Wednesday, September 18, 2013
A city on a hill
During the many years I taught American literature, there came a time when I could easily separate the Yanks from the "furriners." It was early, maybe the second week of class, and the assignment was the journals of John Winthrop, the first gov of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Winthrop pulled countless references from the Bible, the book he knew best, so it's wrong to say that he's the source of the idea; but he is the first (of many) to use a familiar description with respect to the what he thought of, at best, as "the new world," Puritan as he was. Still, his clarion call has echoed through the years--the idea that this new country, America is "a city on a hill."
We have Winthrop and the Puritans to thank for that deeply-held American attitude we frequently refer to as "American exceptionalism," and they were not wrong. American democracy is unique; and it is, as everyone knows, a grand experiment that still could jump the rails of its own design and likely will someday, the history of nations being what it is.
When we'd arrive at that reference, the rule of thumb was that those kids not raised in the States would glance warily from side to side, as if it might be more comfortable to leave the room. Even Canadian kids got sheepish, generally, because talking about about America as "the city on a hill" got a little testy when they were themselves guests at the American table. What I remember is the reticence of the foreign kids--and the missionary kids--their courtesy, despite the knowing looks on their faces.
Maybe a missionary kid would speak up--that happened; and once in a while some international student would go off. I remember having a whole cadre of foreign students in class one day, kids who were far more daring when they bulked up in a group. Their criticism made American kids a little spiteful--you know, "if you don't like it, don't slam the door behind you."
Things could get testy because American kids generally had no idea how to understand the idea, no idea what the others so obviously understood--"what?--we're arrogant? we think we're better than everybody else? You're serious?"
A little back-and-forth in the New York Times today features four short essays on "American Exceptionalism," which is once again at the heart of our most trying policy question: what on earth to do about the wanton slaughter of innocents by the Syria government. The question comes draped heavily in our war fatigue--"what?--again?" Most people believe Iraq was an awful mistake and Afghanistan will simply never end. Now Syria?
I've even got some sympathy for Sarah Palin, who said, quite pungently, both sides pray to Allah--let him decide.
But then, nothing displays our own confusion as readily as odd bedfellows: liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans both argue against further involvement, but also for it. Go figure. If we are a shining beacon of freedom among the nations, "the city on a hill," can't we please go on leave or something?
John McCain talks about the Assad opposition as "the Free Syrian Army," as if they were the original tea-party patriots. They're not.
One of the contributors to that NY Times discussion, William A. Galston, of the Brookings Institute, maintains that to turn our backs on the world is not an option. He says that we're right to work for freedom and against injustice--to believe "that democracy is better than autocracy, that rights are better than repression, that e pluribus unum is better than bloody ethno-religious conflict."
We are right, he says, but when we are arrogant about being right, we lose, even when we win. We can't be religious about our politics, he says. "How other governments treat their people is our business," he says, "but we must pursue it without a religious zeal."
When I remember those international students, what I can't forget is that particular characterization--that Americans feel that sun rises and sets on them, and them alone. That's arrogance.
If that's "American exceptionalism," Galston says, we lose.
He's right. It's okay to be "religious," just don't be religious about it.
For the religious, that's not easy.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:17 AM