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American Exceptionally-Grateful-ism?

March 1, 2010 
A recent blog post by Doug Wilson claimed that while he has recently written against American exceptionalism, this does not mean he is against American gratitude; indeed, we Americans should be grateful for living in a uniquely blessed nation.  While I appreciate his opposition to the idea of American exceptionalism, something many Christians unreflectively embrace, I must confess that I am still a bit skeptical.  One source of my skepticism is that saying you oppose the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t mean you actually do.  I know plenty of people who would say, “Oh no, I don’t think America is better than everyone else...I just think that we aren’t involved in all those wicked things that other empires have done, and I think that we’re called to use our power to bring peace and justice throughout the world.”  Right...pardon me for being unconvinced.

Second, I’m a little leery of this idea of gratitude he has in mind. 
There’s a responsible kind of gratitude and a naive kind of gratitude.  If a kid is grateful to his parents because they buy him all kinds of junk food, then that gratitude is not necessarily a good thing--it would be better if was, to a certain extent, ungrateful, because he didn’t want to keep eating junk food.  More seriously, if the Emperor Nero had leaned back at one of his banquets and thanked the Roman gods for bringing him such wonderful luxury, we would not count that gratitude a virtue but a culpable naivete about the fact that this luxury was made possible by the suffering he had inflicted on thousands of others.  Wilson says, “Liberals are ungrateful whiners....They are surrounded by unbelievable blessings, greater than any people in the history of the world have known, and they avoid the grace of gratitude by complaining about the pollution, the fact that we stole it from the Indians, the additives in the bread, and the fact that it is all propped up by CIA assassinations overseas.”  I raise my hand timidly-- “But, shouldn’t we be upset that we murdered thousands of Indians to get this land?  Shouldn’t we be disturbed that there are strange chemicals in our food?  Shouldn’t we have some nagging discomfort, if not moral outrage, about the fact that it is all propped up by CIA assassinations overseas?”  I’m looking for some follow-up qualification from Wilson, along the lines of, “These are all important concerns, but we must remember at the same time to be grateful for the genuinely good things God has given us,” but he never gives it.
Finally, Wilson seems to think that we are exceptional in one respect--our Founding Fathers knew better than to think we were exceptional, and so they enshrined safeguards of limited government in our Constitution.  “The founders knew that we were in no way unique, and that really was unique.”  In other words, America isn’t exceptional, we just have an exceptional Constitution.  And although Wilson does not major on this theme, his comments got me realizing that this idea is quite pervasive in our circles.  “Yes, yes,” we say, “we’re happy to admit that America has got zillions of problems, and shouldn’t pretend to be ‘God’s chosen people,’ but it’s an established fact that we do have the best political system in the world, cuz we had such smart founders.  It’s only because we ignored our Constitution that we have problems.”  

Well, maybe.  But one nice thing about studying political thought at a British university is that you quickly find out that they are aware of quite a number of problems in the American constituion, as have been other European political thinkers for the last couple centuries.  O’Donovan happens to think that in one crucial respect--the separation of the legislative from the executive--the American constitution is fatally flawed.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that he thinks that the British system then is perfect.  No--it has serious flaws too, and could be well served to borrow certain elements from the U.S.  This seems to me an eminently sensible position: all constitutions have their pros and cons, most have fairly serious flaws, and even the best is only good for some nations, not for all. 

Until we’re willing to grant this, and stop kidding ourselves that our Constitution is the envy of the world, we’re going to keep falling into subtle forms of American exceptionalism, and imagining that we figured out how to curb government power.  After all, it is manifestly clear that we have failed to do so, and it’s worth asking whether that’s just because we ignored the Founders, or because the Founders got it wrong too.  


Mr. Littlejohn,

1. Why does Dr. (is that his correct title?) O'Donovan believe that the separation of the legislature and the executive is a fatal flaw?

2. Have you actually made these arguments (or similar ones) to Mr. Wilson on this topic? If not, why don't you paste this post (or parts of it) into the comments section of his blog post? I would be interested in what his reaction and answers are.



March 1, 2010 at 4:36 PM  

Cf, The Politics of Ingratitude

March 2, 2010 at 4:49 AM  

(Grrr...this formal lawyer-inquisition style of yours is driving me crazy!)

1. (Prof. is his correct title.) I was afraid someone would ask me this. It has just been mentioned off-hand in a few classes, and never really fleshed out because it wasn't the point of the class. So, I really couldn't try to give you a detailed account of it. Part of it, I think, has to do with how it creates a weak government--now, yes, that is what the founders seem to have intended, but I'm realizing that a weak government can actually be more dangerous (and become much more bloated) than a strong government. I can try to ask him to explain it properly if I get a chance.

2. On the gratitude issue (since he makes this sort of statement in many contexts), we have corresponded a fair bit, but I can't say that it proved very clarifying. I don't comment on his blog for two reasons: 1) I realized that if I ever got started, I would do it way too much, as I would find something to argue about on virtually every post. So I've studiously avoided ever getting started. 2) I've badgered him with enough questions about enough issues, and if he isn't already sick of me, I don't want to make him.

March 2, 2010 at 7:55 AM  

Mr. Brad (haha),

Let me try that again...

Brad -

1. I would be interested in Prof. O'Donovan's take if you ever happen to sit down and talk with him about it. If not - no worries. My initial (uninformed) thought is that yes the founders did intend it to be weak, and yes that weakness may have in fact led to "bloating" as you say. You are correct that many Americans give too much credit to the American Constitutional framework as if it were divinely inspired. Whether or not it is better or worse than other system I could not say.

2. That sounds like a good enough reason to avoid the comment feed. I guess I was just curious what his response was.



March 2, 2010 at 9:50 PM  

Thanks for the link, Mr. Medaille. Good post. I certainly agree with Pastor Wilson, and with you in that post, that ingratitude is a pervasive national sin of Americans. But my concern is that we be grateful for the right things, or with the right qualifications. Indiscriminate gratitude is complacency. We can be grateful that we have prosperity, while being repentant, not grateful, for many of the sources of that prosperity--for taking land from the Indians, exploiting workers overseas, for damaging our land and tainting our food supply. Much of our current prosperity derives from such sources. I want us to say, "I'm thankful, God, that I have all this stuff; but I wish it didn't depend on these past injustices, and if these injustices must continue for the prosperity to continue, I'd rather not have it." We're called to be grateful in everything that God brings in our life, but that doesn't mean we're required to think that everything is good; some is bad, and we must reject it, although we still thank God for the opportunity to reject it.

In my correspondence with him, Pastor Wilson sees these kinds of qualifications as leading straight to ingratitude and legalism, and so he seems to steer clear of making them.

March 3, 2010 at 7:47 AM  

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