29 September 2010

American Exceptionalism & Mental Illness

**Update #2 - Back on Civil War Memory, Kevin & Vince offer some revealing confessions, to wit:


It’s a fun exercise trying to take nebulous “rants” with modern political overtones about historical topics and then tease out specific historical questions…sort of a scientific approach to social phenomena with Civil War studies as a fascinating sandbox for testing that approach. Plus, as far as internet personalities go, Richard seems like a pretty decent guy, and at a different stage in my life I held political views very similar to his. (Emphasis mine) 

- Ah, so Vince's response to my political rant was politically motivated. Fair enough.

And Kevin responds:

. . . I just thought it was funny to watch him try to deal with some very good questions. It’s like watching chicken little whenever he goes off on this topic.
Actually, what's funny is watching these two dodge and ignore legitimate criticisms and, once again, resort to distracting, ad hominem responses. You'll also notice they seem to have no problems with "modern political overtones" as long as they originate from the left.

**Update - Kevin Levin, the self-described "activist historian" continues to shadow my blog. I'm flattered. I suppose it really is a slow day for him.

Levin accuses me of posting a "nonsensical and meaningless complaint" regarding academics and "liberal academic intellectuals" who "deride the notion" of American Exceptionalism. I suppose that is to be expected from someone who has declared himself an "enemy of American Exceptionalism." I must have struck a nerve. Actually, I was just adding some additional comments to something that posted on the same subject at George Mason University's History News Network website - something he conveniently ignores. I suppose the same information becomes legitimate on the HNN site. Interesting reasoning. 

He then goes on to suggest that I failed to satisfactorily address reasonable questions posed by Vince and that the comments were "truly entertaining." (His entertainment threshold is rather low.) Of course, that's a subjective opinion and, considering the source, not surprising. I chose to respond directly to most of Vince's relevant points and to ignore those which I deemed distractions. Kevin often does the same thing, as do most bloggers. That's a red herring and without substance. You can read the exchange and decide for yourself. As I've noted on numerous occasions. I simply do not have the time nor the interest in debating the obvious. There is a right/left divide on the subject of AE and anyone who denies it is either ignorant or in denial. The article to which I linked sums up the subject nicely. There are scores of other articles on the topic for anyone willing to look. But you do have to be willing to look and be open-minded. It is Vince and Levin who actually fail to address the legitimate criticisms directed at academia, instead becoming defensive. And, of course, the tone of Levin's post, as well as the comments that follow, turn personal and to the lowest common denominator of name-calling. Time to circle the wagons and fire the ad-hominem attacks. Yeah, that's convincing and will win you tons of converts. Please, do keep it up.

Perhaps Kevin could explain what an "enemy of American Exceptionalism" is. We're all dying to hear that one.

I do, however, agree with Peter's comments regarding Progressives. The same would apply to many modern neo-cons (Bush 43 for example). But the Progressives and neo-cons twist the fundamental positive concepts and principles of AE into something they can use for their own gains and goals of centralizing power, the antithesis of the fundamentals of AE to which I'm referring. Again, I assume those reading this blog have a certain level of knowledge of the topics discussed. That would include the points regarding Progressives and neo-conservatives.

 Acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches at Princeton University, has derided the notion that there is a distinctly American idea, one that is distinguishable from the core concepts that have animated Europeans, Scandinavians, and other cultures.
Opposing view from a non-American historian:

Andrew Roberts, a British historian and author of the best-selling Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, has endorsed American exceptionalism in his own writings. Asked about Oates's comments, Roberts told Fox News it was evidence of a "psychiatric disorder" among liberal American intellectuals.

Liberal American intellectuals (Sorry for the redundancy) and academics dominate history focused blogs and academia. Roberts' analysis, at least, offers some evidence that a growing number of people recognize their agenda and bias.

Roberts continues . . . 

For postmodernists, whereby everything has to be related to something else and nothing is truly exceptional, it's a disgusting concept that America could stand above and away from the normal ruck of history," Roberts said. "And of course, it also feeds in very much to Auropean anti-Americanism, especially at this time of the war against terror.

And one of the left's favorite historians, Eric Foner, reveals the agenda:

Eric Foner of Columbia University, a leading historian of the colonial and Civil War periods -- his The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, due out in October, will be his twenty-second book -- told Fox News he finds some strains of American exceptionalism "parochial" and "chauvinistic" . . . "So it leads to this kind of imperial frame of mind that we know best for everybody, we know that our system is better . . . "To think about oursleves [sic] as exceptional really is a very narrow vision. . ."
Classic. Oates' & Foner's comments are excellent representations of the self-loathing so prevalent among American academic elites. Denying or opposing the legitimate and real concept of American Exceptionalism is a dangerous misuse of history and one that is, unfortunately, on the rise.


Vince said...

I might have missed it somewhere, but could you give me a precise definition of "American Exceptionalism"? I'm having a hard time of sorting it out in my mind.

Yes, the United States is different from the rest of the world in many ways. And yes we've tackled the problems of society better than everyone else in many ways and worse than others in some ways. What exactly are people arguing about?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Vince. Loosely defined . . . the notion that the United States holds a special and unique place in world history in regards to freedom, liberty, wealth, power, moral principles, the rule of law, and opportunity.

Each of those points could be broken down into greater detail, but I believe that is a basic definition. It is primarily those on the left who are "arguing" or, more accurately, opposing or denying AE.

Vince said...

Thanks, Richard. Could you explain what "holds a special and unique place in world history" means, or what its practical implications are? Is this a policy question? Or a historical question?

