It is a strong part of the American identity to view ourselves as unique among the peoples of the world. Those of a traditionally American turn of mind think of our nation as a shining city on a hill, the ‘last best hope of earth,’ a beacon of liberty showing that mankind can be free after all those centuries of tyranny and oppression. It is an experiment in returning power to the people rather than monarchs or nobles, an example for all to follow.
This is what is called American Exceptionalism. It is the notion that we, because of our rights, our institutions, and our particular philosophy of government are unique among the nations of the Earth. We are the greatest country in the world, the freest, the happiest, the best example of how mankind is to be governed.
I think it is long, long past time that we gave up this idea.
Exceptionalism Leads to Conditional Love
I don’t say this just because our system of government and society barely resembles that which existed at the nation’s founding (even allowing for the passage of time and development of technology). Nor because we have recently witnessed the departure of what may well be the last legitimate president we will ever have, leaving the nation in the hands of criminals. Nor do I say this on account of slavery or racism or any of the other sins of our past (which are only to be expected).
It isn’t even because I think the philosophy we based our nation upon is incoherent and dangerously self-contradictory, or because I think the narrative underlying it to be thoroughly false.
No, the reason we need to give up the idea of our own exceptionalism is that it is fatal to patriotism.
As Americans (as I assume most of our readers to be) this may shock you. It may even sound like nonsense. But I beg you to try to understand what I’m saying.
Suppose a man were to say to his young son “I love you because you are the smartest, best behaved boy in school.” Suppose then that the boy gets a poor grade on his test, or gets into trouble with the teacher. What is he to think? The most natural thing would be for him to fear that his father would no longer love him, or not as much because he has shown himself to not be so smart or so well-behaved as his father believed him to be.
It is unlikely his father would really feel that way, but the boy would think so. He would think so because that would be the logical deduction from his father’s words. Therefore, even if the boy never does break the rules or get a bad grade, he will have that fear in the back of his mind of “what if…?” “What if I fail this test? What if I make a mistake and get detention? My father won’t love me a much anymore.” He will thus either work fearfully and fervently to ‘keep’ his father’s love or else despair and give up entirely. One thing is sure though: any love of the subjects themselves or any enjoyment in the ordinary life of a schoolboy will be crippled because none of them can be enjoyed for their own sake. They must go toward the satisfaction of that all-important condition.
It is the same for a husband and wife. A woman whose husband tells her “I love you because you are so beautiful” will fear the aging process and, just as much, fear the inevitable rival whose looks outshine her own.
If you ask why you love someone or something, you may give reasons (“She’s so sweet and so lovely!” “He’s so strong, so honest”), but the real, proper response – which it is important to understand whether or not it is directly stated – is simply “because you are yourself.” As Professor Von Hildebrand says, to love something means to perceive the unique idea in the mind of God that it represents: to see it as something unique, irreplaceable, incomparable.
This is the great danger of American exceptionalism: it seeks to justify patriotism. Worse, it actually takes those justifications seriously. We are to love America because she is the freest, most just nation on earth, the nation that corrects the mistakes of the rest of the world, where equality and opportunity and liberty reign supreme.
The Consequences of Conditional Patriotism
There are two great problems here. The first is that, by binding our self-image in the idea of our own liberty and the unique excellence of our institutions, we make ourselves blind to our own danger. By clinging to the idea that we have the best system of government in the world, we obscure the dangers of that system. By being committed to the idea that we are a free people, we resist noticing the fact that we are not.
And in so doing, of course, we encourage the very corruption we deny. What was the line that 2020 apologists used? “Questioning the election undermines our democracy.” Forgetting for a moment the hypocrisy involved, this is exactly the danger I’m talking about: the assumption that we can always rely on our institutions to protect us and that questioning them is somehow dangerous to our society.
When the cost to seeing the truth is the loss of personal identity, then you will ignore the truth as much as possible.
The second is what happens when that image fails. This idea of a ‘city on a hill’ is branded into our consciences as Americans, and it comes with a necessary corollary. Namely, that if we are not an adequate example, we need to do better. We need to be better. We need to continually change ourselves and purge ourselves in order to be that shining example.
