27 August 2007

American exceptionalism, the Constitution, and Madeleine Albright

This past weekend Two weeks ago, I had the chance to explore the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I also recently finished Madeleine Albright's The Mighty and the Almighty. Both the center and the book place an emphasis on the concept of American exceptionalism, and the more I mulled over each, the more I realized their claims in this regard are related. I personally find this notion of exceptionalism to be problematic -- sometimes it is troubling, egotistical, and imperialist; and other times the concept seems right on point, at least in theory.

The Constitution Center's main argument (to the extent that a museum can have an argument), seems to be that the United States, being the first rights-based democracy on earth that has endured into the present, has had a tumultuous relationship between the values enshrined in its founding documents and the reality of the practice of governance. In other words, based upon a simple reading of the Constitution, one would expect that the U.S. would have a far less discriminatory history and encompass a far more egalitarian society than it does. Because this country is the home to these documents, it is inherently held to a higher standard, as far as justice and human rights are concerned, than most every other nation. Thus it is the documents, and not how various elements of our government have adhered to them, that makes the United States unique, and living up to those documents has become our national challenge.

Albright, obviously, takes a different focus but ends up with a few similar points. While she focuses much less on founding documents and more on foreign policy activities, she comes to a similar conclusion about how the U.S. should act in the world that the Constitution Center arrives at for the domestic front. Namely, because the United States chose to make promoting respect for human rights a foundation of its foreign policy during the Carter administration (of which she was a member), and because much of today's current foreign policy is informed by the idealism of the Wilson and FDR administrations (remember that neo-cons started out as frustrated liberals), the U.S. has a special obligation to ensuring that human rights are protected around the world. She points to the old (yet resonant) rhetoric that the United States is to be a "shining city upon a hill" and though she critiques some of the underlying assumptions that come along with that, in the end she seems to agree with the core premise.

Yet it is these very arguments that make American exceptionalism such a problematic concept. I do tend to agree that certain documents and certain leaders in our nation's past have seen to leave us with a national charge to better ourselves and our fellow human beings. However, our very failure to realize the dream of these core principles at home and the hubris and hypocrisy with which we sometimes conduct our affairs abroad (under administrations of all political persuasions) makes me wonder if it's not just a pile of malarky. Perhaps the the United States, writ large, isn't terribly special. Maybe we were just blessed with a series of particularly visionary leaders who had enough rhetorical skill and popular appeal to ingrain themselves in the national memory, to the extent that one exists. If this is indeed the case, then the U.S. isn't terribly exceptional at all, and may well just be an ordinary country that is just wealthier and larger than most and thus more noticeable. But that potentially cynical perspective still fails to fully answer the question, because failure to live up to an exceptional charge does not necessarily mean that the country and its society (which admittedly is not a unitary, monolithic creature) is not exceptional, but just struggling along a particularly tough road where perhaps the end is still not in reach. This is view is more accepting of a history of oppression at home and arrogance abroad, as these elements become natural obstacles on a path to some enlightened future.

There are certainly other views on American exceptionalism beyond the two I just laid out, but clearly, neither of the ones I have here can really satisfy the questions of 1) is the United States fundamentally unique and 2) if so, why and if not, why not? If we've failed to live up to expectations, that doesn't mean that something better does not lay ahead, and that we should just give up. Likewise, if this is just a particularly difficult chore with which we've been tasked, there is too much room there to excuse too much of the past that are a disgrace to morality and basic human dignity.

I thought both the book and the center were quite well done. Nonetheless, I would have liked to see a greater framing of these particularly complex complexities in both places. The question of exceptionalism gets to the very core of this country's identity (to the extent that social and political constructions can have identities independent of individual perceptions). I certainly do not have the answer to these questions, but they do make for a particularly challenging discourse and precipitate an incredible range of thought.

[Note: I initially started writing this at the end of my trip, but ended up neglecting the draft and the rest of this blog while I dealt with some particularly challenging work events. Hopefully I'll be back up to pace soon. Otherwise, just blame my quietness on a slow, hot summer.]

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