding fathers came up with…good stuff. But you have to realize that the reason our culture is spreading everywhere is money. Money to do research Money for “defense”, money to give others in crisis (under our conditions). Money to buy goods from other countries the list goes on and on.
Other countries did not learn english because they admire us - they want to make money for themselves. You could argue that there are idealists out there who like what they see in our system and want to give it a shot because it’s a good idea but mostly they’d like the prosperity we have.
The thing is we are a very rich nation partially because of our system of government but mostly because we have a staggering amount and variety of natural resources and we also accumulated vast amounts of wealth somewhat unscrupulously during the days of slavery and the beginning of the industrial age. The families that made money then are still the big money now. So yes americans are exceptional - we are exceptionally good at making money and not subtle at all in using the power it buys.
SO there are many reasons american culture is out there. I don’t think it can be pinned down to any one factor.

Posted by: kp at June 9, 2006 6:01 PM
Comment #156140


Money is both a cause and effect of power.

Wealth must be created. Most wealth comes NOT from the ground, but from the people. Resources are not “natural”. They are produced with a combination of what is natural and a lot of technique and technology. Oil was not a resource until people figured out how to use it. And then it was not available until they figured out how to drill for it.

Most countries with ambundant resources are - paradoxically - poor. They call it the resource curse. If resouces were enough, Congo would be rich and Japan poor.

Most American wealth was created in the 20th Century and not many of those old families from the old days are among the richest anymore. Slavery was economically unsound (again because wealth comes from people and slaves have few incentives) in the modern age. That is why the south was backward compared to the free north. As subsequent experience showed, you do a lot better with free labor.

Posted by: Jack at June 9, 2006 6:19 PM
Comment #156145

Watchblog editors
Hi! just part of my campaign to get editorial comment. Really would like to say that if humanity had to work as hard at procreation,we would be extinct.

Posted by: jblym at June 9, 2006 6:39 PM
Comment #156179

Is it our policies or our people (not leaders)that are seen in a negative light by those in other Countries?

Posted by: j2t2 at June 9, 2006 8:57 PM
Comment #156181


According the the Pew Research book, it is both. It depends. There are 191 countries in the world and each has a different public opinion. Some think we are too religious; others say we are not religious enough. Europeans dislike our fast paced life and fear they might be forced to do it too in order to compete. Look at the Pew site. Many of the studies are online.

Posted by: Jack at June 9, 2006 9:37 PM
Comment #156227

Money is a cause and effect of (1) students growing up in an environment that teaches them self-discipline and to internalize work habits A LOT! (2) Of people having respect for the rule of law and a basic respect for the sanctity of contracts. Often this respect is acquired from an understanding of the basic human contract, the monogamous heterosexual marriage contract. Every business contract is, in a sense, a marriage. When contracts start to mean nothing, then the only thing that will prosper is lawyering. (3) A nation probably has to have positive population pressure to prosper (4) a nation and a people has to have a national goal. With some nations it is a sense of manifest destiny. With others, it may be a sense of revenge. A good common goal for all nations would be to take ourselves and many of our associated lifeforms to the stars. Life seems to be quite rare in the universe and it is certainly vulnerable here on Earth, so we should expand, and ASAP.

Posted by: Mike Cook at June 10, 2006 3:41 AM
Comment #156231

Good post,

Posted by: fred at June 10, 2006 4:10 AM
Comment #156250


Looking at your argument, it strikes me how much you could argue that the historically exceptional nation was Great Britain. That is where the industrial revolution started. Adam Smith was Scottish. Aside from the obvious fact that English originated there, the British empire is largely responsible for the current hegemony of English in the world. And politically, the Founding Fathers were adapting/reacting to the British political system, and they were all of English or Scottish (Hamilton) ancestry.

My, I am making quite an argument for Dead White Men here! ;)

I really have no problem with the argument that the US is exceptional, but it gets messy when we say we are morally exceptional. Whenever a US atrocity is reported, the general reaction on this side “We’re the good guys”. But that isn’t really much of an argument…

Posted by: Woody Mena at June 10, 2006 9:37 AM
Comment #156252

Religion, Certainty & Morality: Certainty is not a word I would associate with religion. Wouldn’t faith be a more suitable word for this catagory.

Aggressive Isolationism: By this, do you mean that we persue isolationism aggressively or that though we tend to be isolationist, we are still agressive militarily in the World.

