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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.

Originally posted to JPax on Fri Sep 20, 2013 at 05:12 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Frank Luntz. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  De-evolution of language (7+ / 0-)

    DEVO. Thank you for the diary.
    I also get irked by imprecise language, incorrect usages.

    NPR interview: Andrew Bacevich 'The End of American Exceptionalism'

  •  Did you miss the star on the door ? (6+ / 0-)

    I think it’s even worse than that. It’s Superioratorism  -“We’re Number One !”
    and Condescensionalism - ”All the rest of you are Third World” .

    We teach, you learn. We talk, you listen.

    The reason we don’t need to follow the rules is because we are the lead dog.

    Reality is a good thing to know about, as long as you keep it separate from the Opera we live in

    by greatferm on Fri Sep 20, 2013 at 10:37:49 PM PDT

  •  I'm irked too (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    UntimelyRippd, liz

    Because American exceptionalism is NEITHER of the things you say it is. It has changed over the centuries, too. For the first 300 years (say, 1620 to 1900) it was about the fact we were different and SPECIAL which is probably where you get the idea we can ignore international conventions. The Monroe Doctrine is an exceptionalist document when it says "stay out of our hemisphere." There's a lot of "god's providence" involved here - Manifest Destiny is an expression of exceptionalism too.

    Then, after the Russian revolution, it morphed into we're exceptional because we don't have a vibrant Communist party here. Considering what was going on in the rest of the world, maybe, but lots of other countries didn't either.

    Just because other people (hell, the entire media) misuse it don't mean you should.

    Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall

    by Dave in Northridge on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 05:51:30 AM PDT

  •  American exceptionalism (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    peregrine kate, liz

    The idea was simple,  the US was an exception to the generalizations about nations.   Nations fight wars for "national interest,"  not the US, the US only fights just wars.   Nations establish a church, not the US.  The US seperates Church and State.  The other nations were founded on a racial or ethnic identity, not the US it was founded on an "ideal"

    Most of the exceptions turned out not to be exceptions, the US just did race by constructing whiteness, or the US was a christian country with no state church, etc.

  •  "American Exceptionalism" has *always* (5+ / 0-)

    referred to the concept that America is geographically, culturally, economically, and politically different from all the other nations of the world, in a qualitative way that is different from all the ways that every nation is different from every other nation; and that this difference uniquely enables us, entitles us, and obligates us to be Large and In Charge. "Exception" from the rules is merely a downstream conclusion from the larger presumption of qualitative distinction. It is exactly because we are exceptional that we are exempt.

    And while it is true that "Exceptional" doesn't necessarily mean "excellent", or even "better", it's pretty clear just from observing people that when one has a sense of being exceptional, one is likely to come to believe that one is both excellent and superior.

    Ironically, there is nothing exceptional about a nationalist sense of one's own nation being exceptional. Ours is not particularly distinct from the Chauvinism that has underpinned the elites one empire after another, including the French, British and German empires of the last two centuries. It is not particularly distinct from the nonsensical French belief that French elan would defeat the Germans in 1914. And 1915. And 1916. And 1917. When the Germans were finally exhausted in 1918, it became an article of American Exceptionalist dogma that this happened because we arrived on the scene, and that what we brought was not merely fresh bodies, but our Exceptional Way of Being and Doing, something previously lacking in the Allied forces.

    The whole business is sad bunk, yet a disturbing number of otherwise sensible people buy into it in one domain or another. There are plenty of people here on dKos who believe the US can somehow "take on" China and India in head to head economic competition. The explanation is that we have "special" social institutions and cultural traditions that give us a competitive edge. This is folly.

    To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

    by UntimelyRippd on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 06:16:00 AM PDT

    •  but the phraseology hasn't always existed. (0+ / 0-)

      According to Wikipedia (meh) it was coined by Karl Marx in 1920, who supposedly thought it was true. There may have been similar previous ideas, such as "Manifest Destiny" by that phrase used different letters and sounded different when you said it.

      I'm going by what I learned in college from a professor who wrote the UN charter. I think Kos was in that class too.

      -We need Healthcare Reform... but i'm selfish, I Need Healthcare reform-

      by JPax on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 07:35:46 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  hmm. (0+ / 0-)

        well, i just went to wikipedia, and it doesn't say it was coined by Marx; it says it first appeared in 1929 as a translation of something Stalin (!) wrote, in denouncing a particular thread of american communism. so whoever "coined" it was the person who translated Stalin -- though not knowing Russian, I couldn't say whether it was a clear and obvious transliteration.

        The article also cites Michael Ignatieff as having written on what I myself observed, at least with respect to the French and the British empires having their own currents of exceptionalism.

        And finally, it observes that the term was retooled by postwar folks, presumably like your professor -- in which, I think there is a lesson for all of us, as regards information that comes from the horse's mouth. Your prof gave you his version; it's authenticity seems overwhelmingly compelling, in light of its authority, yet that authenticity is entirely with respect to his very particular, modern chunk of the story. I'm not saying he lied, or that what he told you was without merit -- I'm just saying that it was only one part of the story.

