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What “American Exceptionalism” Means to Me

What “American Exceptionalism” Means to Me December 10, 2014

All my life I’ve been an American patriot; I do celebrate my country as truly exceptional. I love America and get choked up every time I hear the national anthem or salute the flag. However, unlike some of my fellow Americans, I am not a nationalist. There is a difference between loving one’s country and believing it is superior to all others in every way and avoiding all criticism of its government. I am grieved by those Americans who think that any and all criticism of America’s government’s actions in foreign affairs is treason. Some years ago, at the start of America’s “shock and awe” attack on Iraq, I saw and heard an influential American pastor say on national television that anyone who criticized it is guilty of treason. That’s nonsense.

One of the things I love about America is its institutionalized freedom to criticize its government. The government is not the nation; criticism of the government is deeply embedded in the American ethos. Of course, there are fair and unfair criticisms of the government, but to confuse criticism of the government with treason is absolutely un-American.

America is exceptional–in its ideals and occasionally its achievements. When I celebrate “my country” patriotically I am celebrating its ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and its Great Traditions of individual freedoms–to worship, to gather, to express opinions, etc. When I salute the flag I’m saluting what it stands for–not it as an object of special veneration.

Another important distinction is between the “state” and the “government.” Who is in power at any given time is not “the state.” The state is the structure (three branches of government, etc.) and not the persons who happen to hold office “right now.” I celebrate the state and evaluate the government–by how closely it lives up to the ideals of the national ethos and state. Balance of power is part of America’s state; too much power in any branch of government or government agency is bad government.

Recently, once again, news of a particular government’s abuses of power have come to light. This is the very epitome of Americanism. This is what makes America great–the freedom to expose and criticize abuses of power by government officials–elected or appointed.

To me “American exceptionalism” means all of the above (without implying the same ideals do not exist to some extent elsewhere) AND that, unlike many countries, America actually encourages, rewards, those who expose corruption and abuse of power. When we don’t we are departing from our own high ideals.

To my great astonishment and regret, a great irony is currently emerging. Television “talking heads” and print media commentators are criticizing America’s government (which is their right) for exposing past governments’ misdeeds.

Another part of American exceptionalism is that we don’t do what other governments do–execute people without due process, “disappear” people into secret prisons, torture and threaten people. We stand above our enemies in that regard; we take the high ground and refuse to wallow in their unethical behaviors. But, of course, sometimes we fail to live up to our own standards.

When we fail, we should expect someone to expose that failure and remind us of our high ideals. When we criticize them for doing so in the name of nationalism, “America is always right no matter what we do” or “ends justify means,” we fall from true American exceptionalism. True American exceptionalism is saying “We did wrong; we apologize and promise never to do it again.”

Unfortunately, and very ironically, true American exceptionalism is becoming the exception.

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