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“Never to be roused is to forget what honor demands.”–Cicero

star spangled banner flagAs of this moment, the American Left no longer carries sole imprimatur to publish recursive screeds dispelling American exceptionalism. The American Right is hereby officially in on the act (from an opposing angle, naturally) with a single noteworthy reservation: the sui generis manner of our national birth was as exceptional as can be. The founding being a historical wraith as dead as Jefferson or Washington, still it remains a differentiating American feature carrying its own implications into the present. Yet in all other dimensions of our political culture—where we Americans rely on principles any more contemporary than founding ones—we might as well be Europe. Even reliance on founding principles, without contemporary genius, is too little and too late.

With that single archaeological exception which lives on for the few who labor to remember it, I declare American exceptionalism “expired.” The announcement comes tardy not early, after all: rigor mortis sometime ago stiffened the 21st Century American spine –in death, that is—whereas resolve could not do so in life.

The average conservative sees little correlation between the conditions for the possibility of the ascendancy of the Obamian redistributivism they deride (almost recreationally) and the withering prospect of continued American exceptionalism. They see precisely as little interplay there, for example, as they do between the answer to the grievances of 1770’s American colonists and those of 2010’s American citizens. That is to say, they miss the important connections. And so they just keep talking the talk, as if they forgot that their braggadocio must designate something actual to be warranted. Visit Rome, Italy, if you have the chance: 21st Century Italians constructed the Coliseum just as much as their counterparts in America penned or signed the Declaration of Independence.

Yet one still hears the coarse ballad of American exceptionalism played around every corner—that which I heard stepping into breakfast this morning, and which prompted this vituperative invective—yet bafflingly most manage to hear it without any of its notes of discordant irony or unbounded polyphony. They hear none of the pulsing bass undertones which insinuate our doom. The tarnish has eaten into the brass.

A million symptoms tell our American tale of woe, our fall from grace. Look anywhere. A simple glance to the Obamian state of the union (or even the fact that he is President) should do the trick, prompting conservatives to acknowledge the stark implications of such a state. But with most conservatives, it doesn’t seem to. And no, skipping over acknowledgement is not optimism. It’s delusion.

Whatever “American exceptionalism” meant when it was true, it had much to do with the notion of ubiquitous involvement by the citizens in their republic, a shared value, a common venture. Other countries, not comprising true republics, have always lacked the commonly shared value of liberty waning in America for most of the 20th Century until it dried up early in the 21st.

Loath to recur to the concept of “community” long hijacked by the Left, let’s just call the needed thing I designate “public spiritedness.” As cited by fellow The Imaginative Conservative author Brittany Baldwin, John Adams equated such public spiritedness with the “only Foundation of Republics.” He continues: “There must be a positive Passion for the public good…established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty… Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasure, Passions and Interest.”

In short, public spirit rests upon private discretion and freely volunteered civic virtue. A republic can neither force upon, nor live without, the public spirit of its citizens. Conversely, community as conceived of by the Left has involved coerced participation of citizens by a grand state and its utopian designs. While indeed, as any conservative avers, no man communally cares for the skins of strangers near as much as his own or his family’s, public spiritedness invites each citizen vigilantly to look after (if not other citizens) at least the ideas which keep the republic cohesive: rule of law, liberty, the natural law philosophy liberty requires. And once upon a time, this was actually a realistic expectation in America.

Whether one identifies as the stumbling block to American public spiritedness a) Sex and the City or b) suburban soccer, it is beyond doubt that for most Americans, something’s in the way. In all American climates, there’s a general lack of toughness required by civic vigilance. No longer sustainable is the flattering dichotomy portrayed by conservatives of a manly, familial, self-reliant life in the suburbs versus a metrosexual, solipsistically self-involved, (yet) codependent one in the metropolis. Experience proves the latter characterization to cover both dominions in its ignominious cipher.

Honestly, I’m not sure what’s worse for republican involvement: the half-gentrified squalor, the impoverished and sterilized sense of the sexual organs, the vapid conversationalism, the overweening half-beards, the moochiness, and the cartoonish androgyny of the city… or the effete risk-aversion, the humdrum of Sisyphian routine, the (new) mother-knows-best socialism in sports, the “play dates,” the petty acquisitiveness, and the cowardly chub of the surname-first-named ‘burbs. But I know this: there’s not a carbuncle of Jeffersonian DNA in any of it. Not the vaguest specter of Washington or Adams. Not a drop of blood or a single summoning of vigorous spirits. Not a scintilla of thoughtfulness or of good cheer. Not the briefest flash of the fangs. No guts. No love.

