April 14, 2006

What does [national] exceptionalism mean?

Is it a measure of degree? There’s distinctive, and then there’s even more distinctive: exceptional.

Agree/Disagree (please choose one): If you come up with a list of countries and compare them with each other, and it turns out that Country A is very distinctive, I suppose that makes Country A exceptional, except at the same time the act of making a list of comparable countries means that on another level Country A is not so exceptional as to be incomparable.

Statement (please mark only one blank per pair):


the question of American exceptionalism

_variation on a theme?

seems to produce scholarship that is


interesting for what it has to say about American history in general and


satisfying for the answer it gives to the the question: Is American history exceptional?

Update: Eric has a measured response here.



  1. Between you and Oscar Chamberlain, I’m going to have to re-type my whole book as various semicoherent blog posts.

  2. This is all part of a ploy to obtain free books.

  3. People who want free books need to have mailing addresses.

  4. I was thinking more along the lines of sneakily getting a book's content through blog trickery. You know, something similar to reading book chapters online by continually searching for terms that will yield the next few pages – only in this case it would involve writing a post asking for what ends up a defense of chapter 1, then 2, etc.

  5. I’m a Canadian-born Mayflower descendant, whose family settled in New Brunswick after the French and Indian War, in which the family had taken part, but before the American Revolution, during which there was sporatic guerilla activity, causing my ancestor’s house to be burned for refusing to join the Revolution. I first encountered full-blown exceptionalism when I moved to the states in 1964 at the age of 12, most notably in my rather miltaristic scout troop. From my standpoint then, on which most of my attitudes have always been based, it seemed ignorant. It was based on the idea, which I knew from experience to be false, that there was no country where this thing or that existed but the US.
    So in the Seventies, after Vietnam, the “America as an Ordinary Country” movement was appealing to me.
    I think only the scale of American power, ultimately economic, gives American exceptionalism it’s plausibility.

  6. (My blog seems to be back up today – I couldn’t get onto it yesterday – so I can finally comment.)

    I’m American-born – though one of my parents and all of my grandparents immigrated to the US – and I can’t say that I ever really felt conscious of American distinctiveness (as opposed to an American identity, which I’ve always felt on some level) until I had a basis for comparison. I’d been to Mexico and Canada as a kid with my family, but never really reflected on the differences between and among the countries. It was only after going to Europe late in college/after graduation that I got a stronger sense of how the US differs.

    I remember, aside from the larger differences like the scale of US power, talking about some little things in particular: (1) how speed limits are national standards in many European countries, but how they vary with jurisdiction in the US; (2) local school boards and the lack of national exams – apart from the SATs and ACT, which are different – for college admissions. I think there’s actually a book about this sort of thing, Banal Nationalism, and someday I’ll take a look at it.

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