On American Exceptionalism

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

1) American exceptionalism — Perhaps it derives in part from our putting a higher premium on freedom and liberty than, as in the French and other European cases, egalitarianism and fraternity; also, we were truly the first multi-ethnic state that sought to embrace a common culture rather than carve out cultural or racial fiefdoms. By 1820, there were already all sorts of sizable blocs of European ethnics, and so America no longer thought of itself as of merely English descent. I might quote, as a dissent from this theory, Obama’s moral equivalence on exceptionalism — remember he said that we are exceptional only in the sense that everyone else, from the Greeks to the Brits, thinks they are exceptional, too.

2) Proletariat — Perhaps it would be better, when speaking of an early rural society, to talk of an absence of peasantry: We had no concept of a large underclass of only quasi-free people attached to barons as serfs; instead, yeomen agrarians were the Jeffersonian ideal, a nation of independent farmers rather than peasants (as John de St. Crevecoeur wrote).

3) A gun-owning society, unlike Europe — On the theory that an armed citizenry would fight any federal effort to overturn individual liberties: That tradition later made our citizenry more comfortable with firearms, with obvious advantages for our military

4) “We in Europe are the Obama” — Obama also fails to see the irony that only an exceptionally free and proud America could have provided the military umbrella necessary to Europe’s development into an essentially disarmed socialist society — one dependent militarily and economically on the U.S. largely because we are so unlike it. Or, as a French intellectual whispered to me at a party not long ago, “There is only room in the West for one Obama — and we in Europe are the Obama.”

Obama also fails to see that American exceptionalism resulted in a degree of freedom and affluence for millions impossible elsewhere, which in turned fueled his own romantic idea of utopianism, e.g., because America was so rich and leisured, an Obama could indulge in criticizing it for not being consistently perfect.

On Obama’s distancing himself from American traditions, he is a paradox since his own success would be impossible in Europe or in Africa or Asia, and yet even in his privilege he sees himself as often antithetical to the very conditions that made him.

A question remains: Much of Obama’s comfortable leftism is a product of careerism; for a prep-school kid who went to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard and ended up in Chicago, his chic redistributive and radical ideas were sort of like medieval churchmen wearing crosses — it was part of entré into the club.

So it is hard for Obama to question an orthodoxy that for him was amazingly lucrative and opportune in careerist terms. Without a race-class-gender grievance mindset, and without a fault-America-first worldview, Obama would never have risen so far so fast in the circles he navigated. His only challenge now is to disguise and manipulate before an edgy public the thoughts, associations, and assumptions that have been second nature to him for 30 years but which are proving to be an anathema to the American people. He is our first president to be entirely unfamiliar with the productive classes of the private sector, without experience in anything much outside of universities and grievance politics. Consequently, he is increasingly bewildered that he can’t sway foreign heads of state and now the American public with the same old “hope and change” vacuity that so wowed Ivy League totems.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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