American Exceptionalism
What Are We Fighting For?

Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting for?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the weekend read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

Published on: October 19, 2014
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  • Andrew Allison

    “The situation of the Americans is therefore entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no [other] democratic people will ever be placed in it.” It is the situation which de Tocqueville thought exceptional, not the country, and it may very well be that no other democratic country, let alone one that isn’t democratic, will ever be placed in it.
    One could also argue that the U.S.A has lost sight of Winthrop’s argument that America . . . could serve as an example for the world, and started to think that America’s understanding of democracy should be imposed on other countries, with predicable results. Finally, I would argue that a democracy of aristocrats, er bureaucrats and everymen” is no democracy at all.

  • J R Yankovic

    First Winthrop:

    “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are upon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

    Now Paine:

    “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.”

    Now Berkowitz:

    “Here we have a secular individual—Thomas Paine was a raging atheist—who more or less translates Winthrop’s religious idea about America’s special place in the world.”

    First of all, and to be frank, I’m not sure how far the translation is successful. I may be dead-wrong concerning Winthrop’s motives and contextual backdrop. But to me he writes with an almost disarming humility and prudence concerning the – what shall we call it? CONDITIONALITY? – of the whole New World enterprise. The entire project hinges on how truly we deal with – how patiently and delicately, if you will, we attune ourselves to – the God who makes it all possible and realizable. On THAT, i.e., on Him, depends its success or failure. Of course I don’t know how far Winthrop was writing as an orthodox Christian (as I understand the term). But so far as he was, then to me he his primary point of comparison and departure is not Paine’s “new beginning” of creation under Noah, but the eternal transfiguration of creation under Christ. The God to whom we must conform ourselves, on pain of failure or disgrace, is not merely the God who redeemed Noah from the flood (and so opens up to us a new world in which we can do pretty much as we like, provided we have the will, effort and “gumption”),

  • J R Yankovic

    Sorry, I clicked too soon:

    [As I read Winthrop] The God to whom we must conform ourselves, on pain of failure or disgrace, is not merely the God who redeemed Noah from the flood (and so opens up to us a new world in which we can do pretty much as we like, provided we have the will, effort and “gumption”),

    but the God who in Christ redeems us from the unimaginable flood and horror of sin. A God, in short, who cares intensely not just about how well we “take care of,” or “make good for,” or “take charge of” ourselves, but how thoroughly we are remade in His Image of (paradoxically enough) lowliness, meekness and trust. My guess (no, I haven’t done the research yet) is that Winthrop would pretty much “triangulate” everything else in human history – including the “miracle of America” – to that one nodal point.

    “The raging atheist” Paine, in contrast, seems to me to attach no conditions whatever to the success of the enterprise other than our own sheer will and determination, possibly coupled with the degree of our “brave” contempt and defiance of the (dead yet oppressive) Past.

    Last of all, I don’t mean what may be taken as quibbling points to detract from the real depth and scope of a superb essay. Dr Berkowitz has succeeded in placing the void in America’s “political soul,” if you will, squarely where in my view it belongs – in a kind of abscess, or abdication, of our local political life and responsibilities. How far, assuming he’s correct, that is a damning judgment on our wider economic priorities and – IMO – global utopianism of the past 20+ years remains to be explored. Anyhow, right off the top of my head (hardly a safe point of departure), I’d say “The American Interest” has blessed us with three very solid, richly instructive guideposts – this plus Dr Grygiel’s “Two Princes” and WRM’s “Who’s to Blame, etc” (Dr Garfinkle’s “American Sex and the Middle East” I put in a separate but equally useful category) – for where we’ve been recently, and where we might go. In other words, we have some outstanding tools for a massive reappraisal of not just our American political culture, but of something I’m not sure I have a word for – maybe our American moral and spiritual politics? (Assuming those haven’t become complete oxymorons?)

    Tools. I just wish I could be half as optimistic about what we’re going to do with them.

  • Anthony

    First panel discussion of Charles Murray, George Packer, et al provides excellent background to essay’s thrust. Second, what is the American Project: for more background see

  • FriendlyGoat

    Once upon a time, America was exceptional because of its income tax structure. The more we dilute it, the less exceptional we become. (IMHO, anyway)

    • Sibir_RUS

      Historically, the United States, as a former British colony, should be grateful to Russia for its assistance in the struggle for independence.
      In 1775 in the North American colonies of England uprising, a year later ledto the emergence of a new state – the USA. In the summer of 1778 in the struggle of the liberated colonies with the former metropolis intervened France, which has concluded a Union with the United States and declared the British war. In 1775(!) the English king George III, playing on the monarchial feelings of the Empress, sent a personal message to the reign of Catherine II, asking her to send to America of the Russian soldiers to quell the rebellion of his subjects. The British Minister in St. Petersburg sir Robert Gunning received detailed instructions, according to which it had to obtain from the Queen of sending a 20-thousand corps, and a draft of the Treaty.
      Rumors about the extraordinary request of George III and the possible sending of Russian troops over the ocean caused serious concern in America and in Western Europe.
      Calculations of the English king on Russia’s support did not materialize, and in a letter dated 23 September (October 4), 1775 Catherine replied polite, but resolute refusal. George III has not time addressed in this occasion to the Russian Empress, but got the answer from St. Petersburg only the words of sympathy. Attempts to England impose on Russia the allied commitments made even repeatedly, however, Russia continued to maintain strict neutrality and in 1780, at the initiative of the Russian Empress Catherine, the great number of European States announced the «armed neutrality» directed against Britain. Thereby supporting the Americans in their revolutionary struggle.

