Day By Day

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bennett on American Exceptionalism

James C. Bennett has a piece in the latest National Review on American exceptionalism, a subject that has begun to interest me. His is a rather narrow view of the matter, restricted to the peculiarly American formulation of republican principles, but he does make one interesting observation. Americans tend to think of these principles as properly being universal which leads them in two distinct directions. In terms of American domestic culture we think that the same rules and principles should apply equally to all persons and that everyone, regardless of their culture of origin can become American through a process of assimilation. In foreign affairs the same dynamic leads us to assume that every country, regardless of its national traditions, can become to some extent America. Bennett rightly points out that the latter presumption has caused a lot of problems in the international arena and suggests that we should adopt a more "realist" approach. But he remains convinced that cultural homogenization over time, because it has worked in the past, is a proper approach to domestic affairs. This, however, ignores the fact that, at least as regards elite culture, the assimilation paradigm has long been abandoned and in these pluralist times is often an object of ridicule; and the fact that absent stringent coercive pressures, which our current political culture is extremely reluctant to employ, assimilation has not generally in the past taken place. Past ethnically distinctive communities, some of them tracing back centuries, were not naturally assimilated -- they had to be "Americanized". For half a century now we have been systematically eliminating the instruments by which Americanization was enforced and it is unlikely that we shall see in our lifetimes their re-emergence. So, at least since World War Two, the domestic implications of the doctrine of American exceptionalism and its presumption of an "underlying common culture" have been just as problematic as in the realm of foreign policy. In both realms the only effective means of achieving a common commitment to republican principles is the ruthless application of force, and that is something we are increasingly reluctant to do.

Read Bennett's piece here.

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