"These things are old":

Toward a universalist exceptionalism

posted by Robyn S. Schroeder


Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

American exceptionalism has been dealt a body-blow. I want to suggest, however, that the variant of exceptionalism that was upset by the Bush era was only a vertical model, and that a horizontal image has not only survived, but is flourishing—perhaps, in fact, finding ultimate expression in the personage of Barack Obama as the official representation of the body politic.

Traditionally, there have been two distinct, coexistent images of American exceptionalism—one vertical, and one horizontal. The vertical model envisions America as the pinnacle of a global hierarchy, the privileged “city upon a hill” over an otherwise flat or downward-sloping world. The horizontal model pictures America as being, instead, a consummation, the “melting pot” where the peoples of the world meet, intermingle, and are ennobled by virtue of constituting collective humanity within morally important national borders. In the first picture, America is separate from the world of nations, and in the second, America has subsumed the world of peoples.

The tropes coexist and are mutually constitutive. Indeed, the vertical picture relies on the notion of a national tradition of Judeo-Christianity, and on the idol of the Revolution as a moment of rupture with world history which marks the beginning of a teleology of justice. But also, in part, it relies on the horizontal picture itself, just as the horizontal image invests importance in the national borders in part on the premises of the vertical model. They are, in complex ways, interdependent, but their sources of confirmation are separate. The vertical model, a hierarchical image, is confirmed in the world of nations, by the maintenance of an image of America in a position of dominance. The horizontal model is confirmed in the world of peoples, where still-particularized Others are pitted against notionally de-particularized, democratically humanistic Americans. That is: where the vertical model finds confirmation in, say, American-led “coalitions of the willing” (as long as they are American-led) the horizontal model is confirmed by the very idea of (ethnically marked) Islamic fundamentalism.

So, while many have claimed that the Bush era has ushered in a decline of American exceptionalism, I want to suggest that it is only the vertical model which has been upset. The sure sense of dominance in a global hierarchy was interrupted by the terrorists attacks of 9/11, reasserted through entrance into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but continually shaken thereafter as foreign policy outcomes, as well as images of America being reflected back from without, made America’s position as transcendent “top dog” increasingly implausible. The political culture that allowed America to be judged by the standards of other nations—and found lacking—was one which severely damaged the vertical picture of exceptionalism.

And that vertical diminishment, iterated in, for example, Dick Morris’s claim that Obama “repealed the Declaration of Independence” during his European tour (a conviction doubled when he bowed to the leader of another state), is now deeply felt—if one can gauge by the number of times it seems to have been repeated across cable news and (particularly right-wing) online media.

Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric has frequently confirmed the view that his administration is deliberately dismantling the vertical model; he seems to aim for a stance which (either in fact or appearance) is one of pragmatic world-engagement. For example, his campaign speech last summer in Berlin was riddled with gestures that move away from a position insisting on American preeminence, such as his claim that “there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world.” And though his speech on the subject of globalization and global problems has often been more tempered at home, the general direction, I think, is the same. Vertical exceptionalism has been dealt a body-blow; sooner expect Obama to speak of a world with many “cities upon hills” (to which, perhaps, “torches of liberty” have been passed) than the American nation as a lordly, lonely city upon one.

The horizontal image, however, has not only survived, but flourishes—perhaps, in fact, finding ultimate expression in the personage of Barack Obama as the official representation of the body politic. Horizontal exceptionalism, after all, is about the consummation of cultures. It is, in short, the exceptionalism by which Americanization is synonymous with universalization. And it was given new wings in Obama’s Inaugural Address:

We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

If what I’m calling “vertical exceptionalism” posited an America that was a shining city upon a hill against a world of assumedly un-American darkness, can this new horizontal version, now shorn of some of its vertical underpinnings, instead both recognize and engage with a world which has, partly through the workings of all the variants of exceptionalism, actually become increasingly Americanized? And—this is the real question, as America enters what appears to be a new era of engagement—can it do so without repeating the mistake of the past: assuming that, because Americanization is supposed to be merely a form of universalization, it is benign?

The above passage from the Inaugural Address implies an American role in “revealing” the world’s “common humanity;” I wonder whether the form of that revelation might yet be a violence against particularities, violence still rationalizable in the terms of horizontal exceptionalism because those particularities (Islam, Chinese-style mixed economic forms, racialized solidarities) obstruct American-style “universal” democratic humanism, and hence are particularities in which the cultures of people obstruct “our common humanity.” Barack Obama has named his tradition: a patchwork heritage, in which tribal lines dissolve, the subject of which was the mainstay of his recent address in Cairo.