Most of my conservative friends ask me why I’m so tough on the suburbs. My response: “Why are you so hard on the city? Because it’s all true!” It’s just urban versus suburban materialism, two sides of the same faded, counterfeit coin. And make no mistake, by the way: the materialist is necessarily a coward. Both the principle of bravery and the set of principles for which this virtue can be mustered are immaterial and, as such, worthless and insensible to the cowardly materialist—no more than magic beans to his pleasure-addled senses. As such, he’ll refuse to stand for anything, one hundred out of one hundred times. The fop does not crusade or revolt to earn his pleasure, but rather he “takes it if he can,” as the Cranberries once sang. He takes it as and if he finds it…and lays low the rest of the time.

As such, America has fathomed up generation after generation of apolaustic sissies so destitutely uninterested in any words or concepts not initiated by the lower-case “i” that one is convinced they have forgotten the existence of twenty-five other letters in the Latin alphabet. In 2013, you’re always being reminded there’s absolutely nothing exceptional about looking out for “number one.”

My initial stipulation above was quite unnecessary, after all, considering that I’ve written of American exceptionalism that it “expired,” not that it never existed. Plain and simple, we Americans are the “lesser sons of greater sires,” living off the valor and honor of the Forefathers. Both these virtues–valor and honor–were absolute exceptions to the usual human rule of risk-averse self-interest. A small band of Virginia planters, Pennsylvania Quakers, and New York aristocrats risked their own once-luxuriating skins in the name of big ideas. Such founding ideas were propagated in the manner most prone to duration, succeeding such that they have already carried multiple inferior generations in their drift.

But, without a new generation of genius—intrepid genius, don’t forget—to rejuvenate those ideas, they’re unable to carry us any farther. Recall the manure of the “tree of liberty,” described by Jefferson: blood. Republics are not for the fainthearted, after all; they’re for the exceptional. (People in the ‘burbs, cover your children’s ears and eyes: even the sage imagery of our genteel, gentleman-planter President are too “TV-MA” for your rugrats, I’m sure—even the crucifix too “extreme” or “graphic” an icon.)

But the question of whether or not our people is worthy of our republic has been lost in all the lounging, wont as the reclined position is to drop behind forgotten relics and knick-knacks not looked after. Each generation since the founders seems to have asked not how to become worthy of our progenitors, but rather: “Are we the generation for whom the ambrosia runs out? If not, we shall drink down the storehouses until the day we die! Hang the republic! There are no future generations!”

Some—too few—have begun to reject this attitude in the realm of economics; none have begun to do so in the field of political morality. In America today, one sees precious little of the brave or the ingenius, let alone both together. To look near or far—to the ‘urbs or to the ‘burbs—is to be disheartened.

Make no mistake: America was entirely exceptional at its birth and baptism in 1776 (a revolution based on Natural Law morality and minimal government!). America was mostly so at its confirmation in 1789 (although the broad equity power of the courts imbued in Article III was a diseased seed sewn). But in its young to middle-aged adulthood in the 1800’s, it became increasingly flaccid, complacent, and pragmatic. In its post-New Deal twilight, it became a flagrantly expectant ward who refused to convalesce. Now, on its Obamian deathbed, it casts its scaly eyes back to Europe—not as it once did, the scornful firebrand and flashing-eyed exile—but instead, longingly. It looks to take up its status as her young novice once more, mimicking her movements as it did before it began taking exception to Mother Europe’s senseless rules of table and etiquette. America would be Europe again. But alas, death takes it first.

As conservatives, we must guard and champion the truth, even if it means announcing that the heavens fall (which, as it were, they seem to do presently). America, being still a young country, must and will “learn that to die is a debt we all must pay,” as the eminent Euripides penned before the age of Greek philosophy. Human beings, unlike the animals, pay that debt both jointly and severally. The latter is a religious moment (“each one comes before God individually”) and is a topic for another thread. The former, the joint or communal death of a people, is called the end of a republic, a juncture throughout history which has come to pass whenever republican peoples become, well, exactly as Americans have become: “scattered, divided, leaderless,” as Tolkien once wrote of Men in the declining age. Scattered into their own private lives in the city or in the suburbs. Scattered unto republican death.

