American Exceptionalism: Part II

I am just getting into an excellent book by Harry L. Watson titled, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America.

In the introduction of the book, Watson recalls a story by a young Frenchman who visited America in 1834 and witnessed, among many things, a Democratic Party Parade. The event amazed the visiting European. As a matter of fact, he had NEVER seen anything like it. In Europe and in France where he was from, the ordinary European was not allowed to vote and to have gathered in such demonstrations would most likely have been considered a seditious  act.

The amazed visitor wrote after the event, “[its] scenes belong to history. They are the episodes of a wondrous epic which will bequeath a lasting memory to posterity, that of the coming democracy.”

I know, a delusional Frenchman who did not understand how our Constitution did not give everyone the right to vote: most blacks and women prominent among them. There was nothing exceptional about us, this so called “coming democracy” was a farce.

Yep, nothing exceptional about it…

Levin says, “I am not studying history in order to feel better or worse about my country. Rather, and without going into detail, I am trying to understand the richness and complexity of what is the human experience. It has nothing at all to do with whether I love or hate America. To be completely honest, I am not sure what that even means. I will leave overly simplistic categories to overly simplistic minds.” [Link]

Levin makes the assumption that all of us “simplistic minds” are defending American Exceptionalism as if we are not capable or interested in the “richness and complexity” of history. Levin is an arrogant person and when you don’t agree with him, you are simple minded and not capable of understanding his level of thinking. Remember, he is sooo much smarter than the rest of us “simple minded” folk. LOL.

Because to even argue that America was unique, at least to intellectual morons, is tantamount to intellectual bankruptcy. To be a serious historian you must look for  “richness and complexity,” whatever that means!? Frankly, Levin and I will never agree on what that means and that is what is at the heart of the issue. He can call me whatever he wants, I will do the same. The gloves will stay off. It does indeed have NOTHING to do with love or hate, but something else and that something is what will divide the likes of Levin and myself.

However, I will offer a guess. (Note, this is my own personal opinion!) Levin has issues with the Republican Party going back to Reconstruction and what they failed to accomplish. He is also disappointed in what the American Revolution failed to accomplish. He is very much like Howard Zinn. But that is the problem, America was exceptional for what it was attempting. It initially failed to live up to our modern and presentists views. I wish our Founders were able to give equality to all, though nowhere else on such a scale was there anything close to early America in terms of political participation.

The post-Civil War era was a disaster for Civil Rights. It is disappointing. However, when one looks to history with such a “presentist” eye and can then call themselves a “Democrat” — which is the historic party of slavery — is to me a bit hypocritical.

I know, I’m simply not smart enough to understand and I look forward to LEVIN setting me straight.


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11 Responses to American Exceptionalism: Part II

  1. I’m not so sure about your analysis of Levin and his distaste for Republicans. I tend to think its simply because Kevin leans hard left. His statement: “I don’t mind admitting that I am an enemy of the notion of ‘American Exceptionalism’” is key in understanding his approach to history.

    Keep up the good work Chris.


  2. Chris,
    I think you may have misunderstood what Kevin is saying, and you come across as having a bit of a chip on your shoulder. Every country, region, era, people, topic, etc., is “exceptional,” and the teaching of history should allow one to explore what is unique, and what is shared, between different peoples, countries, and times. However, “American Exceptionalism” is a stream of thought that has played a role in American history, has its own history, and while this role and history should be explored, “American Exceptionalism” should not be the fundamental principle through which America’s history is interpreted. That is ideology masquerading as history. And I’m not sure what your point is about civil rights during the post-Civil War era, but I certainly agree that it was a disaster for the civil rights of black Americans in the South.

