Renegade Cut is rapidly becoming one of my favourite YouTube channels for its commentary on the modern crossover between politics and culture. Specifically, popular culture. A recent video includes these observations on the issue of “American exceptionalism” which could be equally applied to another ostensibly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and English-speaking union that believes itself to be unique by virtue of history and nationality, and which is also undergoing a wave of populist sentiment:
American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States is not only different from the rest of the world but uniquely positioned to lead the world.
Exceptionalism states that the US follows of path of history different from the laws and norms that govern other countries.
American exceptionalism is the belief that the US is not only bigger and more powerful than other nations but that it due to its uniqueness, it need not follow said laws and norms.
When the US violates the borders of another nation and strikes it with a drone, this is unquestioned among Americans due to American exceptionalism. We are “allowed” to do this. If the same nation struck ours with a drone, they are not “allowed” to do this. Who do they think they are? AMERICA?
That’s terrorism when they do it.
The US allows itself to do this because it sees itself as the standard bearer of liberty, freedom, democracy, “western civilization.”
The concept of exceptionalism became more and more linked to global US military and political hegemony. No matter of how much income inequality and other issues make “exceptionalism” seem hollow, the US can rely on their military to enforce this idea that the US can do as it pleases – by force.
American exceptionalism should not be confused with “patriotism,” as patriotism is understood, by definition, to be internal to the people of a nation. Patriotism is the belief or feeling among citizens of a nation that said citizens should support and praise their country.
American exceptionalism is the belief that the world should support and praise America and that the world owes a debt to America and that the world should aspire to be more like America.
Every nation has patriots, the people who root for the home team. But Patriotism is internal to a nation. American exceptionalism is both internal and contains an expectation that it should be external.
President Obama once said maybe other nations might believe they are “exceptional” too, so what’s the harm in America’s rhetoric about this? No, that’s patriotism, not exceptionalism. Patriotism is a feeling whereas exceptionalism is both theory and practice.
The US practices its exceptionalism through its military on the world stage whereas most other nations don’t or can’t. There is a difference between saying “I love my nation” and saying “My nation has been chosen – perhaps divinely – to lead the world by any means necessary.”
US politicians try not to use the words “supremacy” or “superiority” when referring to where they believe the nation is on the global stage because such words have historical negative connotations.
When people profess that some group of people is superior, the first question to be asked should always be: is this belief in superiority common to people outside this group? Is this a widely held belief, or is this a belief that the group is inherently “better” held predominantly within the group?
White supremacists believe that white people are inherently “better” than many other racial identities, but it is obviously not a widely held belief among black people, among South Asian people, et cetera. It is a cultural belief, a colloquial value that is unquestioned only within the group.
Similarly, American exceptionalism is not fact or a universal value, but believers in American exceptionalism practice it as if it were. When America invades another nation and American politicians claim that they will be greeted as liberators, this is an example of two aspects of American exceptionalism. The invasion itself and the belief in how the invasion will be received. The former, the invasion, is a byproduct of the idea that Americans have both the right and duty to invade other nations.
The latter, the idea America will be greeted as a liberator, comes from the mistaken belief that American exceptionalism is a universal value instead of what it is: a cultural value almost exclusively among only one group.