        To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

        by UntimelyRippd on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 09:31:47 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Modern usage (0+ / 0-)

          seems to tout that America is the "best" country.  At what?  I only know of one measure where we top all others:  The rate at which we jail our citizens.

          While our GDP is larger than any other country, we fall somewhere between 6th and 8th on a per capita basis.  So it's a great country if you're one of the 1 percenters.  And you can afford to fund a cancer center if you're diagnosed with prostrate cancer and can afford a big team of lawyers to keep you out of jail.  Otherwise, not so much.

          Denmark has the happiest citizens, dozens of countries have healthier citizens on average.

          So I don't know what the right-wingers are referring to.

          Even Democrats can be asses. Look at Rahm Emanuel.

          by Helpless on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 04:07:07 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Though I should also note that I was (0+ / 0-)

        apparently incorrect, implicitly if not explicitly, in thinking that the term itself originally came from people who believed in it and applied it broadly, rather than people who:

        a. thought it was wrong
        b. were applying it in a relatively narrow domain.

        Academics, however, seem to have pretty quickly latched onto the concept and reverse-applied it to various historical trends in american intellectual and political thought.

        To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

        by UntimelyRippd on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 09:36:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Well put, thanks. n/t (0+ / 0-)

      Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

      by peregrine kate on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 09:02:12 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Exceptionally Selfish? Or... (0+ / 0-)'s pretty clear just from observing people that when one has a sense of being exceptional, one is likely to come to believe that one is both excellent and superior.
      'From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.'

      Seems as if half of that aphorism has been shoved aside by those who want to to concentrate wealth for the wealthy.

      People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. - George Orwell

      by paz3 on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 11:08:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  In addition to "Excellence" and "Exemption"... (0+ / 0-)

    ... there is a third interpretation: "Obligation".

    Our reputation as the world's "sole remaining superpower" has been badly tarnished by the NeoCons' criminal adventurism and Wall Street's criminal recklessness.

    But America is still the world's wealthiest nation and still possesses an unrivaled capacity to project humanitarian aid or military force around the globe.

    Our $16 trillion GDP is matched only by the 28 aggregated economies of the European Union. China trails at $9 trillion. In 2011, The U.S. gave $30 billion to international humanitarian assistance. The next highest donor - the U.K. - gave $13 billion.

    Say what you will about the hidden agendas of foreign aid, but the numbers still illustrate the reality of America's exceptional capacity to act on the global stage.

    When it became necessary to wave "The Big Stick" at the Assad regime, only the U.S. had the air and naval forces to stare down the Russians with some credibility.

    I agree that we must always be on guard against the right-wing conviction that "America can do no wrong". But we must also be wary of left-wing assertions that because American has done wrong, it can never do right.

    I look forward to the day when the U.S. becomes a willing partner in an E.U.-style system of global governance. But our current international institutions are flawed. They simply aren't sufficient to clean up the remaining wreckage  from the last century's conflicts.

    I'm not yet ready to see America's exceptional capabilities tied down, Gulliver-like, by artifacts like the U.N. Security Council while the Lilliputians and the Blefuscuians murder each other.

    I still have hope that American democracy can keep "the giant" from running amok - even as I acknowledge the reasons why others do not share that hope.

    “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing
    he was never reasoned into” - Jonathan Swift

    by jjohnjj on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 11:05:09 AM PDT

    •  Jez (0+ / 0-)

      Exactly what JPax wrote about:

      I'm not yet ready to see America's exceptional capabilities tied down, Gulliver-like, by artifacts like the U.N. Security Council while the Lilliputians and the Blefuscuians murder each other.
      The UN Charter exists to keep superpowers from running roughshod over the planet -- like some want us to do.  But in the 21st Century, the US violates that charter at will.

      And while napalm is not classified as a chemical weapon, one has to ask, why not?  We have used it as an integral part of our weaponry since WW II.  It's damage is arguably worse than sarin -- causing years of pain and suffering.  Syria is not a signatory of the bans on the usage of chemical weapons.  So where do we get off drawing red lines?

      Even Democrats can be asses. Look at Rahm Emanuel.

      by Helpless on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 04:17:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  America is exceptional in one sense (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    In that it has from its inception been a plutocracy, brief excursions into democracy aside.  Other nations either rose up in some reaction to an older aristocratic order (England and France), or were cobbled to together based on presumptions of a common ethnic heritage (Germany and Italy).  But us, we're all about the moolah...

    •  Another (0+ / 0-)

      Per capita, we have more of our citizens in jail than any other country on the planet.  Higher rate than China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, for example.

      So why hasn't anyone called Hannity on his "greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth" claim.

      Even Democrats can be asses. Look at Rahm Emanuel.

      by Helpless on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 04:24:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  American Exceptionalism (0+ / 0-)

    Short definition: We give Americans freedom by taking it away from everyone else. In the mind of Republicans, that's exactly what it means.

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