Monday, March 23, 2015

Exceptionalism or Tribalism

I've never been a fan of Exceptionalism, the notion that the U.S. is favored by God and is exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries. I've believed those who hold this notion to be guilty of, at best, hubris and at worst, preposterousness.

Even though I can't subscribe to (capital "E") Exceptionalism, I do believe that American history is (small "e") exceptional. I used to think the difference between (capital "E") Exceptionalism and (small "e") exceptional was a difference of degree, not kind. But something Paul Krugman said recently has changed my mind.

we really are an exceptional country -- a country that has played a special role in the world, that despite its flaws has always stood for some of humanity's highest ideals. We are not, in other words, just about tribalism -- which is what makes all the shouting about American exceptionalism so ironic, because it is, in fact, an attempt to tribalize our self-image.
Source: Paul Krugman.
Think of history's intractable conflicts -- all are defined by an "us vs them" attitude that transcends reason. Not one American in a thousand can tell the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, but in 1994 up to a million Tutsi were slaughtered by Hutu. Not one American in a thousand can tell the difference between Sunni and Shia, but the animosity between those two rivals the animosity of either against the U.S. Not one Muslim in a thousand can tell the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, but religious wars swept Europe for centuries, even down to the recent past in places like Northern Ireland. All are examples of tribalism.

The notion of Exceptionalism, that God favors America, by definition requires the existence of an "Other" who is not special. That's tribalism, too. Other countries may also cherish liberty or democracy or equality, but that doesn't change the fact that, according to Exceptionalism, God favors America. In (capital "E") Exceptionalism, America derives it position from God's favoritism, not from living up to the ideals that has made American history so (small "e") exceptional. It's tribalism, not exceptionalism. It really is a difference in kind, not just degree.

To tie all this to Richardson, look to Richardson's own Bill Ames. Ames was picked as a subject matter expert when the Texas State Board of Education considered history standards. According to The Texas Tribune, Ames argued:
that America is "not only unique but superior," that its citizens are "a chosen people, divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment," and that it is "not destined to rise and fall. Americans will escape 'the laws of history' which eventually cause the downfall of all great nations and empires."
Source: Texas Tribune.
Ames is guilty of either hubris or preposterousness. Tincy Miller, the SBOE member representing Richardson, is too. Ames endorsed Tincy Miller. Miller highlighted his endorsement on her own campaign website. Know that these are the people who pick the textbooks that your children are using to learn U.S. history. Or tribalism.

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