Research

The dangerous pretension of knowing what’s best

Sarah Vowell shares a look at the roots of American Exceptionalism, tying…

Gov. Sarah Palin
to
Pres. Ronald Reagan
to
Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588-1649), who wrote “A Model of Christian Charity”
to
Jesus and his “Sermon on the Mount”

…in this week’s episode of Studio 360 from PRI.

I suspected that American Exceptionalism stems from the same principles that justified Manifest Destiny — that Americans are ‘chosen’ people, and that non-Americans are rightfully subject to Americans’ will.

So the fact that its roots go back to 15th century — the Age of Discovery, when Christian missionaries were covering the earth — affirms my suspicions. Furthermore, John Winthrop may have been interested in helping the poor, but he was also anti-democratic: he believed that aristocrats had a responsibility to help poor people, but the poor shouldn’t be allowed to have a voice. How paternalistic.

As Stuff White People Like #62: Knowing What’s Best for Poor People goes, “It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them.” If American Exceptionalists believe we Americans are similarly privileged — we know what’s best for the rest of the world — and we embody the universal ideal — that the greatest potential of the world is to become more like us: more democratic, more free-market Capitalist, more Wal-Marts and Whole Foods — it’s an awfully pretentious vision.

I realized that my objection to American Exceptionalism is similar to my position on Activist Art; that the underlying assumption that one is responsible for fixing the world is based on distinguishing oneself from the world. But as Johanna Drucker reminds us, “we are not better than the world we inhabit.” We are part of the world. And that we ought to accept our interdependence and complicity in the state of the world. The responsibility to fix it isn’t ours alone, but should be approached with mutual investment and collaboration.

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