  • I think what America may have finally lost is her infatuations with the “unearned innocence” about her real condition or herself. And by that I mean, America had always had a deep and abiding cultural blind spot about things other people would have easily notice if it was put before them, but not Americans, apparently. Hence, for example, even though she was deep in slavery at her birth, but, still, she was (or her founding fathers were) an almost a Shakespearean’s verbal artists when it comes to conjuring up all manner of honey-words about the virtuous of liberty.

    Again, if I give you you another example, one can say, that you can see the deliberate feigning of “historical innocence” of America (in which she was playing at) particularly if you look how she got through her middle passage years in the 19th century which was based on an endless stream patronage and office-buying (as Prof Fukuyama have showed in his new book) which was how politics was conducted in America after 1830s election of president Andrew Jackson who had a relish in auctioning off the seats of the federal offices, and then then compare that ugly reality with all the song and dance in which that period of the “birth of democracy” (as was called by some) is treated within the America’s historical folklore of that time.

    And, thirdly, while we are still in that period (or historical passage of America’s history), there was a costly civil-war to content with; whereby, at it’s end, America’s claim of her exceptional-ism, did even allowed a vicious Jim Crow laws to replace the outlawed slavery, while at the same time, those were rhapsodizing about the “birth-of-new-union” forged by blood-and-iron, look the other way. So, eventually, it took 100 years time, for that “claimed exceptional-ism” to work her magic in-order to ameliorate the condition of her former slaves who are now second-class citizens, by making them as citizens of equal worth (at least before the law in the southern’s states).

    No, I am afraid, what America had (and still has) is the abundance blind cultural spot about herself (or her condition), as well as a teeming verbal artists, starting from all the way back from the constitution writers of Madison and Hamilton, and ending with current Obama, while paying homage along the way, such beautiful writers, by the names of FDR, JFK, and Dr King, who were to a man, unsurpassed “word-smiths” to beguile and enrapture Americans about their place in the Cosmos.

    Or how exceptional they are, even, if the ugly truth (of class division, of race antagonism, of self-serving-oligarch’s buying-power, or of politician’s-who-are-no-more-dignified-than-local-hooker-with-a-price-tag-sitting-in-Congress). And, since, all of these is outside of their well-tended-front-porch, which is something any person in anywhere in the world would easily recognize it, but apparently not Americans.

    Hence, taken all of these together, one can say, that, their prodigious verbal output (which was intended to hide the ugly truth) could always be rely on to make the American’s political reality to sound like so much of a sweet dreams in the ears of her citizens.

    Consequently, if by chance, all those lullabies and other “Garden’s of Eden’s innocence” sort of claim, in which America always prefer to indulge in, instead of looking their reality squarely in the eye, are now in the pass, then, perhaps Americans will finally ask themselves why their country is in steep political decline.

    In other words, the question is, is America’s decline (at least politically) something of a strike from a blue sky? Or has that decline and decay have something to do with bogus claim of exceptional-ism, which, in previous era, allowed America not to notice that ugly truth, but now, such a fig-leaf is not allowing America’s of today to distract itself with honey-words and verbal obfuscation, when that ugly truth is persistently refusing to go away from the mind of any rational Americans. Hence, if there is a lost of something in modern America, what was lost is seems to me is the deliberate attempt to look the other way (or claim an “innocence” about America’s true history). And, if that is the case, then perhaps that may be a good thing.

  • Sibir_RUS

    VLADIMIR V. PUTIN. The New York Times.
    September 11, 2013
    “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

  • Sibir_RUS

    Thomas Paine: «So Shall our Nation, formed on Virtue’s Plan,Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man»

    During Obama’s presidency the USA has not expanded its international legal obligations in the humanitarian field and still participates only in three out of nine core human rights treaties. The Americans have not so far ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (only Somalia has not also acceded to it). The main outstanding issue is an abhorrent Guantanamo prison. President B. Obama sanctioned indefinite and extrajudicial detention and the resumption of military tribunals.$FILE/Report.doc

  • Fordson61

    Give me a break! Luckily, America does not have too many intellectuals of the European ilk Maybe most of them were at this conference. But some of them should look more carefully at the world and compare what is going on elsewhere with the situation in the US We are definitely going through hard times, but the self-pitying negativism reflected in this speech and the accompanying discussion is just too hard to take.

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