The dangerous pretension of knowing what’s best

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

Gov. Sarah Palin
Pres. Ronald Reagan
Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588-1649), who wrote “A Model of Christian Charity”
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.

Citizenship, Research

Who gave us the right

Some of my more darker-themed artworks were inspired by the sort of pessimistic malaise seen in some recent contemporary art shows, and the related idea of the end of the American Century. More than just a form of liberal cynicism or the fatigue of constant moral outrage, I’m much more interested in an intellectual inquiry into why Americans should be skeptical the direction of our country, especially as both presidential candidates envision the US being the leader of the world.

So I was intrigued by Andrew J. Bacevich’s interview on WHYY’s Fresh Air (Sept. 11, 2008).

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, discusses his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

He argues that pragmatic realism has always been the core of American foreign policy, and current politicians would do well to remember that.

Bacevich is both a military man and a Boston University professor. He speaks candidly about how he didn’t develop a political consciousness until after he left the military. His position, now, though, is one that opposes the US’ continued Cold War-style military “strategy” to dramatically reshape the greater Middle East, and how the American public is confusing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the more sinister War on Terror—in which the role of this country is more like one that polices the world, rather than coexisting in it with others. He was also highly critical of the Legislative branch for giving up so much power to the Executive branch. And in one exchange that was a welcome validation of leftist values, when host Terri Gross pressed the professor on what the US should be doing, in addition to diplomacy, he mentioned increasing student exchanges and cultural exchanges to improve the perception of the US and work against our isolation from the world.


ADDENDUM (added 9/26/08):

Roger Cohen’s op-ed, “Palin’s American Exception” (, Sept. 25, 2008) is a great primer on why exceptionalism is a suspect position these days. Cohen proposes that behind Palin’s emphatic embrace of exceptionalism is an enraged response to the decline of American power. He promotes universalism instead of exceptionalism, interconnectedness instead of separateness, and realism not rage.