Focus Article: Happy Birthday America: How Exceptional Are You?
by Olga Bonfiglio

Today, as we celebrate the birth of our nation as the world’s beacon of freedom and democracy, we might also ponder the insights from a book by Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism is an especially pertinent topic for us during this insecure period of empire, war and economic decline.

Hodgson grew up in Great Britain and became a great admirer of Americans because of what we did during World War II. He studied in Philadelphia and served as a correspondent for the London Observer in Washington, D.C. He covered the Civil Rights Movement and made films about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan. He taught at Harvard and Berkeley and has visited all but two states. He prides himself in spending most of his life in trying to understand the history and politics of the United States and he provides an interesting “outsider’s” viewpoint.

American exceptionalism, says Hodgson, is rooted in religion where colonialists saw themselves as “a chosen people” destined to “fulfill a unique historical destiny.” This ideology surfaces from time to time, especially when the nation is in crisis. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush all used it because it resonates well with the public and reasserts our identity. President Obama is now using it by “appealing to our better natures,” as Lincoln would call it.

Our schools have trained us well in exceptionalism, he says, however, what they often miss is the context of international historic processes at work. For example, the American Revolution borrowed its ideas about liberty and freedom from Europeans who had been developing them since the seventeenth century British Revolution and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Read more…

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