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Marion On February - 8 - 2011

Alexis de Tocqueville

A couple of weeks ago, in the Overtime section of Real Time with Bill Maher, a viewer posed a question wondering how foreigners viewed “American Exceptionalism.” When Bill read the question, Kim Campbell, ex-Canadian PM, smugly quipped, “Pretty dimly.”

That remark niggled me more than just a little bit, not because it was uttered by a foreigner who chose to live in the United States, rather than her own country, but because her cute and clever reply and the ensuing discussion made obvious the fact that no one on the panel – and apparently not even Bill Maher – understood the real meaning of the phrase.

Rather than speaking of “American Exceptionalism” as de Tocqueville described the experience, they applied the purely Palinesque definition of the phrase – in other words, the “dumbass definition.”

Well, why am I even surprised? I’ve spent the past thirty years, not only watching America and Americans devolve into a nation of dumbasses, fed on a supersized diet of instant gratification, with brains stultified to the point that critical thinking is an unfamiliar process being relegated to the evermore distant past, I’ve had to watch the UK and Europe bingefeast on an orgy of celebrity worship, reality television and trivial tat tarted up as bling.

In the ancient past – well, in the 1970s, that brilliant decade when college enrollment soared to dizzying heights, thanks to the social justice programs of Lyndon Johnson’s era – when I was reading Alexis de Tocqueville in French for literary purposes and re-reading him in English as part of a history course, I was given to understand that “American Exceptionalism” derived from the fact that our country had a beginning unlike no other before it or since.

We were a nation founded on the ideals of freedom and liberty. That a fair few people in the country at the time of its founding were neither free nor equal  was an oxymoron our fabled Founding Fathers pondered for a bit, but put aside in the contemporary necessity of founding a country. Black males, slave or free, were the equivalent of three-fifths of a white man. If you were a female, black or white, forget it. You didn’t count. You answered to your nearest male relative or your master. If you were a black woman and misbehaved, you could be sold or beaten or both; if you were a white woman and misbehaved, you could be beaten or committed or both. And from the very beginning, it was obvious that the Founding Fathers, men who, in Europe, would have found themselves amongst the highest echelon of aristocracy, intended that only the elite should rule – white men over a certain age, owning a certain amount of land or collateral and educated to the highest level.

Not many people know that – well, certainly not many Tea Partiers. People like their revered Founding Fathers would be denigrated as elitists by the Tea Party today.

When de Tocqueville spoke about “American Exceptionalism” in the early part of the 19th Century, when suffrage had just been extended to all white men over the age of twenty-one and people were beginning to push their brand of civilisation Westward, he spoke about the coalescence of a nation of people from various ethnic backgrounds and religions, come together under a tent labelled “Liberty” and functioning as one.

More than just a Sputnik moment, for de Tocqueville, who’d come from a nation of homogenous people, all of whom spoke a language influenced by none other than Latin, all practicants of the same religion and viewing anyone of a different denomination as heretical, a nation whose social life was strictly bounded by class, convention and privaleges derived from a heriditary ruler, this was really e pluribus unum in the flesh.

Social mobility was such that a man really could be born in a log cabin, into a family of illiterates, and ascend to the highest office in the land, by will of the people and not by birthright.

This was real American Exceptionalism, that out of many, could come one that functioned as a nation based on Constitutional rule and not religion, geographic or demographic type.  It made us different from the rest of the civilised world. Not better. Different.

Lately, however, at least during the past three years, American Exceptionalism has been misinterpreted to mean we, as a nation, are better than any other nation in the world. Our people are better. They’re smarter, they’re stronger, and because of this, we’re owed, if not respect, then at least obeisance, as Americans, as the propagators of freedom and democracy, Yankee-style.

This deliberate misniterpretation of American Exceptionalism is a particular pet hate of mine, especially when it’s used by people who should know better or by people who do know better, but use the incorrect interpretation to further their own agenda.

So rather than bask in the fact that she”d scored a petty point against Americans in their own country with a subtle put-down, Kim Campbell should have enlightened us by reminding everyone that American Exceptionalism means we differ from other countries in our origins, alone, and not by our superiority. And Bill Maher should have reminded people that each country in the world is exceptional in that it celebrates, good and bad, its own unique history. This is what the President addressed when he spoke of American Exceptionalism as opposed to British or French or Russian Exceptionalism, not any sense of superiority, but a sense of individual difference as nations based on their common history shared. It was a call to embrace and envelope immigrants into a nation’s culture, making them and their heritage a part of a shared history as well.

