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America: An Exceptional Nation

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News Editor

The question of what historically makes the U.S. different from the rest of the world was the topic of conversation on Wednesday, April 6 as students, faculty, and community members packed into Bast for another Fowler lecture.  Joseph Bottum, contributing editor  to the Weekly Standard, and Jon Meacham, former editor of Newsweek, utilized their vast array of historical knowledge to tackle this important question with wit and differential reasoning.

 Each speaker was given twenty minutes to address the audience with a salient thesis for their argument about the what makes America exceptional.  Then, Bottum and Meacham engaged in a friendly rebuttal to the arguments each proposed.  To close the evening, audience members were permitted to ask questions written on the back of the program and selected by the panel of professors to ask.

 Bottum began the evening with an indictment of academic history for dismantling the common folklore of historical narrative mythmaking, not saying historians were entirely wrong, but it can hurt the American consciousness of memory.

“Academic history has become the enemy of popular memory,” Bottum quipped, “One by one the old trees have fallen.”

According to Bottum, American exceptionalism is not rooted in the power exerted by the United States.  On the contrary, it is about the distinctive differences between American history and the fall of other powers, asking the question: what makes America different?  He says unlike other great powers of the past centuries, particularly European ones, the U.S. did not consider itself a divine power. 

Furthermore, Bottum believes the contradiction to the American experience is how the U.S. is like Israel, but its not Israel or that it is chosen to lead the world, but it has humility to not do it.  One other guiding principle in Bottum’s thesis is the role of religion in the America.  With many European nations driving towards a more secular future, he says the U.S.’s founding from Christian principles, although not making it a strictly Christian nation, helps build a morally stronger society. 

Meacham agreed to some degree with Bottom’s premise of the story.  He warned Americans of falling for the trap of hubris, specifically in the realm of foreign policy, where leaders believe they are doing good for the world since it happened before.

 “American exceptionalism is a story that we tell ourselves when we find it useful,” Meacham said.

His example was the U.S. helping to liberate Europe during World War II.  That patriotic experience was used to justify American intervention in other places, such as Vietnam and Iraq.  Another example provided by Meacham was saying Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement to Adolf Hitler during the Munich Conference dirtied the word appeasement for other leaders to negotiate with possible enemies.  In a broader sense, Meacham wants people to realize that history is complex and cannot be presented as a one-size fits all solution for the U.S.   The U.S. wants to be the nation that helps the world, but how much is too much?

“We see ourselves as warriors of good.  The question how do we pursue it?” Meacham asked.

Some found the lecture a bit too intoxicating and over the top in terms of historical references.  It also focused too much on U.S.’s role in the world and not enough on understanding domestic priorities.

“I was expecting them to talk more about a view of people and on roles about where the middle class is going and is America still the land of opportunity,” said Dan Zimmerman ’14.

Others found the discussion to be fruitful with good points for the start of a healthy debate about the U.S. as a global superpower.

“I thought they offered some interesting perspectives on American history and where we go from here,” said Anne Whitesall ’11.