Townhallam recently published an article by Jonah Goldberg in which the latter identifies patriotism with belief in what he calls “American Exceptionalism” (AE)—i.e. the doctrine that America is the only nation ever to have been founded upon the idea of the “inalienable” rights of all people.
There are (at least) eight reasons why patriots, and conservative patriots especially, should reject AE.
First, AE is an ideology.
Historically, conservatives—real conservatives, not neoconservatives—have treated ideology, regardless of its specific content or aims, as the enemy. The ideologue retreats from the messiness of place and time to the simplicity and certainty of his creed. Conservatives, in stark contrast, know that it is exactly in history, in tradition, that direction is to be sought.
Secondly, AE is vacuous, proving both too little and too much.
As Hegel famously noted, from the abstractness and formality of moral principles no specific, substantive moral actions follow. Thus, an affirmation of “inalienable rights” is perfectly compatible with a potentially infinite range of mutually conflicting policies and actions.
“Inalienable rights” can and have been invoked by birds of many different feathers.
Thirdly, in keeping with this last consideration, AE offers entirely too much for the taking for leftists. Its unqualified affirmation of “inalienable rights”—equal rights—makes it clear for all with eyes to see that AE is, unmistakably, a species of egalitarianism. The invocation of AE, then, expedites America’s decline into the leftist abyss.
Fourth, AE is simply false: America was most emphatically not “founded” upon a principle.
The founding of America is not to be found in a single, identifiable event, but within a tapestry of contingent circumstances spanning well over 150 years. Considered as a legally sovereign or independent nation, America came into being during the last quarter of the 18th century, it is true. But this was scarcely some sort of creation ex nihilo: Americans were a people, and America a country, long before the ratification of the Constitution, and even well before the colonists declared their independence. In fact, the thought, much less the deed, of declaring independence would’ve been impossible if not for the sense among the Crown’s subjects in North America that they already were a distinct country—a “we”—a separate people de facto, even if not de jure.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.