For de Tocqueville, the single defining element of American Exceptionalism was the sense of being included, whereas anything out of the ordinary in the Old World was to be excluded and avoided – and shunted over to the New World, if at all possible.

And now, with the news that Arianna Huffington, that “doyenne of the Left” has sold The Huffington Post to AOL for a neat $315 million dollars and a position as CEO Queen Regnant of an internet empire, we have no less than Chris Matthews lauding her as the embodiment of the American Dream fulfilled, when an immigrant can decamp to our shores and in a lifetime reach the top of the heap.

But how many immigrants arrive in this country, travelling First Class (on Concorde at the time), buy a condo on New York’s Upper West Side, join a gym frequented by Baba Wawa and ingratiate herself into a friendship with the same, then mosey on out to California, effect to be befriended by the Gettys, who introduced her to the ubiquitous billionaire oilman husband (who happened to be gay)?

Just your average immigrant tale. America’s the land of the rich and the grifting and anyone blatantly shameless enough to promote their own brand.

Arianna’s Old World decadence. She’s the courtesan who passed herself from man to man along the way, each one successively wealthier and more powerful, each offering her a leg up for a leg over, leaving her other leg free to kick them to the curb when it suits her to inch up the ladder on her back. But at the end of the day, the ultimate media whore has become the ultimate corporate whore; and after all, “courtesan” is just a euphemism for a woman who sells herself to the highest bidder for her own advancement.

To laud such a person’s achievements as the ultimate immigrant’s dream is irresponsible.

Since August, she’s been photographed in a bear hug with Newt Gingrich whilst on vacation in Amalfi and nestling into Darrell Issa’s corporate shoulder during a weekend in Las Vegas. Does this sound like something a “doyenne of the Left” would do? Besides, she’s now walking back the idea of The Huffington Post as the Progressives’ Bible, instead saying she’s interested more in a centrist approach to politics.

I guess the President made the centre sexy in his State of the Union address, except that he managed successfully to tug the centre more to the Left, where it belongs. Arianna’s “centre” is the Overton Window facing Right, where she’s always been more comfortable, in the land of titled Eurotrash slurping martinis at cocktail parties and watching the sun set over Lalaland, talking of stocks, bonds and corporate mergers and counting money doffed in offshore accounts and derived from tax cuts.

Pardon my cynicism and disbelief that anyone could believe someone who voted for George Bush twice could wake up on the morning after his re-election and declare herself firmly in the Progressive mold, but maybe Arianna’s return to her neocon roots is a blessing in disguise for the Left who supported her.

Maybe with Madame, will go the pejorative idea of elitism that she represents in the eyes of those people whom the real Republican Party have conned into voting against their interests all the time. Maybe Arianna can return the Republican Party to the confines of the boardrooms instead of the barn rooms, and maybe then, the Democratic Party can remember its role as the defender of the working class and the working poor.

Then maybe we’ll see some true, Progressive change in the implementation of social justice programs.

27 Responses so far.

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  1. Darellee says:

    I’m afraid “American Exceptionalism” has done a 180 degree turn with the advent of this century’s corporate kleptocracy. That rugged individualism so touted in our great experiment has fizzled. We are back to the monied, elitist class dominating civil and state society. We are given pause to reconsider how awful this failure is in terms of legacy. But, we, indeed, were ahead of the curve when it came to establishing our own brand of world democracy. During Tocqueville’s time, our experiment truly was exceptional. But, our kind of democracy, sadly enough, first got itself rooted in bigotry against blacks and genocide against Native Americans and sexism against women. Now, it seems, it is the white peoples’ turn to be the exploited second class citizens to a elitist corporate class… some members of which are now receiving hefty tax breaks here when there is a much greater need elsewhere across America. That corporations are now deemed to be people, this bodes evil for us and our election process.

  2. Redemption Song II says:

    Very thoughtful piece & much appreciated. (I would add that, Palin’s depthless lack of depth notwithstanding, although U.S. institutions have their detractions, they also have their attractions…and being both black and female, I could name a few spots on the earth where being either (but esp. being female) has me thankful to be here rather than there.)

    (That said, I’d rather be in Canada…but that’s a different thought all together.. *smiles*)

    • Marion says:

      Thank you.

      If you’d rather be in Canada, then why not go?