Still, it’s too soon to say how Obama’s idea of heritage will convert to global destiny.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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6 Responses to “Toward a universalist exceptionalism”

  1. avatar Thaddeus Kozinski says:

    This is superb. This horizontal, apparently more humble exceptionalism is actually a far more malevolent version than the neoconservative, vertical exceptionalism. The latter’s “humility” in being “chosen by God” was much more easily unmasked as diabolical pride than Obama’s “patchwork quilt” of “diverse voices in the conversation.” The truth is that this kind of exceptionalism-with-a-bow, with its pseudo-ethos of kindness and cooperation and dialogue, ad nauseum, is truly totalitarian and violent at heart. As the writer so insightfully put it:

    “I wonder whether the form of that revelation might yet be a violence against particularities, violence still rationalizable in the terms of horizontal exceptionalism because those particularities (Islam, Chinese-style mixed economic forms, racialized solidarities) obstruct American-style “universal” democratic humanism, and hence are particularities in which the cultures of people obstruct “our common humanity.”

    This is the “tyranny of liberalism,” as Jim Kalb’s new book puts it, or the “dictatorship of relativism,” as Pope Benedict brilliantly articulates it. Bush’s version of this tyranny and dictatorship couldn’t hide its nihilistically violent core for long, Obama’s version—as evidenced by its directed violence against the unborn and its silence in the face of Israeli’s slaughter of Gazans—may not only go unnoticed, but also may be fanaticallly supported by the “peace-and-humanity-loving” among us, as well as the war-mongers. Obama’s universalism may ultimately unite left and right in the end. God help us.

  2. avatar Nicole LaConte says:

    I disagree with the author’s claims that vertical exceptionalism is dying and that horizontal exceptionalism is thriving. I disagree with these assertions on a practical, rather than theoretical, basis.

    In theory, these claims seem true. American history, both domestic and international, seriously undermines the idea of American superiority and dominance over other nations. Consider, for example, the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the seemingly pointless War on Terror. Having become the first black president, Obama seems to embody the American melting pot: a racial minority has become the American figurehead.

    The first reality that the author fails to acknowledge is the fact that Obama is continuing American vertical exceptionalism. In his inaugural address, Obama expressed his belief in American superiority and uniqueness in the world: he followed John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” ideology. According to Obama, because “we remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth” and our “ideals still light the world,” we can be secure in “the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” God has given America, the New Jerusalem, to his chosen people so that they can serve as the “city upon a hill” for all other nations to admire and imitate.

    The second unacknowledged reality is the mythic nature of the American melting pot. In practice, the melting pot represents assimilation, not multiculturalism: it seeks to eliminate differences, not celebrate them. Although Obama does embody different races and nationalities, these diverse social locations were extremely problematic for both the news media and the general public during the presidential campaign. Questions raged about whether Obama, black in appearance but not descended from slaves, was either too black or not black enough. Some even suggested that with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, he clearly associated with – and perhaps even was! – an Islamic terrorist. Rather than confirming the American melting pot, whether imagined as assimilationist or multicultural, the presidential campaign highlighted how problematic race, religion, and national origin still are in the United States.

  3. avatar Jordan Banks says:

    After distinguishing between vertical and horizontal execptionalism, there is only one question I have to ask: which one is more hegemonic? Vertical exeptionalism depicts America in a hierarchical image, where it presents itself as a dominant figure among world peoples. Manifest Destiny is an example of this, as Americans concluded that God gave them the right to conquer North America from north to south, east to west. Bush’s and presidents before him did practice this, but were they right in doing so? Is it right to completely control a country’s society and government without referring to its history first? To me, vertical exceptionalism is taken too far by using the negative image of a specific type of people, and perpetuates it to include all people who look similar to that image. In having America be “the privileged city on the hill,” do we have to maintain an image of a common enemy to otherize and compete against to stay dominant?

    If America were to be truly vertically exceptionalist, its hierarchical model would not make any excuses for any type of human mixture whatsoever. People would be ranked upon their looks and socio-economic status. Racism and Classism make America vertically exceptionalist. Thus, America’s horizontal exepctionalism cannot exist as a “melting pot” with these two elements in place. To have a country as a “melting pot” is to accept and tolerate different people, cultures, religions, and ideas. Vertical exceptionalism does not promote that, which means that these two cannot be coexistent because there are factors within each of them that cancel each other out. Bush’s use of terrorists to wrongfully profile all people of Middle Eastern descent as the common enemy is the opposite of Obama’s universal diplomacy. Therefore, is America’s hegemonic ideology of providing the pursuit of happiness while sustaining their moral right of bringing messages of equality and freedom to troubled nations far and wide divided? Are we able to fulfill both sides of this equation? Idealistically it may be possible. However, realistically, I don’t think that’s the case.

