Ge­orge Will’s ill-de­fined Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION -

Surely Ge­orge F. Will must have more to jus­tify the the­ory of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism than the ob­ser­va­tions of a French tourist (Alexis de Toc­queville) that Amer­ica is unique be­cause it was “ born free— free of a feu­dal past, free from an en­trenched aris­toc­racy and es­tab­lished re­li­gion” [“Congress’s re­pair job,” op-ed, Jan. 16]. How does Mr. Will jus­tify this in light of the fact that Amer­ica was born with mil­lions in slav­ery, with only white men with prop­erty al­lowed to vote or hold of­fice, and with the aris­toc­racy of elec­tors and state leg­is­la­tors elect­ing the pres­i­dent and the Se­nate, re­spec­tively?

Our birth does not make us ex­cep­tional. Our as­pi­ra­tions do— as­pi­ra­tions that we can con­tinue to im­prove the present so­ci­ety through fu­ture progress, some­thing the Founders surely en­vis­aged, since they were demon­stra­bly aware of Amer­ica’s fail­ings, in­clud­ing slav­ery. What is ex­cep­tional is that we sur­vived the Civil War, that we freed the slaves and 100 years later gave that free­dom mean­ing through civil rights laws; that 150 years af­ter the Revo­lu­tion we fi­nally gave women the vote. What is ex­cep­tional is not de­fend­ing the sta­tus quo but con­stantly chal­leng­ing it— some­thing the Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ists ab­hor.

Pro­gres­sives among us who, as Mr. Will rightly says, find Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism ob­nox­ious do so be­cause we see it used as an ex­cuse to de­fend ev­ery Amer­i­can ac­tion from in­vad­ing Iraq to build­ing a wall around the bor­ders as “right” be­cause we are Amer­i­cans. To me, ex­cep­tion­al­ism is in­voked to mean that Amer­ica, just be­cause it is Amer­ica, is not sub­ject to the forces that make na­tions rise and fall. This is folly.

Greg Simon,


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