American (and Greek, and German) exceptionalism

American (and Greek, and German) exceptionalism July 5, 2019

Remember the dust-up about whether Obama believed in “American exceptionalism” — that is, as shorthand for whether he believed there was something uniquely special about the United States?  It came about after a series of comments culminating in an interview in which he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  Now, he goes on to affirm that which is special about the United States, such as our core values embodied in the constitution, but that first statement really struck a nerve with people because it seemed to suggest that he believed that pride in one’s country was simply ingrained in that country’s citizens and carried no particular meaning.

But in light of the latest dust-up about the Betsy Ross flag, as I was engaged in a bit of a bike ride yesterday morning (yeah, we split up and I was going to watch the Budweiser Clydesdales get harnessed up while my husband and son went on a hike at the local forest preserve, but then I realized that the Clydesdales, in town for a 4th of July parade, were nowhere near as interesting without small children in tow and a shady spot to watch from) I was thinking about the larger issues at play.

After all, I’m still overdue on a more detailed description of my vacation, not that I think readers are necessarily interested but as much for my own interest, and well, we were in Greece, after all.

What is “Greek Exceptionalism”?  I can’t really claim to be an expert, and actual Greeks are invited to chime in, but near as I can tell, they take pride in Classical Greek culture, and their “firsts” in the categories of sculpture, architecture, history, philosophy, science, and literature, and their practice of democracy (even if modern critics would say it missed the mark due to the status of women and slaves).  They take pride in their resistance to the occupying Ottoman Turks (even if at the same time, they remember their years, indeed centuries of victimhood, which produced a culture of resistance/corruption against the government which today fails to serve them well).  They celebrate their shared Greek Orthodox church, with its icon-filled sanctuaries and its endless festivals, and they celebrate their distinctive food and drink.  All in all, it’s not a bad list, even if their years of democracy in ancient times were replaced by Macedonian, then Roman, then Ottoman rule and, even after independence, a king installed by the European powers to whose intervention they owed their independence every bit as much as we owe our thanks to the French.

And, well, I’m not going to opine on the Brits.  But the Germans — well, they knew they that there’s nothing to be proud of in Nazi Germany, and, reality is that they have not, since that point, had the same sense of “national pride.”  My husband used to say that people were more proud of their particular region within Germany, and certainly in Bavaria, we saw plenty more Bavarian flags than German flags, though the 2006 World Cup seemed to have been a turning point, when people were happier to fly the German flag.  But even so, even though they wouldn’t necessarily sing “I’m proud to be a German,” they were still proud of their technical innovation (the real inventors of the automobile) and powerhouse companies such as Daimler, Siemens, and Bosch, or their Bismarkian social insurance system, of their contributions to culture in music, literature, and so on.  And even though the question of how much penance the nation is bound to, as a result of the war, continues, there remains pride in the Wirtschafstwunder, or Economic Miracle, of the postwar years (which, yes, was aided by the Marshall Plan but cannot be credited entirely to it).  And “Bavarian pride” isn’t such a bad thing either — meaning as it does pride in traditions of tracht (dirndls and lederhosen) and local celebrations and customs and local beer.

Consider, again, the reason why we’re told it is necessary not simply for June to be a celebration of the acceptance of gays and lesbians by society and a celebration of self-acceptance, but for pride.  And similarly, one of the studies used as arguments for the need for school desegregation, prior to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, was one in which young black girls preferred to play with white dolls, because they were missing, and needed, pride in themselves as black people.  People are by nature tribal; they need a tribe and they need to feel proud of that tribe, even if, in the end, there is nothing superior about that tribe, only a collection of characteristics which are distinctive and a set of traditions and a heritage which is special and contains “firsts” and things to be proud of.

In the United States, of course, we have historically had a pretty good list of things to be proud of:  a “first in modern times” democracy which has remained stable for nearly 250 years and which has only improved in terms of the acknowledgement of civil rights of its people, a tradition of welcoming and integrating immigrants and treating them as equals (and even though legal immigration restrictions now exist in a manner that wasn’t originally the case, those immigrants are able to be naturalized have full and equal rights under the law), a celebration of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, a history of freeing others from tyranny (whether in the Civil War or in World War II), an incredible legacy of invention and innovation and economic development, and so on.  And that legacy has allowed people to, in fact, find pride in being American even though their forebears came from elsewhere and even though our cultural traditions are much more regional and much younger, and much more restricted to only just some of us (who among us feels pride in the legacy of country music or rock & roll?).

But now?

We are told by the more extreme of the Social Justice Warriors that sexual minorities and ethnic and religious minorities who have faced persecution are encouraged to take pride in their cultures.  But those of us who are white, and who do not have a minority religion or sexual orientation or the like are told that we are fundamentally not to be proud of any sort of legacy at all.  Our ethnic legacy is one regarding which we should be ashamed.  The historical legacy of our country, we’re told, is equally shameful rather than a source of pride, and we’re told that no particular cultural tradition (be it music or food or fireworks on the 4th of July) constitutes an “American culture” because by definition there is no such thing, as the United States is merely a collection of cultures; that is, to say that “X is a part of American culture” is to deny the Americanness of those who do not participate in this tradition.  In other words, those very people who have told us that it’s important to a person’s well-being to feel pride in one’s identity group have also said that non-intersectional white people are not entitled to this sense of well-being due to pride in their own ethnic group, a regional sub-culture, or in America itself.  (And recall, too, that Tim Carney’s Alienated America identifies the loss of communities — meant as a word to describe real networks of support and social exchange rather than merely geographical places —  and, in particular, religious communities, as a key problem as well.)

And, judging by the escalating number of “deaths of despair” by the white working class (substance overdose, suicide) as well as by those who “find their tribe” in undesirable ways in the Alt-Right, this is not going to end well.


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