Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reviewed: Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Arguments that a practice reflects American exceptionalism are inherently comparative arguments, but are most often offered without comparative evidence. Instead sometimes American exceptionalism is suggested almost as a throw-away line, as if it is a commonly-held assumption that requires no examination. Because of this, I was pleased to learn of a new book by Godfrey Hodgson, associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press). In the blurbs, Tom Bender calls the book an "independent-minded polemic" that "offers powerful evidence that a belief in American exceptionalism hinders clear thinking about the nation and the world." At 221 pages, the book is shorter on historical detail than on argument, leaving it to other historians (like Bender, Ian Tyrell and others) to fill in the texture of U.S. history set more firmly in the world.
Hodgson is reviewed by Roger Cohen in the New York Times. Although, for Hodgson, "the American Revolution created the world’s first large republic and 'replaced divine right, and hereditary right, and customary legitimacy, with the supreme authority of the people,'" for all their differences, "'19th-century America and 19th-century Europe were essentially two parts of the same progressive, liberal capitalist civilization.'" Rather than seeing the United States as a "city upon a Hill," Cohen writes,

Hodgson is unconvinced about America’s global mission. The United States, he writes, has become “just one great, but imperfect, country among others.” More than skeptical, he is angry, dismayed by what he sees as the religious, self-righteous and rightist manipulation of a once ennobling idea. Hodgson argues that “what has been essentially a liberating set of beliefs has been corrupted over the past 30 years or so by hubris and self-interest into what is now a dangerous basis for national policy and for the international system.”
Continue reading here.