Hence the great divide in the American psyche. Those who believe that the nation as is or as it was successfully achieves this promise fall on one side: those who do not fall on the other. Both talk about freedom and equal rights, only one applies them in one direction, the other in another. One looks at the past and sees triumph, the other sees failure and hypocrisy, but each, I think, judges through that lens of ‘we ought to be the example. We ought to lead the way.’
And like the man who loves his wife for her looks, those who don’t think they find an adequate example in the American system look elsewhere, to other systems that they think will finally create that ‘shining city on a hill’. But their looking elsewhere is grounded in the same narrative that causes their neighbors to celebrate what they have.
Worst of all, this is never going to stop. The conditions we have set ourselves – liberty, equality, opportunity, and so on – are impossible to achieve. The not only contradict each other, but are internally contradictory (for one man to be ‘free’ in some way necessarily imposes restrictions on another: if one man is free to burn the flag, his fellow is not free to defend the honor of his nation. If two men have legal equality, their differing talents with give them practical inequality). Therefore, there will always be people for whom the promises of America go unfulfilled.
The Problem of Calling America a Creedal Nation
America, we are told, is not a race but a creed. This, alas, is all too true, and it is killing us.
Because no nation is meant to be a creed. It is not our duty to save mankind or to be the shining example for the world to follow. We are not the new Jerusalem, we are not the last best hope of earth, we are not God’s chosen people. America is not the Church. It isn’t even Rome.
So what are we?
We’re just a nation. A particular people sharing a particular heritage under a particular form of government. We have a unique culture and national character, itself divided into innumerable subgroups. We are better in some ways and worse in some ways than every other nation in the world.
In short, we are ourselves. That’s all we need to be.
Some will call this a screed against America or against patriotism. It is intended as quite the opposite. It is exceptionalism, that idea that love for nation is and ought to be conditional, that is killing patriotism. It is this attitude that says “how can I love a nation that had such horrible people in it? How can a country that did such things be called ‘great’?”
True patriotism of the kind I describe does not deny the ills that were done. There is a narrative going around that people of earlier generations simply ignored or denied the crimes of the United States against, say, the Native peoples or the legacy of racial prejudice. This is a lie, as even a cursory examination of sources of the time will show. Wounded Knee was condemned in congress days after it happened. The wrongs done – to the Indians, to the Blacks, to immigrants, to the poor – were as much a part of the narrative as anything. Not to the extent that they are now, but they were not denied. Read The Devil and Daniel Webster for only one illustration.
The attitude we should have, looking to the great figures of the past is, “This person and what he did is part of our story. He is a relation of ours, and we stand in his debt for this or that reason.” Christopher Columbus was a man: a complicated, contradictory man of many virtues and many faults. But take him at his absolute worst, he is still an essential part of our shared heritage. We can no more deny him than we can deny our grandfather.
It is the relationship that imposes the obligation, not some quality or benefit we derive from it. It is the priest’s office that allows him to confer the Sacrament, not his virtue. Our nation is not required to earn our love and devotion any more than our parents are.
In fact, it is quite the opposite. The objective qualities of a nation – its freedoms, the peace and comfort of its communities, the power of its military, the excellences of its laws and so on – come from men who first love the nation and desire to care for and adorn it. Or as G.K. Chesterton, a man who understood patriotism on a profound level, put it: “Men did not love Rome because she was great. Rome became great because men loved her.”
Was America a great nation? Of course. All her sins and absurdities do not change that. Me, I’m a Roman Catholic and a monarchist, and I hardly agree with a word of the Americanist ideology. What difference does that make? I’m still an American, and will always be so, even as the country seemingly falls apart around me.
But we don’t love our nation just because it is or was great. We don’t love it because it is the salvation of mankind or unique in the history of the world or a great experiment in liberty. All of that supports the enemies of our nation just as much as it supports us.
We love it because it is what it is and because it is ours.
Image Credit: Restoring Pangea