If there's one thing that's really irks me, it's imprecision with language. Oh, I'm OK with spinning words and framing narratives in politics. It's part of rhetoric. I even give Frank Lutz his due for some compelling turns of phrase on the linguistic lathe. I mean "Death Tax"? Seriously, I love that one and I think that progressives can sell it on those terms as well. 'Cause really, who else can more afford to be taxed than people who don't need their money anymore? Why tax the living when we can tax the deceased? It's a win-win.
But I digress. The source of my irritation has been floating around a while; however, even the president screwed it up recently. It's the meaning of "American Exceptionalism". A lot of purportedly smart people talk about it, throw mud at others regarding it, and yet fail to understand it.
When I studied the concept in college several years ago, before it became a predatory pundit hot potato du jour, it meant something different than what Joe the Public now happily thinks it means. A lot of people think it means American Excellence. However, it really means the opposite. Follow me over the fold to find out why.
Simply put, some people think that Exceptionalism means excellence. Excellence comes from excel, which means to rise above. Is America excellent? Possibly. America excels at many things, and I don't just mean bombing brown people. America did a lot of good in the world, and still can, and sometimes still does. It also implies to over-achieve, and to separate oneself from those to which one is compared. This suggests That excellence is a consequence of hard work, as opposed to being an innate property. So, instead of saying we are the best, we might say we do the best. Instead of saying we are number one, we might say we do number one (as attested to with Pissing Calvin bumper-stickers).
So, what's my gripe? The problem is that the phrase "American Exceptionalism" has for many years referred to the claim and supporting argumentation amongst certain foreign relations types that the Unites States should be exempt from certain international treaties and expectations. In other words, exceptionalism means an exception to the rule (of law). It's all well and good for other countries to submit to the jurisdiction of the World Court, but when it comes to possibly allowing US politicians to be indicted and tried for war crimes, it's do as we say, not as we do. Of course, per international custom, that's our prerogative, and any other country can get out of international obligations by refusing to be signatory or withdrawing from a treaty. So, we can just as easily say that the refusal of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty is an illustration of "North Korean Exceptionalism".
So, by refusing to abide by international conventions, the United States is essentially saying that American's can't compete or be compared with other countries on an equal footing. That, folks, means that we can't possibly be considered able to "rise above" others. Of course, that doesn't mean we're not special. America is special, just like that young boy who wears a helmet and rides the short bus to school and still hasn't learned how to count his lunch money yet. Don't make fun of him, and don't judge him in the same way, he needs protecting.
That's basically what people are saying when they say "Hell, yeah, America is Exceptional!" And so are they, the eager patriots who want to sound like they know what they're talking about, but simply don't.
So, I give you the counter-logisms to deconstruct that partisan fantasy of pro patria especiality. The next time someone talks about how America is exceptional, ask them if they're referring to achieving excellence or exemption from the law. When they give you a blank stare, explain the difference. Might be fun.
Of course, you all probably already know this. But I felt the need to rant.