      Having married a Brit, I’ve lived abroad for more years than I care to remember. You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry, and I’d rip my right arm off to come home to live. And home is not the UK.

  3. Parsifals says:

    Many good thoughts in this piece; several for me to ponder. An while biting, I believe you’ve described some salient observations about AH. It is glamorous to be the “centre” of attention and that has been at play for many months now. But, I was taken aback by the merger, and find myself chastened for not having seen it coming.

  4. DawgBone says:

    Interesting post!

    The model that de Tocqueville describes is a wonderful ideal. But the country that we have become has little to do with these ideals. Our ‘republic’ is in fact a soft form of corporate fascism.

    Corporations own our media.
    Corporations own our congressmen.
    The Elite control almost all the wealth.

    Plus, as we move inevitably closer to globalism, the American Republic loses its importance. It could even be argued that a strong America is a bump in the road on the way to one-world government. The Elite are not interested in a strong America. That is not the plan.

    And will this one-world government manifest de Tocqueville’s ideals? Fat chance.

  5. Khirad says:

    Quite a bold comment from an unexceptional Prime Minister who served four months.

    Yes, I knew that trivia for some reason.

  6. KillgoreTrout says:

    I have a problem with the notion of, “exceptionalism,” to begin with. I understand de Tocqeville’s definition, and don’t have much a problem with it. But the concept of exceptionalism often leads to arguments and discontent between those who are deemed less than exceptional and those who are raised to such a lofty status.
    I admire the founders for their wisdom and the fact that most of them were the direct result of The Enlightenment. They saw much farther than our leaders today. They weren’t perfect, nor did they pretend to be. But what they accomplished is truly remarkable. That is the creation of an entirely new government, in a new land. I think they originally saw our democracy as a grand experiment. A democratic as well as an economic experiment.
    The Palinese version is just ridiculous and leads to the dangers of rabid nationalism.

    • Khirad says:

      And we would should know that in the rest of the world, the Middle East especially, that IS the definition of American Exceptionalism.

      Like it or not, the etymological origins have been twisted, as happens, and the arrogance of neo-cons, in exporting America to the world through Bibles and guns, is, unfortunately, the new ironic meaning of the misappropriated phrase.

  7. phread says:

    Very good posting…perhaps if we start by looking at our fascist economic system, onto which has been grafted the right wing ideology called neoliberalism, we may begin to understand what is happening in America Inc as well as else where in the world. The nazi’s scapegoated for political and economic reasons just like the RW does here in America Inc. Sheldon Wolin has written on the corporate control of our government, calling it inverted totalitarianism…

    In order to control a population in a so-called free or open society, the propaganda must be relentless…

    Now freedom and liberty means consumerism.

    The democratic party abandoned the working people soon after reagan destroyed the unions. This is where neoliberalism enters the picture;all of our presidents have been neoliberals-reagan, bush 1, clinton, bush 2 and obama. This is what people mean when they say that there is no difference between obama and bush, the same failed right wing ideology has been the driving force for over 30 years.

    Obama is following the same economic agenda started by reagan…

  8. SueInCa says:

    Marion

    As usual a good post from you that cuts right to the heart of an issue. For the past year or so, I have had such thoughts about Arianna and my posting at HP has been forced rather than enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, I made alot of friends over there with like minded people and even some conservatives and I continued to enjoy them, but the site was lagging in real investigative reporting same as any other news site.

    I recently read Howard Zinn’s book, The People’s History of the United States, and that was a real eye opener for me.

    No, we have not always been exceptional, except in the sense you describe. Sure, our forefathers founded this new nation and the premise was good, but they did not follow the rules of the game they set forth. We formed a union but it was not “more perfect”. We established Justice, but it was not evenly distributed. We provide for the common defense, but we use it to fight unnecessary wars. Domestic tranquility? Well I guess it depends where you are on a certain day and time. We promote the general Welfare, but not equally and sometimes not even generally. Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity? Well I guess that depends on individuals again. Throughout our history, we have had the “haves” and the “have nots” and a good portion of the haves were born into that station in life. People have had to scratch and claw to obtain most anything worthwhile and now it is being thrown away like the dirty dishwater. Our unions were formed through blood, sweat and tears of many who felt the common man just deserved a decent playing field. No one was asking to take away from the rich, just give us a chance in life to make a decent life for ourselves and our families. Our manufacturing was second to none, now we manufacture not much of anything except for war machines.

    I could go on and on but there is not room for it here. I just wish people like Kim Campbell looked beyond the surface and their own smug attitudes.

