How Really Special Are We?

One of my deans asked me one day, "Why do you write so many articles for your webpage?" I explained that I got into the habit of writing articles, because I wrote a column for a newspaper in Ronald Reagan's hometown of Dixon, IL for more than a dozen years. I'd still be writing for that paper had they not had an internal reorganizing of management. The first editor, while conservative, seemed to enjoy my left of center Weltanschauung. His name was Bill Shaw, and while I didn't change his mind, I admired Bill's openness to someone from the far-left from where he was. I don't know why the new group thought that a change was necessary.

In addition, many of the articles written for the newspaper and my webpage are used in my various classes that I have taught over the years. When there is a discussion in class, I would give them an applicable link to an article that I had written. I have used many of these articles to help them see the broader explanation of the issue before them. In reality, it expands their time studying exponentially, but more importantly, they learn more than merely some often dry facts in a textbook.

Moreover, it is one of the central reasons for my traveling overseas. I'll be in Scotland in a couple of weeks to return to where I did post-graduate work 45-years ago. However, I will be able to talk with some Scottish National Party (SNP) officials about the vote in 2014 for Scotland to leave the UK.

At the end of this year, I will be in Burma (Myanmar) hoping to interview Aung San Suu Kyi and others about their country in the 21st century. Can you imagine the number of articles, interviews, and photos that I will generate from visiting Scotland and Burma?

I teach a number of humanities classes including philosophy, history, ethics, art history, world religions, psychology, and sociology. Never does a week go by that I don't give my students links to articles that I have written...and never does a week go by that I don't get another idea for an article from our classroom discussion.

The article that you are reading now emerged from several of my classes. It has to do with the concept of Manifest Destiny (Manifest = apparent, obvious, evident and Destiny = God-given, predetermined, inexorable). In German, the word, Lebensraum, has a similar room for the German people. This German version of Manifest Destiny was first used by Friedrich Ratzel around 1900. It paralleled what was happening in the US at that time. Hitler merely used the term 3-decades later in the annexation of the Sudetenland prior to WWII.

Obviously, it is a term used in history and in art history. I love teaching, but the class that I love the most is art history...because it is so inclusive of all the other humanities courses. This picture, American Progress, was done by John Gast in 1872. It isn't my favorite painting at all, but it does reinforce the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

American Progress

American Progress

American Progress reflects the notion that we have a divine reason for being in America and expanding our country to the West Coast. Columbia and her angel-like presence is carrying telegraph wire to bring communication to the West. She is also carrying enlightenment in the form of a book. Both communication and education were missing in the wild, dark, and foreboding West. In the painting, one can clearly see that enlightenment was moving westward. It was the white man who was bringing both light and civilization to this hostile land filled with retreating savages and wild animals — both the savages and buffalo died as a direct result of the western expansion. Scholars have estimated that our westward migration was responsible for killing 80% of Native Americans due to military conquest and/or diseases. In the process, we were creating a new heaven here on earth...well, for some people it was heavenly.

John O'Sullivan John O'Sullivan
John O'Sullivan was the first person to coin the term, Manifest Destiny, when he used it in relationship to the annexation of both Oregon and Texas. The annexation of Texas created a problem with the US Senate. The issue was not with the expansion of the US territorially but the expansion of a slave state. O'Sullivan argued for annexation of Texas because of "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." In other words, we should annex Texas due to two issues: it was God's will, and we need the space as a result of our population. For O'Sullivan, Manifest Destiny was an ethical issue, which bore allegiance to a higher law...God's law. We were to obey God by killing anyone or any animal in God's way westward.

Not everyone bought into O'Sullivan's notion of Manifest Destiny. Robert C. Winthrop raised a critical objection to O'Sullivan. He said, "I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation." Very few Americans understood Winthrop's tongue in cheek comment about Manifest Destiny.

In addition to the issue of Texas, O'Sullivan went on his honeymoon to Cuba. While there, he got interested in trying to get the US to annex Cuba from Spain. He suggested to President Polk that we should offer Spain a million dollars for Cuba. However, Span did not accept the American offer.

The Fox sisters The Fox sisters
Finally, O'Sullivan did not like the idea of a possible War Between the States over slavery. He hoped that we could resolve the issue without bloodshed. If that did not work, he suggested dividing America into two countries as a better alternative than war. When the Civil War occurred, O'Sullivan supported the Southern cause. As an ex-patriot, he went to Europe until around 1880. When he finally returned to the States, he got into Spiritualism via the Fox sisters and claimed that he talked with Shakespeare.
The idea of Manifest Destiny was a driving force for the United States in the 19th century. The term isn't used much anymore; we have come up with newer term, American exceptionalism. Again, back in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville used the term, exceptional, as a description of America in his book, Democracy in America. This parallels the timeframe of the issue of Manifest Destiny.

However, back in the 19th century, America's exceptionalism was due in part to its desire for political independence. However, over the years, the term has morphed into the notion that America was radically different and therefore better than other nations. America is gifted at all levels and is inherently superior to all the rest of the lesser countries in the world. America is better in every imaginable way. America is seen as a Christian nation with roots in Western Europe. However, God had chosen us to come to a new and uninhabited land as some divine experiment. We are as Governor Winthrop said this new land was "as a city upon a hill."

Governor Winthrop

Governor Winthrop

Strangely, Newt Gingrich wrote in his book recently, A Nation Like No Other, defending American exceptionalism. Our nation was "built on the unique belief that our rights do not come from the government, but from God, giving honor and responsibility to the individual – not the state."

Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich

Interestingly and beyond the notion of exceptionalism, the cover of the book doesn't seem to be flaunting American exceptionalism as much as Newt being exceptional. In both cases, many see either assumption as accurate.

George Bush, during his two terms in the White House, pushed the notion that American exceptionalism went beyond merely being better than all the other nations, America was so much better than the rest of the world that we were above or beyond international law. That can be seen in our foreign policy especially in the Middle East.

Regardless of what is included in American exceptionalism, there is a problem with it. From the Witch Trials, treatment of Native Americans, slavery, the age of the robber barons, the Gilded Age, Prohibition, Scopes Monkey Trial, segregation, internment of Japanese during WWII, sexism, gay bashing, and a list of mistaken wars, America isn't a city on the hill. There is much about which to be proud, but America's past and present is greatly flawed.

Obama, during a press conference in Strasbourg, France in 2009 said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I am enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world."

Agreed. We like the Brits and the Greeks have much about which we should feel proud. However, that is not to say that we are perfect nor unique in the community of nations...either in the positive or the negative areas of social responsibility.

Burma flag

Burmese independence flag

Visit the Burma Independence page to read more about this topic.