Saturday Opinion with Hal O’Leary: American Exceptionalism

Saturday Opinion with Hal O’Leary: American Exceptionalism

Saturday Opinion with Hal O’Leary: American Exceptionalism

 Saturday Opinion with Hal O'Leary American Exceptionalism

The statue’s head on exhibit at the Paris World’s Fair, 1878

The dictionary definition of racism is, “The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” In this regard, I can say that I am definitely not a racist. HOWEVER, I must ashamedly admit that in the company of other races I am constantly conscious of our differences. This implies no bias or prejudice on my part, in fact, perhaps the opposite is true. I find myself being overly accommodating to those of a different race in an attempt to dispel any thoughts of bias. This, of course becomes obvious to the sensitive observer who is likely to interpret is as an insincere conciliatory effort to hide the assumed bias and superiority that Americans must feel. Could it be that this is just a benign form of racism but one that consciously or unconsciously reveals a hidden sense of exceptionalism? Might I be the victim of a white American culture that exclusively places white Americans at the top of God’s list of chosen people? It is some time referred to as ‘exclusivity’ or ‘exclusivism’ and might, if viewed in its true light prove to be less benign than originally supposed.

I contend, in fact, that exceptionalism  is far from benign.  When it takes the form of an extreme nationalism or patriotism, it assumes an undeserved sense of superiority. The psychopathic, sociopathic and hawkish politicians, and armament manufacturers who profit greatly from war foster this nationalism and patriotism to great advantage in persuading the populous to send their sons and daughters off to be slaughtered in the belief that God is on their side. Of course, in the off chance that this may not be enough of an enticement, they resort to the unfailing strategy of a created and imposed fear of an external threat. This often takes the form of a “false flag” operation. The resulting exceptionalism not only allows us to plunder, torture and kill an inferior enemy with impunity, but it allows us to do it with grandiosity. As an exceptional people with an exceptional military, we are not bound by rules of war as stipulated by the Geneva Convention, rules that we demand the lesser peoples and armies must adhere to. Does this not smack of a bit of hypocrisy?  If that were not enough, we have the further hypocrisy of the perpetrators denying the very rights and freedoms to their own citizens that those citizens are ostensibly fighting to preserve.

The great oddity, however, is that while we find behavior like this in an individual grotesque and intolerable, as a people, we glory in its exceptionalism. Has it not occurred to us that the rest of the world might with good reason look upon us as a nation in the same way we would look upon an individual who demonstrates such ugly exceptionalism? Can we not see that the great respect we once enjoyed as a city upon a hill among the nations of the world, respect for our integrity and human values has all but disappeared?  It may be well to recall the source of that phrase, A city upon the hill. It appears first in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said,

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Then in 1961 it was recalled by John F Kennedy that the phrase was used in 1630 by a sailor John Winthrop,

“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbela three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.

“We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”

Have we gone from the city upon the hill to be known as the ‘Ugly American’?

When we go to the source, of another truly patriotic phrase but one that has most unfortunately been horribly misrepresented by the exceptionalists, we find the true nature of the uber patriot. The phrase is, My country right or wrong. As used today, it most often reflects an indifference to the wrongs committed by our government as does the phrase, Love it or Leave it. It is said and often shouted with belligerence, but the phrase as it was originally intended and later recalled, was anything but belligerent. It was originally used by Stephen Decatur a decorated United States naval captain who after bringing an end to the Barbary state piracy in 1816 and speaking at a banquet in his honor uttered these words.

”Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”

Then in 1872 Senator Carl Schurz, clarified the concept when he said in response to another Senator who, in a boasting and boisterous manner, misrepresented it falsely, said,

“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

British author G. K. Chesterton would probably have agreed with Schurz, since he wrote in 1901,

“My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying ‘My mother, drunk or sober.”

There you have it as it should be. There you have it with none of the ugly belligerence the ugly American is now noted for. I’ve tried to picture it in the give and take of my poem A DIALOG.





You’d better come and join the throng

Of patriots to keep us strong.

You’re not with us, you don’t belong.


I’m not with you, not even quite,

For many reasons I could cite.

Your patriots fill me with fright

With all your readiness to fight.


So coward, let us say so-long.

And get you off to old Hong Kong

To share the the gift of Mao Zedong,

And live in peace your whole life long.


My friend, you fail to see the light.

Our country can be wrong despite

Your obvious and sick delight

Ignoring humane norms outright.


May humane norms become a prong,

And shoved up where you wear your thong.

We make the rules for right and wrong

I fear it’s time for your swan song.


“My country right or wrong” is trite

Because there is this oversight.

If right, we have to keep it right.

If wrong, we have to set it right.


This is where exceptionalism has led us. Can we recapture the moral high-ground we once took such pride in by reassessing our responsibility and obligation to all the peoples and all the nations of this shrinking planet?  Why can’t we extend Thomas Jefferson’s, “All men are created equal” to really include all men, world-wide?

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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