  3. Stanley Wertheim says:

    I am hardly surprised to learn that Kevin Levin is an ideologue or that he is impatient with those who disagree with him. When he was an undergraduate student at the William Paterson University of New Jersey, where I was a professor of English, he was very much inspired by two professors in the History Department, as he acknowledges in his recent exchange with me on his blog. The first, Terry Ripmaster, was a doctrinaire, self-acknowledged communist. He taught German history, although he did not speak or read German; had never been in Germany;and had no degrees in history. I am a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany and was appalled by ths man’s ignorance. The second, Jacques Pluss, is a virulent Nazi (Look him up on Google), who was actually expelled from the National Socialist Movement for his extremism and rejected for membership by the American Nazi Party because he advocates genocide.

  4. Chris says:

    Richard, thanks for the support. Marc I am not misunderstanding Levin. I do not agree that “everyone” in their history was “exceptional.” Stanley I was not familiar with your quarrels with Levin, and I thank you for chiming in. He is an arrogant intellectual who I have tolerated and kept my mouth shut about so often, but in these times I can no longer do so. – Chris

  5. Stanley Wertheim says:

    I stumbled across Richard Levin’s web site. He seems to be an simple-minded but pretentious high school teacher who began but failed to complete a graduate education in a subject in which he aspires to expertise through the use of obscurantist psudo-intellectual jargon. He maintains that he learned a great deal about German history from a college professor who did not read or speak German, had never visited Germany, and had no degrees in history. He also maintains that in a history department filled with left-wing ideologues “not once can I remember one of them trying to influence our political views or forcing us to think a certain way about the past.” In 45 years of college teaching (30 of them in the very college Levin attended), I can say without qualification that I have never encountered so naive a reaction to the relentless left-wing social and political indoctrination that since the 1970s has been the staple of liberal-arts education in American universities.

  6. Stanley Wertheim says:

    PS: Levin has banned me from his blog. He maintains that I am falsely attempting to associate him with Jacques Pluss, later an avowed Nazi and at that time recognized as a Nazi by his colleagues, when he was only a student in Pluss’s class. The fact is that he was Pluss’s personal teaching assistant.

  7. Marc:

    “Every country, region, era, people, topic, etc., is “exceptional,”

    In a VERY broad sense, yes, but it would hardly be accurate to describe, for example, modern-day Cuba as “exceptional.” (Unless you want to suggest that not having toilet paper is exceptional.) This philosophy is simply an extension of leftist ideology which demands equality of outcome. Not real world. THAT is “ideology masquerading as history.”

    I continue to be amazed at those who regularly post on Kevin’s blog and come to other blogs to criticize the host for the exact thing Kevin is so often guilty, i.e. “chip on your shoulder.”

  8. matt mckeon says:

    Since his name is Kevin, not Richard, maybe you’re confusing him with another student.

    Otherwise, right on brother. Remember, anyone that disagrees with your point of view must be a terrible person. Hang on to that.

  9. Richard,
    Nobody is “demanding equality of outcome,” whatever you mean by that. If you want to approach history, and demand that others teach it, as an exercise in flag-waving, fine. But to make the leap from my pointing out that American Exceptionalism is a concept with a history, and not an objective fact that should be the accepted and unquestioned paradigm through which American history is to be viewed, to accusing me of pushing a leftist ideology that sees all things as equal is absurd. But my understanding is that you want history taught as the unfolding of God’s plan, so what can one say?

  10. Marc:

    So what, exactly, do you mean by “Every country, region, era, people, topic, etc., is “exceptional”; that suggesting a particular culture or nation is superior to another is “divisive” or politically incorrect? Sorry, words mean things. You can’t have it both ways.

    And the self-loathing of America, which so many academics seem to revel in, is most assuredly leftist ideology.

    “But my understanding is that you want history taught as the unfolding of God’s plan, so what can one say?”

    Absolutely and with no apologies. That understanding is very mainstream in evangelical and orthodox Christian circles and among Christian historians, though there are disagreements about the particulars. Though I have no direct quote, I believe that well-respected CW scholar, Dr. Steven Woodworth, would agree that history is “the unfolding of God’s plan.”

    I’m a little surprised that you were so unaware of that school of thought or that you think mocking it would somehow win you some points in this discussion.


    So, what can you say?


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