The danger of exceptionalist thinking

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Back in 2006, in a series of posts titled Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us, I spoke of the dangers that are inherent when any group of people start thinking of themselves as possessed of some mystic virtue that makes them intrinsically better than other people. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

Unfortunately, political leaders tend to feed that very evil. President Obama, like all presidents and other political leaders before him, repeats as a mantra and without proof that Americans have to be the best in everything. So when he talks to organized labor he will say that American workers are the best in the world, when he talks to soldiers he says that they are the best in the world, and when he speaks to business leaders he says that they are the best in the world. When he talks to high-tech leaders, he says that American inventiveness and ingenuity are unsurpassed. The only place where it is politically safe to criticize America is its educational system. It gets beaten up a lot, which is a little odd when all the things that Americans are supposedly the best at depend on the educational system for their success.

It is undeniable that America is a leader in many areas of technology and in productivity. Those are statements that have an empirical basis. The very fact that it has been able to provide such a high standard of living for most of its inhabitants is evidence of that. The problem is that this evidence is interpreted as meaning that Americans must possess some innate mystical quality that has produced this result. It is rarely pointed out that there usually are a whole host of contingent factors that contribute. Empires have risen and fallen, and during their heyday they too tended to think that they were special people possessed with of some special gift or blessed by god. But this attitude can lead to a dangerous sense of hubris and lack of self-awareness.

In the previous post, I discussed how following the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart acknowledged that it was an awful act but still tried to make the case that Americans are uniquely superior to other people. But even this grudging acknowledgment that the US can on occasion act as barbarically as other people and are thus slightly less than perfect was too much for neoconservative William Kristol, the man who loves wars against Muslim countries, the bigger, the broader, the better. He responded to the Haditha atrocity as follows:

What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don’t need to “prove” we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this “proves” nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to “prove” that we are “different from the jihadists”. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.

Note that “Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to prove that we are different from the jihadists. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.” Why is the idea offensive? Why don’t we have to prove that we are different? What makes us exempt from the requirements we routinely impose on others? Such a statement epitomizes American exceptionalism.

The neoconservatives are the last people who should preen themselves on their innate goodness, given their record of advocating truly horrible policies. Here is Glenn Greenwald writing about them in 2006 after their disgusting show of glee at the horror and destruction inflicted on Lebanon by Israel:

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran — and before that, Iraq — knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for — and casually dismiss the importance of — the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye.

But Kristol is merely an extreme example of a more general mindset. However terrible the result, any assertion that America is uniquely possessed of incorruptible wholesome virtues and incapable of doing evil acts does not require proof. It is just a given.

I wrote earlier about how the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia reveals the double standard by which the American political establishment reacts to events and how the media reflexively adopts that point of view. In another post, I discussed how corrosive this myth of America’s Essential Goodness is. In an interesting study of individual psychology published under the title of Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 4, no. 1, May 2003, p. 1-44), Roy Baumeister and co-workers found that people who had high self-esteem in the absence of any concrete reasons for it were more dangerous than other people because they reacted with anger and violence at any perceived threat to their inflated self-image. What applies to individuals may also apply to nations so feel-good pandering to your audience is not benign. You are not just breeding a harmless conceit. Beliefs such as these, in the absence of any substantive basis, can actually lead to harmful acts.

Immanuel Wallerstein outlined why he thinks that because of this self-image of innate goodness, both parties will never have a decent foreign policy. The article was written in 2006 before the Congressional elections that gave the Democrats majorities in both houses. He said that while he would vote Democratic, he was unconvinced that a Democratic Congress would do better.

Indeed, one has to doubt that the Democrats collectively have a better foreign policy to offer. The primary problem of the leadership of the Democratic Party is that it believes, at least as much as the Republicans, that the United States is the center of the world, the font of wisdom, the great defender of world freedom — in short, a deeply virtuous nation in a dangerous world.

I think that events have shown that Wallerstein was prescient.

POST SCRIPT: Elliot Spitzer on The Colbert Report

The former governor of New York is one person who belongs in public office. It is incredible to me that someone with his talents should have risked it all for so little.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Eliot Spitzer
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  1. Chris says


    I wonder if you’ve read ‘The Myth of American Exceptionalism’ by Hodgson? I heard him interviewed on Diane Rehm about a year ago and I’ve been meaning to read the book ever since.

    Unfortunately Cincinnati seems to have only one copy that can’t leave the main library…

  2. Hank says

    Just a note -- I’ve lived in China and South Korea. In both of those places the locals thought they were exceptional and the things they did (and elements of their culture) were the best.

    I’m not sure exceptionalism is an uniquely American thing. I think most cultures view themselves as exceptional.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that Chinese food is the most delicious or that Chinese students study harder than any other country. Chinese newspapers (at least the English language ones) always seem to contain some front page story that spoke to Chinese productivity being the best in the world or how the continual growth of the Chinese economy proves that the Chinese model is superior. Never mentioning how China’s growth is increasingly inefficient.

    Perhaps this mentality is why China’s won’t allow Tibet to be independent or Taiwan to be recognized as a democracy.

  3. Kyle J says

    I was just yesterday reading a Pew Research publication from 2006 that has conclusions somewhat aligned with what Hank is saying:

    ‘…In a 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 60% of Americans agreed with the statement: “Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.”

    This placed Americans in the bottom third of the 43 national publics surveyed, far behind counties such as Indonesia (90% completely or mostly agreed with the statement), South Korea (90%), Egypt (88%), Mexico (86%), India (85%), Mali (80%), Uzbekistan (77%), Bolivia (77%), Tanzania (77%), and Bulgaria (74%).

    Among the publics of Western Europe, on the other hand, there was even less inclination to assert cultural superiority than in the United States. Just 55% of Italians agreed with the statement; as did just 40% of Germans; just 37% of the British; and just 33% of the French, the smallest percentage among any of the 43 nations surveyed. (So much for the arrogant French!)’


    Exceptionalism is still dangerous, but let’s not assume we are superior in our exceptionalist views. 🙂 (Ironic, eh?)

  4. says

    Thanks Hank and Kyle for the information.

    It looks like I have been:

    (1) too quick to closely correlate pandering by US political leaders to the actual beliefs of people; and

    (2) Been too Euro-American in my outlook.

    Hank has pointed to Chinese gloating about their economy now. But as I said, countries that are ascendent or dominant usually think that they are superior and have always been superior. Can any readers of this blog who live in other countries that are not big powers comment on whether the political leadership in those countries speak about themselves the way that US leaders do?

  5. Kyle J says

    I would imagine there is some sort of correlation between one’s feeling of cultural superiority and the relative lack of diversity in the local population. The ~40% of so of Americans who apparently do not feel strong American exceptionalism, I would guess, are largely not those living in conservative, exclusively-white, middle-American towns. As a region becomes more multi-cultural and/or takes on a more liberal worldview, I’ll bet exceptionalist feelings decrease.

    …Perhaps not by coincidence, the conservative movements in this nation seem more based upon nationalism, while liberals are more often accused of being “anti-American.”

    I still strongly agree with your general feelings about American exceptionalism, especially in light of our tendency to act upon it. I’m more worried about the United States enforcing American values on the world than I am South Korea. 🙂

  6. Eric says

    Mano --

    I think you’re going to have a hard time finding someone who believes their own country isn’t “a big power.” Ethnocentrism is a pretty universal concept.

    I kind of look at it as rival high schools getting riled up about football games -- politicians have to be cheerleaders; if they didn’t love their country so much, they’d have to go out and find honest work.

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