Reading the linked article, I was unclear how a lot of those paragraphs connected to one another. Historian A looks at WWII and sees US positives. Historian B looks at imperial wars and sees US negatives. Historian C looks at what makes the US unique and finds European roots. (A question to the author of the HNN article:) Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - is this a rhetorical question? That the US "holds a special and unique place in world history" is a given in my world.

Practical implications? Patriotism, gratefulness, responsibility, stewardship all come to mind.

Policy question? Policy should project the practical. Obviously something not being done now.

A historical question? No, a historical fact.

"Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?"

It shouldn't be. We live in an imperfect world. Only Progressives seem to believe in utopia.

Vince said...

I'm not sure I understand then your problems with the historians mentioned in the article. Let's take Eric Foner. He asserts "some strains" of how Americans perceive themselves (i.e., some versions of American Exceptionalism) have directly led to serious policy mistakes in "interventions abroad." (I assume Vietnam, post-invasion Iraq, etc.) This seems like a pretty basic historical critique supported by research.

Then, he suggests an American self-perception doused with American Exceptionalism could be detrimental to Americans who live in a more globalized world. That seems pretty obvious to me, too. Think of all the companies that took way too long to wake up to the reality of international competition. (I'm currently sitting in a grad student office in a business school of a prestigious university with the student composition: four from China, three from Turkey, one from Brazil, one from India, one from Iran, and two Americans.)

So, how do you connect what Foner is saying with self-loathing?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I'm not sure I understand your problems with AE and the need to defend Foner's known leftist bias.

Most of the "globalization" to which you refer is only possible due to AE and the free market that unchained the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - I'm assuming a certain level of knowledge with those reading here. I'm confident you have that knowledge. No one would argue that AE can't and hasn't been taken to extremes in some cases. For the sake of this discussion, there is no need to point out the obvious. The article is discussing the issue in broad terms. Its not a thesis. I believe the tone of Foner's comments are as much to provide cover for his more radical opinions than anything else. His opposition to AE is much deeper than he's letting on in this quote.

Vince said...

I guess the point I'm getting to is that this question of American Exceptionalism from the Fox News article seems to be framed in such a way to complete avoid any meaningful debate but allow people to say whatever they want. It'd be like asking whether Technology is good or bad...you'd get nowhere.

I myself very much prefer precisely defined historical or policy questions whose possible answers can be compared to one another and tested using primary sources and data. Asserting something based on the tone of comments of on an online article seems a little unconvincing to me. For example, it would help me to see something more substantive/specific in Foner's writings...perhaps something in the introduction to one of his books? (I actually don't know anything about Eric Foner other than that he wrote a supposedly good book on Reconstruction which I haven't read.) Seeing a discussion played out that way would better help me figure out what's really going on.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - one of Foner's earlier books (and I believe that is the one) is actually quite good. But if you delve more into his more recent writings and comments, his leftist bias becomes clearer.

"In the course of the past twenty years, American history has been remade. Inspired initially by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – which shattered the ‘consensus’ vision that had dominated historical writing – and influenced by new methods borrowed from other disciplines, American historians redefined the very nature of historical study." - Eric Foner

Anonymous said...

Hello, I am not Peter Carmichael, only happen to share the same first name with him. Could you please amend your post to reflect this?
Best regards, Peter.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Peter - correction has been made. Sorry.

Vince said...

To explain my intentions in posting, I really have no interest discussing the general political attitudes of the academy. It's only minimally relevant to my life, and, since it's such an amorphous topic, not something I care enough about to spend time researching, formulating opinions, debating, etc. Not a criticism or big deal...after all, it's your blog.

I do care, though, about serious Civil War history as a hobby and passion so when I see something specific I'm happy to delve into it (every once in a while, at least), exploring the primary sources and analysis related to specific historical events and modern-day historians. And I enjoy the forum you provide on this blog as a personal challenge to express my ideas and learn about other people's very different views/approaches/methodologies. Thanks again for taking time to respond.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Vince - agree or disagree, you're always welcome. I sincerely appreciate the fact you take the time to read my rants and comment.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - I understand completely.

"an antagonistic agenda"

Agreed. Politics and history are certainly related. I'm very open about what I believe and why. And, as I've pointed out before, I was, at one time, quite liberal in some of my views. However, after my conversion and looking much closer at our Nation's history, I became more libertarian/conservative in my views.

In other words, it was my study of history that influenced my political views. Actions have consequences. We can clearly see, from history, what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately, I believe the reverse is true with a lot of other folks.

msimons said...

Well done Richard. I love that we are a special nation if we weren't why is everybody trying to come here.
I believe that this Nation has been blessed to spread the Gospel and protect Israel.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Exactly Mike. I agree, though your comment will be greeted w/sneers and eye-rolling from the ruling class academics.

Anonymous said...

This may be to simplistic for some but my understanding of American Exceptionalism is that this world is in far better place for the existence of the United States rather than not.Just imagine what this world would be like with out us.Imagine a world with no Declaration of Independence,no U.S. to stand against the powers of communism and fascism in the 20th century or where would relgious or intellectual liberty be in this world without America.I think it would be a very dark place indeed without this country.

Also I think it is dishonest for Kevin Levin to have copied and pasted comments from your post,on your blog,Mr. Williams to create a post for his own blog.He should have commented here,instead of taking your discussion to his blog.

Tom Gann

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Tom - I think that is an excellent explanation. I don't care if Mr. Levin cuts and pastes my writing from my blog as long a he does so in total.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. ;o)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Some comments previously posted have been deleted at author's request.