Tuesday, October 11, 2011

American exceptionalism: Not what you think!

Yesterday in Twitter, I was accused by the author of Don't Take my Lemonade Stand: An American Philosophy, one Janie Johnson (@jjauthor on Twitter), of, among other things, not believing in American Exceptionalism (side note: she also accused President Obama of the same thought-crime).
Yes, I agree we do differ, Janie.  In many ways.  I, for one, chose not to use the phrase American exceptionalism because of it's origin.  An origin so strange that I'm surprised American conservatives can bring themselves to ever utter the phrase.  Let's be clear here, the origins of this phrase are well documented and, placed in historical context, make perfect sense.  So where did the phrase come from?

Back in the 1920s, the American Communist Party was in full swing.  They were organized and were organizing.  They were meeting with Communists from other nations and from mother Russia.  It was a time of great hope and belief in the ultimate victory of the ideals of Marx and Lenin.  Not everybody in America was happy with this development, least of all the scions of capital.  Let's turn to a well-regarded historian of American Communism, Albert Fried and his book Communism in America: a history in documents.  Specifically page 7.
The Communist alternative certainly had little impact on Americans.  They were no more concerned abou the fate of the Soviet Union than they were about the rest of the world.  With a vengeance they repudiated the Wilsonian vision, articulated during and immediately after the war, of a nation willing to lead humanity in the quest for international law, and they returned to the isolationism of their fathers.  Moreover, an alternative of any sort, much less one so inimical to traditional values, scarcely seemed necessary to Americans given the rampant prosperity that most of them enjoyed, and with no end of it in sight.  Communists themselves in the 1920s talked of "American exceptionalism," the believe that thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions, America might for a long while avoid the crisis that must eventually befall every capitalist society.  American exceptionalism explained to Communists why their movement, like the rival Socialist movement, fared so poorly here in the most advanced capitalist country on earth.
American exceptionalism was a phrase that originated to explain why the American Communist Party tracked so poorly.  They weren't wrong, Americans are not amenable to these kinds of social movements except in times of great social stress (like today).  And during the heyday of the 1920s, the stresses were low.

So the next time some conservative berates you for not believing in American exceptionalism, you can look them straight in the eye and say, "What are you? Some kind of Communist?"

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