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Once, we were not a people who needed to brag on ourselves

  • Published in Letters

To The Daily Sun,

Can patriotism be treason?

Contemporary concepts of American Exceptionalism imply it can. If we apply those concepts to end our planet's romance with self-government, Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese historians may well report it was.

The concept of American exceptionalism originated with Alexis de Tocqueville in his sentinel two-volume thesis "Democracy in America." In 1831, the French government sent him to study American prisons. For nine months, the young man (he was 25) traveled extensively studying American economics, sociology and political institutions.

He did not use the word "exceptionalism." The American Communist Party brought the word to the lexicon in the 1920s.

Tocqueville thought America was "exceptional" because it had not evolved as European nations had. Born from revolution, America, in Tocqueville's estimation, was the world's first "new nation." Its nature grew from a unique ideology of liberty, individualism and equality.

European communists in the early 20th century believed the collapse of western capitalism and revolt of the working class were imminent. American communists, however, thought an exceptionalism principle applied to the United States. Its industrial might, abundance of natural resources and absence of class distinction would hold collapse and revolt at bay for an extended period. (We might note none of these exceptions is true today.)

In our time, "exceptionalism" has come a long way from meaning different or fortunate. We clearly mean better. Would-be officeholders cannot enter political competition without explicitly acknowledging American superiority. Concepts and utterances such as "American decline" or "end of empire" are taboos in the political dialogue.

Few, if any, politicians or pundits dare suggest promotion of American exceptionalism is akin to treason. Perhaps it is time they (and we) considered that proposition.

The Constitution defines treason very narrowly. Even in times of shooting war, it is not always clear if a particular act is treason.

The more we bicker among ourselves, the more we are coming to view one another as enemy. As we become our own enemy, do our definitional concepts of treason become clearer or more muddled? Flag waving may have its place, but when we substitute it for problem-solving, are we patriots or fools?

We worry our kids are among the worst educated in the developed world; but when common sense is the measure of things, does it matter? If we embrace or reject science as it compliments or diminishes our personal beliefs and druthers, is the Age of Enlightenment still in our rear view?

Many, if not most philosophers would say the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights) are crowning jewels from the Age of Enlightenment. If exceptionalism requires we ignore the wisdom of Enlightenment — that reason is supreme and everything is open to criticism — do we really think patriotism based in exceptionalism and dogmatically driven "common sense" provides sufficient guidance for decision-making in an era of constant change, competition and danger?

There was a time when we were less occupied with our omnipotence and grandeur. We thought our republic was an experiment, a great one to be sure, but an experiment nonetheless. It would not always meet our expectations, but we would make it better next time.

We still take pride in the belief our republic is self-correcting. At one time that meant we were willing to work on problems and deficiencies. The proposition the nation will mystically heal itself if only government ignores problems would seem strange to the pragmatic people who founded and built this country.

We were not a people who felt the need to brag on ourselves or to have our ideals of superiority constantly reinforced by politicians. We could accept our nation was imperfect but clung to the proposition it was on an endless journey to "a more perfect union."

A constant stream of objective measures paints a portrait of fading greatness. We can ignore data or we can respond. We can push government away and expect unrestrained capitalism to create an equitable society for ourselves and our kids, or we can push government into the fray to "promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . . ."

If exceptionalism were just feel-good ideology promoting optimism and encouraging us to face down hard times with confidence, it would serve us well. It is not. It undermines our will to face reality and make the collective sacrifices that are greatness.

Robert Moran