Steve Haycox: American exceptionalism is based on a belief in individual rights

By STEVE HAYCOXSeptember 19, 2013 

American exceptionalism has been much discussed in various media since Vladimir Putin's New York Times op/ed piece last week. Capitalizing on his role as protector of Bashar al-Assad, Putin played defender of international law, and in that context, chastened Americans for imagining themselves somehow better than other national peoples, other countries. "It is extremely dangerous," Putin wrote, "to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional."

It need hardly be said that no one has to encourage the American people to think of themselves as exceptional. We are schooled in the notion of our exceptionality from the cradle to the grave. It is the essence of our annual Fourth of July celebration, and the "mother's milk" of our notion of who we are.

Yet exceptionality is a complex concept. It has religious, philosophic and experiential roots. Most importantly, philosophically, America is based on an idea, not an ethnicity. Unlike French, or Chinese, or German, there is no American ethnicity. That idea, as Thomas Jefferson wrote cogently, is that all men are created equal, regardless of their ethnicity. It is true that in practice, Americans acted for a long time as it there were an unspoken national ethnicity, viz., anything white. Also, the American imperial conquest of the continent and the suppression of the rights of the people who lived there is a tragedy we have yet fully to confront.

But Americans are schooled in democracy, and the right of revolution. We are taught from early on that governments are instituted among men to secure the peoples' rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. And further, that whenever any government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. From these principles, Americans routinely act to inform policy makers what they want, mostly through the normal ballot, but also through public opinion messages, letters to the editor, voter initiatives, and campaign contributions. And they often alter the form of their governments by constitutional amendment. And while this aspect of their culture is no longer globally unique, it once was, for the Americans were the first to proclaim their dedication to such principles.

As President Obama noted in his address to the British Parliament two years ago, Britain and America, through their commitment to protecting the rights of citizens and the rule of law have advanced human dignity and freedom more than any other peoples.

Alaskans have their own version of exceptionality, based in circumstance and environment. Ask almost anyone living here if Alaska and Alaskans are unique and you will get an unqualified affirmative response, as often as not coupled with a quizzical skepticism about why anyone would ask about something so thoroughly obvious. Circumstantially, we are separated from the contiguous states by another nation, and 1500 miles. Additionally, Alaska's first people, Alaska's resilient Natives, are fully integrated into the culture. Also, not only the natural wonder of Alaska's many landscapes, but as well the severe climate form the remainder of the lynchpin of our exceptionality. The circumstances and the environment persuade many Alaskans that they themselves are unique, more jealous of their freedom and personal liberty than other Americans. Many, also, have convinced themselves that they are more deserving of federal largesse than people who do not live with the challenges of distance, and of the landscape and harsh climate. Given that 70 percent of Alaska's population is urban and has access to all the material amenities of contemporary American culture, the firm conviction of Alaska exceptionality is probably well overdone; nonetheless, it's a cultural article of faith.

What forms the core of American exceptionality is a fundamental morality, that all people, everywhere, on an individual basis, have certain inherent rights the denial or suppression of which is an abnegation of their, and our, humanity. Of course, our imperial appetites and responsibilities have led us too often to set aside or devalue that morality. Yet it remains our national aspiration, and it is still, as it should be, a model for the world.

Steve Haycox is professor of history emeritus at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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