Tragic hubris: American Exceptionalism

Heretical thought: Can Americans learn from Germany?

I had a strange experience earlier this month when my East German frau, Hildegard, marched me to her favorite Baltic restaurant in Zempin, where she spent her youthful summers.

As an American expat living in Germany, I always feel imprisoned in Zempin— separated from my Internet radio, where I daily monitor National Public Radio and BBC world news, with a crippled computer and no TV for my Sunday ritual of Fareed Zakaria and his brilliant "Global Public Square" as well as "The State of the Union" and "Meet the Press." Hungry for media, I scanned the restaurant's choices.

My heart surged as I reacted to the cover of Stern: a rear view of a scruffy Uncle Sam, double-crossing his fingers (for good luck, or to mock Europe?) and the title, "The False Friend: No Consideration, No Morals, Why America Betrays Freedom." Suddenly I was back in a university classroom, trying to persuade my American Studies students to purge themselves of the hubris that America was God's special friend, setting a good example for the rest of the world.

Jackson and the Indians


American Lit was a peculiar field: In the 17th Century it focused on theology ("Puritan ideology declared US sacred"), in the 18th on politics. Honest-to-God belles lettres didn't arise until the mid-19th Century of Emerson, Whitman and Mark Twain. Until then we squirmed at the global sneer of "Who reads an American book?" (The proper response was: "No one who's serious.")

Thus appeared, in our intimidated defense, the hubris that we Americans were very special. Unique in the world!

Alas, this overcompensating hubris legitimized both the threatened extinction of the indigenous Indians (think sadly of Andrew Jackson, our first commoner president, and his cruel "Vale of Tears") and the monstrous contradiction of 4 million ex-African slaves in a "free" country. (Even the "author of liberty," Thomas Jefferson, kept a black slave as his mistress.) Only a hideous Civil War theoretically liberated the cotton plantation slaves.

Wilsonian "'ideals'


But the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 was a "deal": Federal troops no longer monitored "free" ex-slaves in the racist South. Not until JFK and LBJ did the "liberal" North free those slaves from second-class citizenship in the South.

Woodrow Wilson, the racist (but otherwise idealistic) Virginia-bred Princeton president who led Americans into World War I to make the "world safe for democracy," jailed the great railroad union leader Eugene Victor Debs because he opposed war.

Jingoism in the White House didn't start with George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan's deregulation revolution produced a class gap in which the top 1% earn 500 times as much as their struggling 99% workers. The Supreme Court ruled that these newly rich could spend as much on political ads as they wanted to, in order to delay the feared Election Day when minorities become the majority. The current paralysis of Congress is their dirty work.

McCain's pleasant surprise

The scandalous wreckage that gun violence has inflicted on a confused America has a rational (if evil) underpinning. When blacks aren't killing each other with guns, wealthy Americans see the National Rifle Association as a guarantee that the blacks won't start a second Civil War.

Compare America's horrendous 300-year record of Exceptionalist myths with the 12 years of Nazism that the Germans have mostly purged themselves of.

That said, John McCain's and Lindsey Graham's recent joint lecture to the Egyptians on how difficult but essential it is to develop a democracy from scratch was an exemplary display of anti-Exceptionalism. I was pleasantly stunned by the South Carolina senator's confession that we didn't let females vote nationally until the 1920s, and that he never had a black schoolmate until the sixth grade— and that his state launched that tragic first Civil War.

Now, if only those two Republicans could speak so candidly and self-deprecatingly back in D.C.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.