The conservative takes no joy in announcing this truth. Yet who else would do such unseemly work? The Left happily admits it as a function of their open self-loathing (embracing each opportunity to besmirch ourselves). But their admission is peppered with calumnies and slanders—extra sins of which we are not actually guilty. And we ought not forfeit our own status as guardians to the ungodly stewardship of the Left just because as one articulates this particular truth, one grieves. There is nothing unjust or unnatural in America, being still a young country, grieving a little extra for its own untimely descent. Euripides wrote also that “youth holds no society with grief.” Really, the lack of concomitance between America’s youth and its grieving furnishes the tension one detects everywhere in America—in the ‘burbs and in the ‘urbs—where American exceptionalism once lived and died.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Thus the difference between the Left and the Right on American Exceptionalism is that while the former never believed that there was exceptionalism especially because of how the other was treated, the Right believes that we lost our exceptional status.

    How did we lose that status? Was it really through Obamacare? Or is it because to become exceptional, one has make it through a survival of the fittest environment?

    Whatever greatness you want to attribute to forefathers who risked so much for the sake of gain and self-interest, I would see you previous empires and raise you Christian martyrs of the first 3 centuries who risked so much because of their interest in the other–whether that other was God or other people. History is replete of people putting it all on the line for the sake of further gain. If they win they glorify themselves by reveling in what they have rather than in what they stole. And that is the problem with believing we were ever exceptional. We insist on maintaining a disconnect from what we have stolen.

  2. “…secure self-government by the republicanism of our constitution, as well as by the spirit of the people; …nourish and perpetuate that spirit.” Thomas Jefferson, 1816

  3. We lost exceptionalism through a deliberate denigration campaign–run from around 1920 through 1940. After that it took on a life of its own. The end result? Politically Correct Progressivism. PC-Progs’ foundational belief is that traditional America, and American values, are always wrong.


  4. I’m not sure, Mr. Day, that we actually “stole” our exceptionalism. Not to sound like a prude but I humbly ask for some proof of your assertion.

    The fact of the matter is that what has passed for “exceptionalism” in the recent past was actually jingoism and nationalistic tendencies. I don’t believe that these are the same as Mr. Gordon’s exceptionalism. To put it in perspective, I’ll use an analogy I used in class just a few weeks ago during my current study abroad.

    The class was asked to compare the EU system as it stands on paper and reality with the reality and theory of the system brought about by the Peace of Westphalia. A line of argumentation that I incorporated into my paper went thus: the nation-state system that grew out of the Peace is the exception in history. Throughout time and across the globe, the idea of the nation and state has been far and away overshadowed by the reign and dominance of massive, centralized, autocratic empires and kingdoms centered on the divine rights or status of their respective monarchs. The nation-state, to the contrary, puts the power in a sovereign (be it a king, prince, or constituent assembly) and is limited by national boundaries respective to tradition and national/cultural claims. Further, the Peace gave birth to the idea not only of the equality of nations before law but also the idea of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of neighboring states, where previously monarchs went to war at the drop of the hat. With the EU, I argued, we see the erosion of the Westphalian System and a “return to normalcy,” that of large, centralized (but now federal and bureaucratic) supranational entities.

    In the same way that the Westphalian System and the nation-state were the historical exception (and in this way “exceptional”), the US could be said to be “exceptional” because of its unique character. The US is the product of 2500 years of Western civilizational development and evolution, embodying the best (and sometimes the worst, it’s true) of our tradition. Ours was a nation founded on the idea that the individual man, not a king, knew how best to live his life and make his decisions and live with the consequences. Further, that a citizen is not the same as a subject, and that a citizen has a right to not only voice his opinion but object to what he considers unjust laws and to have an impartial third party weigh the merits of his objections. Another principle that makes us unique is our classically-republican form of government and emphasis on moderate liberty under law as opposed to the mob-rule of democracy, as well as our dedication to religious freedom. Yes, sometimes we fell and fall victim to the same vices that have plagued many other states and kingdoms and regimes before us and those to come, but that should only chasten us to better embody our principles of law and natural freedom and the equality of each and every man before the law and God. What chafes me is that the Left, too, thinks we are “exceptional” in the sense that we are a nation guilty of every conceivable crime against humanity when, in actuality, due to our roots and our sense of purpose, we are, quite honestly, the “last best hope for Mankind.” This is the kind of “exceptionalism I believe Mr. Gordon is talking about.

  5. I would be careful in pronouncements of death. There are Americans who still care about the founding and if history tells us anything, all we need is a motivated and intelligent minority to stem the tide.

    Of course, the situation is dire. It never has been more dire for those who count themselves as lovers of liberty and virtue. Let’s discuss the possible methods of instigating revival though before we etch the last letters on the gravestone.

  6. I know you mean what you say, but I wish you would break it down a little. But, of course, this is a very subjective criticism on my part. Other readers might well have found your essay exactly to their tastes.

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