America is special. America is called to lead the world in liberty and freedom. America is not just special in the way that each country is special. No, America is even more than that. America is exceptional. America is special in a way that no other country in the world can assert.
From John Kennedy to Barack Obama, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, this belief in American exceptionalism is a central belief of the leaders of both political parties. The belief in American exceptionalism is unchallenged and unopposed in the United States. Disagreement with American exceptionalism is suppressed, mocked, and generally understood to belong only to the political fringes, to be found only on the outside edges of the relevant American political debates.
There is no possible way that I could oppose American exceptionalism. Listen to any politician heap praise upon it: what do you hear? You will hear praise for liberty, praise for freedom and openness, praise for competition and the free market of ideas, praise for pluralism and choice, praise for America's moral leadership, a leadership made possible only by the most free and most democratic society in the world.
American ideas are the best in the world. The American way of life is the best in the world. America is therefore, obviously, the best country in the world. What a disaster, what a tragedy it would be, if the world were not led by its best and strongest nation? The leaders and politicians in America can't stand to imagine that any other nation is superior to America, or that any other nation should lead the world besides America, or that any nation should exercise more influence and power than America.
There is simply no way I could oppose American exceptionalism, as it is depicted by American politicians. If American beliefs are so superior to others, and if America is only acting in the world to defend and spread those beliefs, then it would be foolish for me to oppose America standing up for those beliefs!
All is not what it seems. The theoretical American exceptionalism lavishly praised by politicians is a far different animal than the American exceptionalism actively practiced in reality. The American exceptionalism which now exists is the exceptionalism of economic strength, the exceptionalism of raw power and military might, and the exceptionalism of authority and ideology over law and responsibility. Current American exceptionalism is a creature of fantasy and propaganda.
America is not exceptional because it encourages liberty - it is exceptional because it can deny the liberty of others (imprisoning without trial, torturing, and ordering assassinations of American citizens without due process) and ignore the consequences. America is not exceptional because it encourages openness - it is exceptional because it dismisses and attacks those who disagree with its policy, while criticizing other nations who act in the same ways (mercilessly prosecuting whistleblowers who expose fraud and journalists who expose corruption). America is not exceptional because it encourages competition - America is exceptional because its economic policy is corrupt and narrows the path of prosperity (reducing equality of opportunity by rewarding the rich with tax cuts and slashing social safety nets). America is not exceptional because it encourages democracy - it is exceptional because it has supported dictators (such as Hosni Mubarak) who have suppressed democracy and persecuted those who protest against them.
However, I refuse to abandon American exceptionalism. If America wishes to be a leader in the world, to be a leader of freedom and liberty with a legitimate claim to moral guidance and direction - then Americans must demand that their government adopt and practice a new kind of American exceptionalism. America must not use its force and influence to merely gain power for its own interests, but must instead accomplish the things its politicians so forcefully endorse but do not pursue: greater liberty, greater freedom, greater choice, greater openness, and greater democracy, under the law, with true equality for all people.
America must be exceptional in its compassion, in its empathy, and in its forgiveness. America must be exceptional in its patience, in its purpose, and in its sacrifice. If America is fighting three wars to remain a great nation, let's be entirely sure what kind of greatness is worth the lives of our soldiers and the lives of innocent civilians in the countries where we fight. Isn't it a waste to destroy so many lives if all we are doing will only ensure that America remains a great economic power or a great military power? Isn't it a tragedy that so many lives have ended in the name of naked brute force and the almighty dollar alone?
There is no more exceptional sacrifice for a cause than the relinquishing of a human life. Perhaps Americans should remember that unrelenting fact before demanding further sacrifice of that highest kind for any cause which is less than fully exceptional.
For the good of the world, and for the good of its own people, especially for those sent to fight and die in our conflicts, America must be exceptional in its adherence to law, exceptional in its concern for the well-being of its own people and for the peoples of other nations, and exceptional in its undying commitment to the principles of freedom and liberty which have justified, but do not yet govern, American actions.