American exceptionalism, Humanities

I want to start by calling in question three popular beliefs that may prove to be interrelated myths. First, the common assumption that the usa is essentially European in character, what Louis Hartz (1964) called a European 'fragment society' and by extension that Americans are 'people like us' (Mennell 2007: 1-4). This is particularly in?uential in the United Kingdom because the Americans (or most of them) speak English, and in my experience that is enough to con-vince most British people that 'Europeans' are much more 'foreign' than are Americans. Yes, the usa did begin as a fragment of Europe that broke away politically a couple of centuries ago. But so did the countries that we now call 'Latin America', and we still tend to think of them as distinctly un-European in overall character (see Huntington 1999). Charles Jones (2007) has drawn attention to this anomaly, arguing in effect that the usa is a lot more like Latin American and a lot less like Western Europe than we are accustomed to think. To simplify a complex argument, Jones suggests that the usa and its hemispheric neighbours to the south share a number of historical experi-ences that give their societies certain common features and set them to some extent apart from Western Europe. These include the legacy of conquest and of slavery (both of which have contributed to race and racism as salient traits), marked religiosity, and relatively high rates of violence. We may add a rapa-cious attitude to natural resources, born of the abundance that confronted settlers.

Second comes the related myth of 'American exceptionalism', in which the distinctive features of the American way of life are generally compared not with Latin America but with Europe. From John Winthrop's vision of the New World as a 'city upon a hill ' (1994 [1630]), a beacon for Old Europe, there has been a proud sense that America is different: it is not Europe.

But debates about American exceptionalism often resemble the proverbial dispute about whether a glass of water is half full or half empty. If one looks at human beings from a suf?ciently high level of abstraction, they and their societies can all look alike. If one chooses a very low level of abstraction, the differences between human groups are so numerous that any pattern is lost in a mass of detail. Every country has its distinctive peculiarities, while sharing many common characteristics with other countries. In most cases, the peculiarities are matters for unre?ective national pride, or the specialist concern of historians and social scientists. The cases where they become of wider concern, notably the questions of the German Sonderweg or of Ameri-can exceptionalism, are those in which the debate takes on a strong moral ?avour, negative or positive.

Posted Date: 4/26/2013 3:13:32 AM | Location : United States

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