Note on American Exceptionalism in Crisis

For a second time in the last month or so, we run across a political intellectual – this time it’s Martin Amis at the New Republic, previously it was Frank Rich at New York Magazine – noting that coinage of the phrase “American exceptionalism” is attributable to Josef Stalin. The gesture is doubly if not exponentially ironic, or perhaps merely fatuous: Rich, to a lesser extent Amis, and most of those remarking upon them want to embarrass the ideologues who insistently deploy the term, by association with the archest of all Commies, but Uncle Joe was merely attaching an “-ism” to a familiar, traditional position – in short, that there is something importantly different going on in the New World – in order to deny its validity. On this point at least, he was with Rich, to a lesser extent Amis, and assorted twitter-snarks. On the other hand, the suspicion remains inescapable that the mere existence of a presidential campaign and a political movement fiercely dedicated to the proposition that all countries are not created equal, and to the further proposition that everyone who thinks otherwise is a problem, points to and is conditioned by authentic difficulties on the level of the American concept and within the polity for which it stands. We may need to consider that what Daniel Larison calls “hegemonism” is embedded within the American project itself, its revolutionary liberalism, its Enlightenment universalism, its Jeffersonian “federative” imperialism. A divorce from such pretensions, or even a declaration of their fulfillment and therefore their obsolescence, does not merely require but is likely already the substance of a long-developing political and economic crisis corresponding to this easier to isolate conceptual or ideological crisis. Even a re-conception of liberal-universalism, a notion of some truer realization of its essence, puts the fate of American nationalism, and at some (if likely distant) point inevitably of the American nation, in question. The essential alteration of self-understanding from “exceptional” to “just like the others” might be experienced as a greatest loss, spiritual as well as and whether or not material, by many and in some sense all Americans, including those now happy to promote it.

One comment on “Note on American Exceptionalism in Crisis

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  1. A dissapointing snippet by Martis Amis, who I had learned to loath in the 80s, and regained some respect with ‘Koba’ and the ‘Second Plane’, it’s because of the former that I found this meme particularly dissapointing, to credit that agitated muzhik over
    the perspicacious Frenchman,

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