by E.C. Gach
In early November, J.L. Wall addressed the recent Republican talking point over American exceptionalism by unpacking the following quote from President Obama:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
J.L. argued persuasively that while many conservatives balked at being included in a continuum of past nations, Greece and Britain are not shabby companions in the halls of history:
“Sure, Britain’s empire is gone and Greece’s economy and politics are a shambles. But Obama, I suspect, was hinting at something entirely different, that requires giving the list of nations more than a cursory look.
“Greece is the nation that gave us Plato, Aristotle, and gave birth to what we know as Western culture. (We won’t be getting into the messy questions of “what is Greece?”/”who is Greek?” here.) Britain is not only the nation which was home to the political theorists and philosophers from whom the deified Founders drew inspiration, and is not only a nation which illustrated the transition from monarchy to democracy, but it also, at the height of its empire, saw itself as the heir to a mantle which had previously belonged to Greece and Rome.”
Indeed, the political philosophy handed down through the Greco-Roman tradition and distilled by 18th centrury British enlightenment (as well as everything in between) is clearly present in the founding of the United States of America and its continuing institutions. Bits and pieces of our nation’s ideals, virtues, and principles can be traced throughout the entirety of the “Western” tradition, though they never so uniquely united before the U.S. And just as the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, much of our legal and political heritage is directly borrowed from the British even as the nation fought bloodily against them. Thus while we are different from and greater than the sum of these parts, the U.S. does not lie outside the historical timeline, and certainly not at the center of it. I couldn’t agree more with J.L.’s dismissal of appeals to an American-centric progression of history.
And E.D. Kain focused in on this very point in a follow up post, writing:
“Placing American greatness within its proper historical context is necessary both in order to understand what makes America truly great, but also to understand our flaws as a nation and a people…I see the inability to grasp this as symptomatic of a larger trend of anti-historicism on the right, of which American exceptionalism bereft of historical context is only one small part.”
E.D. went on to argue:
“The trick with closed information systems is that they need to be constantly protected from outside contamination (inconvenient facts, hard questions, etc.). (In this sense, Sarah Palin can be seen as almost the embodiment or avatar of the closed information system, furiously impervious to reality.)”
And so the groundwork is laid. Exceptionalism is a temporal quality. Great nations come and go, with the future ones borrowing from the past ones, picking up the mantel of their predecessors, as J.L. notes, to continue a certain tradition. Restoring, reshaping, and recasting it anew within and in response to a given context, located along an historical continuum. Ours is a uniquely Western one, and an imperial one at that. And this, I feel, is central to the symptom that J.L. detected and E.D. attempted to diagnose.
Greece and Britain are impressive company to keep, but also infamous. At their height, both were remarkable in the Western tradition for their military prowess, cultural hegemony, and imperial enterprises. And the main proposition I will put forth here, to build on the “closed systems” idea, is that to continue the mantle of Western values, and the imperial project that safeguards it, necessitates some sort of a closed belief system. E.D. noted Sarah Palin. I would add Plato.
Ascribing anything to Plato is dangerous. But I’ll offer one reading him, simplistic and rushed, as an illustration of my broader point. Plato grew up in an Athens that was fading. Its most glorious days behind it, the city had been ind decline since some time before the Peloponnesian War. In that war, divided and incompetent, the great imperial city fell to the much more organized Spartans. What had been Athen’s undoing? According to this Plato, the people had lost sight of Truth. “The Sophists” had planted the idea in people’s heads that, in all things, Man was the measure. Truth was subjective, if it existed at all. The Agora devolved from a forum for serious dialectic, centered around resolute principles, to a whore house, where speeches were bought and sold as the Sophists prostituted their quick minds and mislead their listeners with double speak.
The Spartans on the other hand, were simple and concise. They weren’t interested in how things might appear, but in how they were. They had a closed system, if not a very thoughtful one. Plato understood this. He set his theory of forms in motion. An idealism fixed and timeless. Not becoming, but being. A closed system from which the Western tradition he gave birth to would constantly struggle to break back out of.
The above is too neat and tidy. Perhaps none of it is even close to true. But it at least seems believable to me. And I think it highlights an important connection between imperialism and its need for closed systems. How else to gain legitimacy? How do you navigate a post-modern world in which truth, reality, legitimacy, are all constantly under siege from pragmatism, skepticism, and multiculturalism? And of course, globalization has accelerated this encroachment in recent decades.
How do you station troops everywhere in the world, carry out covert missions, and ignore self-determinism and state sovereignty on the world stage without accounting for it? And as much as it might make you a Hobbsian bad-ass to admit it’s all just self-interest and walk away, such an admission is self-defeating. You’d only be exchanging the epistemic lawlessness of post-modernism for the equally lawless state of nature. It’s a real bind, the only way out of which, for me at least, seems to be a massive de-militarization and de-imperialization of our foreign policy.
And this is where I see conservatives and liberals, domestic policy and international politics, fundamentally opposed. Conservatives realize the inability of marrying rudderless technocracy, that is, a pragmatic “whatever works” approach that lacks firm grounding in principles and values, with liberal imperialism. I propose that our foreign policy requires a closed system. Whether you like it or not, we are an imperial nation mired in every piece of business in every part of the world. And as a result we are now threatened by various ideological groups who really do pose a massive (or less massive) danger. Unfortunately I don’t know what liberals have to offer in the way of combating this threat, despite being extremely meticulous in describing its origins. And the very American exceptionalism that legitimizes the country’s power to police these groups makes liberals’ stomachs turn. What answer can they offer instead? Perhaps a Euro-merican exceptionalism. A re-dressing of the the U.S.’s “Western mantle” in more PC terms. Thus liberals, as unable as conservatives to let go of American exceptionalism, become as equally bogged down by the closed-system from which it is derived in the sphere of domestic policy. This is maybe one explanation for why the two parties seem so similar to many people. Both are beholden to the same imperial machine fueled by the same mythological narrative.
I’m not sure what can be done about it. And I’m curious if anyone even sees the problem as I do, or even that there is some problem more fundamental than any one particular issue (education, taxes, civil liberties). For me, the following line from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War has always been the most striking (Pericles speaking of Athens in Book II):
Again, your country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours. You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamoured of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; in fine, such qualities are useless to an imperial city, though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude.
In a comment on J.L.’s original post, Richard Thomas noted:
“The purpose of the intrusion is however to suggest a possible paradox as seen by an outsider in that those who talk loudest about exceptionalism in many cases also preach doctrines which, taken literally, will have a deleterious effect on the life of your country. I refer to such matters as the denial of global warming, the creationism, the degradation of your education system…”
To slightly rephrase that paradox, how does the U.S. retain the legitimacy of its imperial enterprises, bestowed by “closed system” narratives like American exceptionalism, without as a result, being unable to cope with the domestic problems that threaten the economic and social resources on which its imperial power and exceptionalism are based?