  9. Chernynkaya says:

    Marion, I’ll have more to say later—your posts are always rich in content and thought provoking. But I just have to get this off my chest first, about American Exceptionalism as it is spoken of nowadays. It drives me crazy! I have never seen such an exhibition of needy, pathetic sloganeering as from those desperately promoting Americanism. We sound like a bunch of lame rubes posing as glossy high school cheerleaders urging on a team of klutzes who would make the Bad News Bears seem like Green Bay.

    I would appreciate it if just once a politician could say the word “worker” without compounding it into “thebestworkforcein theworld.” Ditto “thebestarmedforcesintheworld.” Ditto “American ingenuity.” Oh, and in case you missed it, we are also the most compassionate, and the most freedom-loving people who ever walked on God’s green earth. In fact, God is on OUR side always. Doesn’t anyone see how terribly obvious all this is? —it is embarrassing to be so blatantly insecure.

  10. semirade says:

    Thank you for so eloquently stating the true meaning and intention of the statement “American Exceptionalism”, I for the same cynical reasons have found myself angrily opposed to the phrase for the simple reason that it has been bandied about with American arrogance, making this country considered far less exceptional, and not just by Canada. We have earned our disgrace! Regarding Arianna -- vel dahlink -- dju zed eet ahhlll!

  11. Abbyrose86 says:

    I really enjoyed this post Marion. So many good points you brought up, especially about our history and what it meant.

    I think many forget that before this experiment started, the world was pretty much run by monarchs and aristocrats, who gained their positions through birthright not merit or ability.

    The concept that one could rise from humble beginnings and not from birthright into another class, WAS what made the idea behind America great…not that they themselves were perfect examples of the ideal.

    The social mobility aspect, was what was important. Sadly, that seems to have gotten lost along the way, especially the last 30 years.

  12. choicelady says:

    American Exceptionalism was an observation about democracy. Now it’s about Christianity. The abusive use of the term arose post Civil War to justify the amassing of enormous wealth on the backs of working people, then segued into a kind of Social Darwinism that affirmed America would let any man (sic) rise so if he did NOT, it was his fault. The whole idea underpinned the Cold War and US imperialism, but today it is meant to show that we, as a “Christian nation” are superior because of that.

    Hogwash for Robber Barons. Hogwash now. But in the aftermath of our first defeat (and we WERE defeated) in Vietnam, the idea has been resurrected to give momentum to even greater military and economic imperialist forays.

    And now we have a President who is not following the AE script. Thus the yammering from the AE justifiers for whom, as under Bush, it is insufficient for the US to have bilateral equity with other nations. We must be No. 1!!!! In all ways, everywhere. What we say, what we want must be the rationale for every other nation’s reason to exist.

    Funny how the world does not agree?

    So what started as an observation about our self created nationhood has morphed into a rationale for our global dominance. The basic premise Marion notes so beautifully that we are singular BUT NOT BETTER is simply unacceptable. How can we be No. 1 if that’s true????

    Football mentality never ran a successful nation.

  13. Caru says:

    Quote:
    “For de Tocqueville, the single defining element of American Exceptionalism was the sense of being included, whereas anything out of the ordinary in the Old World was to be excluded and avoided – and shunted over to the New World, if at all possible.”

    The thing is that this not longer applies. While I agree that the “new” definition is quite Palinesque, I believe that the old definition simply doesn’t apply in the modern world and needs to be retired to discussions about the past.

    • Marion says:

      Then stop moaning about what it’s become and reclaim it, dammit!

    • Parsifals says:

      If we rely solely on this quote, Caru, absolutely.

      We have strayed from the centuries past, and while I am not optimistic these days about our future, we are no longer exceptional by any definition.

  14. Mightywoof says:

    Thanks for explaining what American Exceptionalism originally meant, Marion -- it’s good to know that it once had a meaning that would be acceptable to anybody outside American borders ……. but, and it’s a big but -- all words and phrases change over time and it’s a wonder of the English language (regardless of which accent it’s pronounced in) that such changes happen and keep the language a living language.

    I hold no especial esteem for Kim Campbell but today’s meaning of American Exceptionalism, as I have read on rw blogs, is exactly that which you, rightfully, deplore and the attitude -- more than the words -- get’s up this Canadian’s nose.

    In the original sense of the phrase, you are exactly spot on as to Huffington and others like her not being exactly what the American Dream is all about


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