Exceptionalism vs. Patriotism at the Everyman

Wherein I tackle American exceptionalism and try to explain why we need to give up on the idea:

I don’t say this just because our system of government and society barely resembles that which existed at the nation’s founding (even allowing for the passage of time and development of technology). Nor because we have recently witnessed the departure of what may well be the last legitimate president we will ever have, leaving the nation in the hands of criminals. Nor do I say this on account of slavery or racism or any of the other sins of our past (which are only to be expected).

It isn’t even because I think the philosophy we based our nation upon is incoherent and dangerously self-contradictory, or because I think the narrative underlying it to be thoroughly false.

No, the reason we need to give up the idea of our own exceptionalism is that it is fatal to patriotism.

As Americans (as I assume most of our readers to be) this may shock you. It may even sound like nonsense. But I beg you to try to understand what I’m saying.

Suppose a man were to say to his young son “I love you because you are the smartest, best behaved boy in school.” Suppose then that the boy gets a poor grade on his test, or gets into trouble with the teacher. What is he to think? The most natural thing would be for him to fear that his father would no longer love him, or not as much because he has shown himself to not be so smart or so well-behaved as his father believed him to be.

It is unlikely his father would really feel that way, but the boy would think so. He would think so because that would be the logical deduction from his father’s words. Therefore, even if the boy never does break the rules or get a bad grade, he will have that fear in the back of his mind of “what if…?” “What if I fail this test? What if I make a mistake and get detention? My father won’t love me a much anymore.” He will thus either work fearfully and fervently to ‘keep’ his father’s love or else despair and give up entirely. One thing is sure though: any love of the subjects themselves or any enjoyment in the ordinary life of a schoolboy will be crippled because none of them can be enjoyed for their own sake. They must go toward the satisfaction of that all-important condition.

It is the same for a husband and wife. A woman whose husband tells her “I love you because you are so beautiful” will fear the aging process and, just as much, fear the inevitable rival whose looks outshine her own.

If you ask why you love someone or something, you may give reasons (“She’s so sweet and so lovely!”  “He’s so strong, so honest”), but the real, proper response – which it is important to understand whether or not it is directly stated – is simply “because you are yourself.” As Professor Von Hildebrand says, to love something means to perceive the unique idea in the mind of God that it represents: to see it as something unique, irreplaceable, incomparable.

This is the great danger of American exceptionalism: it seeks to justify patriotism. Worse, it actually takes those justifications seriously. We are to love America because she is the freest, most just nation on earth, the nation that corrects the mistakes of the rest of the world, where equality and opportunity and liberty reign supreme.

Read the rest here.

There’s obviously a lot more to be said about all this than I was able to fit in or had time to adequately research. But if there is one idea, one section of this essay that I would wish to be ingrained in the readers’ mind and to hammer home as much as possible, it’s this:

No nation is meant to be a creed. It is not our duty to save mankind or to be the shining example for the world to follow. We are not the new Jerusalem, we are not the last best hope of earth, we are not God’s chosen people. America is not the Church. It isn’t even Rome.

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