American Elephants

“Exceptional,” Exceptional? Whadda-ya Mean Exceptional? by The Elephant's Child

I find it strange that in the year of 2012, we have to defend the idea that America is an exceptional nation. But apparently in Nebraska the State Board of Education had to struggle with the wording “American exceptionalism” even though they managed to come out with an odd description about what was meant:

One of the “indicators” —indicators of what to teach— is “the unique nature of the creation and organization of the American Government, and the United States as an exceptional nation based upon personal freedom, the inherent nature of citizens’ rights and democratic ideals.

President Obama has had trouble with the term. In response to a journalist’s question in Strasbourg, Obama said: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He added “I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that the leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.” Huh?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously said quite recently that those writing a new Constitution should derive it from the new Constitution of South Africa, rather than  the United States Constitution. Well, if America is a nation in decline, we can’t be calling it “exceptional.”

The point of calling it exceptional is simply that our Constitution is a document belonging to the people of the United States, and we grant to our representative republican government certain limited powers. The Constitution tells our elected representative what they may do, and those powers are very limited indeed. Other Constitutions, including the South African Constitution, say essentially that we the government will allow the people to do these things. This is not a small distinction.

As Americans and human beings, we are, of course, lazy, unwilling to start battles, shy about making public arguments, and apt to prefer to watch a good movie or play a video game instead. So when people make sloppy arguments or use careless language we’re apt to let it slide. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg should have been called out instantly by millions of Americans. She is supposed to be in charge of seeing that our laws and our government conform to our Constitution, and she doesn’t even seem aware of that most important distinction.

It is from the Declaration of Independence that we receive recognition of our basic rights as human beings — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many essays have been written about those glorious last words — “the pursuit of happiness”. No guarantees,  but we are free to try, and our freedom is recognized as intrinsic to being human. That, in the long history of mankind, is a very big deal indeed.

The Constitution does not empower the federal government with the ability to take over the health care of the entire nation. Nor does it empower the federal government to decide just what our children will be taught in the public schools.

Politicians, being politicians, are often not too clear on what the Constitution says, and regard it as more of an annoyance to be circumvented. This “Free Speech” thing sounds fine until you find out it allows people to say nasty or untrue things about you, or allows neo-Nazis to march down the street. “Freedom of Religion” seems like a good thing until atheists choose to define themselves as sort of a church of unbelievers, and want to stamp out belief. Every time someone is shot by a deranged person, an outcry arises to ban all guns. That’s just a tiny part of the First Amendment.

“A free society, if it is to remain free, requires citizens who take the risk of standing up to be counted on the issues of the day.” …..Walter Wriston

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent…The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
….. Justice Louis Brandeis

Our democracy rests upon the assumption that set free, the common man can manage his own fate; that errors will cancel each other by open discussion, that the interest of each, even when guided from above will not diverge too radically from the interests of all.” …..Judge Learned Hand


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