It's been an impressive run of diplomatic goofs for Mitt Romney during his London visit. At the risk of piling on, it has moved at least one reader of Romney's case for American Exceptionalism, a book titled No Apology, to raise this timely passage:
England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions.
Where to start, where to start...
The motivation for American Exceptionalism today is not so weird as the people who drive it. Ignorance of the term's origin seems a trifling matter to people who argue for and against it. To me it seems telling. The term was first used by American Communists, responding to Stalin's disapproval of their platform and their apparent idea that economic history, which for Marx leads to an inevitable conclusion, somehow didn't apply to them.
But somewhere in the fog of the Cold War, some primordial neocon ooze, issuing from the cracks of McCarthyism, started eating old history books, remembering nothing but two shiny words: "American," which it knew was the same as "good," and "exceptionalism," which reminded it of Superman. It wasn't a very bright ooze, but it had the primary traits most people will take for American leadership -- at least six feet tall, good hair, and good teeth. It knew America was the same thing as good, that being exceptional was the right thing to be, and that wagging its finger at the rest of the world from home base was the best way to spread the message.
Enter the intellectual powerhouse of Romney, trying to sound, of all things, like a social scientist instead of a businessman. England is a small island: that's a damning analysis. Doesn't make anything the rest of the world wants to buy, with few exceptions, such as beef, spirits, cheese, textiles, world-renowned universities, global financial trading markets, tourism, minor cultural exports like Shakespeare, capitalist theory, world-class theoretical physicists, pop music still playing 50 years later, all that. Sporting franchises, a few centuries-old industrial and consumer brands, and so on, yeah sure.
But! England's only real defensive capability is water, which is good luck for them. Also the proven discipline and will of their people in war. Also their Air Force, intelligence services, diplomatic corps, etc. And, yes, yes, the model of the English soldier that's been adopted by most countries in the world.
Oh! and the language, the dominance of its language in world commerce, right. And the extension of it so far past its proportions and borders that it serves even the most exceptional countries, like the United States of America.
Rolls Royce, Virgin this, Virgin that, Paul McCartney, Richard Branson, Stephen Hawking, aging and even wheel-chair bound, but still giving it that old college try.
But that's what American Exceptionalism does for a person. It turns tunnel-vision into a virtue. It allows a person with a Harvard education to speak in a way that betrays no evidence of having learned anything, least of all learning to think, and to be damn proud of it!
American Exceptionalism is to political philosophy what a foam we're-number-one! finger is to a commodities trading floor. Or a sidewalk craps game, take your pick. It's loud and disruptive. It won big a while ago and it's determined to reminisce. It has plenty of skin in the game to worry about, but it would rather offer commentary no one can use. It's there to remind you that some time, long ago, its Dad helped your Dad kick this other guy's Dad in the ass (and boy, did he have it coming) But somewhere along the way you all stopped thanking him, and that won't do. Here he is again to remind you, you still owe him.