What Really Makes America ‘Exceptional’?

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(excerpt from ‘The Beauty and Nobility of Life’): Americans feel a great deal of pride that our nation is so unique. But most Americans gravely misunderstand in what sense we are unique, and in what sense we are no different from any other nation or any other people. We are going to have to free ourselves of quite a few delusions before we can recognize and understand our true uniqueness, before we can begin to speak intelligently, honestly, and maturely about our so-called ‘exceptionalism”. As Jacob Needleman notes: What makes America special is not its people. What makes America special is its obligation. America was consciously designed specifically as a place where ideals like freedom and equality, justice and truth, could be pursued, where the quest for “the Good” would be encouraged.

America was supposed to be a place where all human beings could gather together and this pursuit would be protected. This is what makes America special and unique. We are no different than any other people in any other time or any other country – but no other nation has ever had this obligation to the human spirit.

The indisputable fact that we have often betrayed these ideals is not a reason to reject the ideals themselves, nor is it a reason to give up hope in the possibility of fulfilling these ideals in the future. This is why Frederick Douglass, after slamming the Americans of his time for their hypocrisy, said, “But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory.” He did not want us ever to forget what we are or what we have done, but he also did not want us ever to forget what America can and must become.