  4. avatar Megan Maffucci says:

    I think the characterization of American exceptionalism as a vertical-horizontal dichotomy is an accurate and incisive assessment. While I agree with the author that President Obama clearly promotes further reliance on our horizontal exceptionalism and the common good, I would hesitate to identify such as a progression to universalization. The relationship between the American horizontal and the American vertical is not a zero-sum game; Obama doesn’t undermine the authority of the latter simply by advocating the former. Indeed, I would argue that Obama’s inaugural address is in fact a reassertion of both American exceptionalisms, despite its deliberate preference for the horizontal approach.

    Obama’s speech marshals in a new era of responsibility and accountability for America, a redirection from rugged individualist thought to cognizance of the common good. Yet he prefaces discussion of the common good by refuting claims of an imminent American decline. He assuages this fear with confident avowals of America’s continuing eminence: “Our capacity remains undiminished,” and “We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth.” With these words, he addresses the American people, reaffirming America’s seat of dominance in the global hierarchy. Likewise, he goes on to attest to America’s role as global leader to the audience listening from beyond our borders. “America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.” Our newfound dedication to the common good has evidently not altered our duty to “lead” the rest of the world.

    Obama summons the “old” virtues of our Founding Fathers, claiming, “Those ideals still light the world.” This is a bold claim to make, that the values of our nation’s founders serve as a guide still not just to America, but to the world as a whole. In this way it is America that lights the world. This idea is simply “the city upon a hill” metaphor resurfacing in a subtle disguise. Because of what America is, we have “duties” to the world, we must help “usher in” a new world peace, carrying forth “God’s grace upon us.” While Obama renounces the notion of American entitlement and proposes an emphasis on the common good, he also reaffirms images of American greatness by invoking the legacy of American prosperity and duty. The difference here is that Obama suggests that America can realize its full greatness through our capacity to cooperate and “our patchwork heritage.” Ultimately, however, he still contains hints of vertical exceptionalism in uplifting American ideals and responsibilities.

  5. avatar Taylor Brennan says:

    Schroeder’s study of the horizontal and vertical models of American makes sense of both the animosity and praise surrounding American exceptionalism; though it does so in a manner too idealized for the current state of the nation. Though Schroeder notes that the two models are “in complex ways, interdependent” I am still unclear as to how the vertical model could have been diminished during the Bush era while the horizontal prevailed if the two are in fact interdependent. Furthermore, I question if we can accurately attribute this shift specifically to a change in leadership. Though Obama represents the hope for America to be viewed as a “consummation of cultures” rather than the “pinnacle of a global hierarchy” this promise has yet to be fulfilled.

    However, from a theoretical standpoint, I appreciate the clarity of division and the sense it brings to the image of American exceptionalism. While it may not pan out as well in practice as it does in theory, almost nothing does. As a way to examine American exceptionalism Schroeder makes an argument that is applicable to the history of American exceptionalism as well as its place in society today. American exceptionalism is an incredibly difficult problem to tackle because it appears to be, and has been, extremely beneficial and detrimental to the country at the same time. The inherent American belief that the country is in fact an exception has been a source of inspiration and success throughout history. Yet this belief has also painted the image of Americans as greedy and egotistical people to other nations. It would be nice to reconcile this issue simply under the emergence of Obama as our leader but I think that is naive. While Obama may oppress the vertical image it is still accessible to leaders and citizens who wish to seek it out.

    Thus it is the simplicity of the image of American exceptionalism as a duality that is both the strength and the weakness of the argument at hand. Schroeder successfully proposes an intelligible way to understand an abstract concept. However, the argument appears almost too clear-cut to be applicable in real life. If the issue were as straightforward as Schroeder suggests it seems that it could have been solved a long time ago.

  6. avatar Merrill Darezzo says:

    The idea of vertical exceptionalism is one that used to exist much more so in history than it does today. When America was first created, it was the place where anything could happen. During the industrial revolution it was the place that was full of opportunity and the streets were paved with gold. During the 1950s it was the ideal suburban utopia that everyone looked to and respected and molded their own lives after. We as a country did great things, we saved the world from WWII, we went and landed and walked on the moon. Today, we haven’t done anything that people really perceive as good. The opinion of people in other countries is that America is a country that is not great anymore. It is a country past its prime. When I was in Italy this past year, a shopkeeper told me he thought as much and that he knew many other people who thought the same.

    The idea that America is becoming more horizontally exceptionalized is completely true. There are more people coming into America everyday, both legal and illegal, and the country is becoming more diverse and international each day.

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