“Insufferable Optimism” & Free Markets: The most insufferable optimists are thoses who enter into a contract, knowing the full value of the contract, with someone who is ignorant of the value of the contract.

Posted by: jlw at June 10, 2006 10:07 AM
Comment #156253


Albion’s Seed is the book you want to read. It is about the persistence of British folkways in America. It is unfashionable to say so today, but it is nevertheless true that the U.S. is primarily a British child. We have developed in a variety of ways and have absorbed influences from around the world, but the origin of our founding DNA is culturally and physically the British Isles.

In 1000 years, when HS student study our times, they will probably lump us and the British together and make no more distinction between us then our kids make between the Latins and the Romans. I bet lots of Iraqis cannot really see a difference. Dead white males ruled, literally.

My point re exceptional is that we ARE but so are all others. You can find something exceptional about anyone if you look It is just that our exceptionalism is more important because we are so powerful.

Posted by: Jack at June 10, 2006 10:30 AM
Comment #156258


Of course the flip side of the coin is that other peoples were here before the British — aside from the various Indian nations, the first European explorers were from Spain. Probably half of the US used to be part of Spain (and later Mexico). Millions of early Americans were from Africa.

What is predominantly British is our political and economic system. Thankfully, our food, music, etc. has come from other cultures. Which is a good thing. I’ve never tried blood pudding, but it sound revolting…

Posted by: Woody Mena at June 10, 2006 11:28 AM
Comment #156275

One reason the U.S. has been so successful is that Brit food was so horrible. Any ethnic group that came to the U.S. could make better food, open a resturant and get their feet on the first rungs of the latter.

I don’t say that other groups did not contribute. (I am not of British descent.) But I think if we look at it like this, we can understand. If back to 1750 and you studied the various cultures (Indian, African, Spanish, English etc) and then you looked at the modern U.S., how much could you predict the current social, political or economic system based on the your studies? If you knew about the British, you would not be that surprised by the U.S. If you knew about the Indians, the country would be completely different.

You know that in the 2000 census, the biggest ethnic group in the U.S. is German (58 million), followed by English and Irish. But for all the great numbers of German immigrants and their descendents, we no longer hear much German on the streets. A century ago, people worried about that they way we now worry about Hispanics.

Posted by: Jack at June 10, 2006 12:42 PM
Comment #156563

As someone from England the general concensus is that america is financially successful, has a good film industry, decent but unhealthy fast food, two varieties of quite good cola, poorely built cars, either highly energetic or scarily moronic groups of people (usually a north/south divide - and i admit a product of stereotypes), a very large and powerful military, an insane/stupid/aggressive president, no welfare system or health care for the impoverished, good music (well not anymore), an apathetic/self involved teen culture, florida, a helping hand in WW2 and the most dangerous and influential government since the nazi party in germany.

Frankly we love alot about the american people and their culture (afterall we have adopted a large amount of it) but we dislike the militaristic aspect of the government, the mistreatment of countries around the world, whether it be the banana republics, vietnam or iraq, and the still fuming yet hidden racism and homophobia that excists.

In other words, we dislike Mr Bush and all that he and his fellow republicans stand for. I think that opinion is shared by most of the world.

Posted by: The Fly at June 11, 2006 3:43 PM
Comment #156655


Put a German, in a room with an Arab and a man from China and if they talk at all, there is an excellent chance it will be in English. Even if you add a Frenchman, chances are English will still be the … lingua franca.

No doubt. In fact, it what happened from start between the US pioneers who came from several different nations, but a majority of them were coming from anglo-saxon countries.

Oh, BTW, don’t forget that a frenchman only dare to speak in english because he think it make him sexier ;-)

My point re exceptional is that we ARE but so are all others.

Which quite cancel the exception property, right?

You can find something exceptional about anyone if you look It is just that our exceptionalism is more important because we are so powerful.

Then it’s US *power* that is exceptional.
Which I agree.

Posted by: Philippe Houdoin at June 12, 2006 5:25 AM
Comment #156904

In an ecumenical spirit, I offer the words of the great poet, Sheldon Harnick:

They’re rioting in Africa.
They’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida
And Texas needs rain.

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans.
The Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs.
South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don’t like anybody very much!

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For man’s been endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away.

They’re rioting in Africa.
There’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.

Posted by: Mental Wimp at June 12, 2006 7:29 PM
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