The Myth Of American Exceptionalism, by Godfrey Hodgson
This is the sort of book that seems to be written in search of the most obvious criticism it is likely to receive. In fairness to the author, who does think himself to be more of a conservative than he ends up being in the American tradition, this book is written both against the myth of American exceptional goodness and exceptional badness, though the book does slant more towards the first than the second. It is easy to think of what could have made this book better–more balance, less of a focus on the author’s hatred of neoconservatives and on American nationalism. There is enough here to indicate that the author is aware that every nation, to some extent, creates myths of its own exceptionalism as part of its identity formation and defense, and also enough to indicate that the author is also aware of certain elements that were more prominent in America at least at certain points than was the case before, but this is a book where the author’s political biases prevent him from making as sound and as non-inflammatory case as possible.
This book is a mercifully short one at a bit less than 200 pages, if a bit relentlessly monotonous in its tone. The book begins with a preface, which expresses the author’s disappointment at trends in America that are divergent from what he (although not necessarily the reader) consider to be beneficial trends within Europe. The book discusses the formation of American identity from largely European grounds during the colonial period and the way that this history is often selectively understood out of context (1). After that the author looks at what he considers to be the myths and realities of the American founding (2). This is then followed by a discussion of American political trends and educational and cultural trends in the period between the Civil War and the Cold War (3), showing certain assumptions about the desirability of the behavior of the Progressives that, again, would not necessarily be widely shared by all readers. This is followed by the author’s lament of the fall of the seeming liberal consensus (which was never as widespread as it was thought to be) and the rise of a conservative ascendancy that the author is estranged from (4). After this the author talks, finally, about the flip side of American exceptionalism that is viewed to be exceptionally bad (5), as well as the author’s fears that America’s best will be corrupted (6) by something that the author loathes and fears. After this the book ends with notes and an index.
It is a trivial, although by no means an uninteresting task, to see how this book could have been made better. The author’s proper fondness, for example, for the historical research of Bernard Bailyn and other Atlantic historians indicates that this author is strongly in favor of putting America’s history in a larger context that connects developments in the United States with other developments facing the European diaspora, and that puts America in a larger sphere of connections with other parts of the world where European settlers faced certain pressures, had a certain background with ready solutions to various issues, and formed broadly similar cultures in such areas as the United States, South Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, to say nothing of Latin America and Russia and Israel and other places. Had the author written a book that was a positive one that focused on these connections and ties, the author’s aim would have been served in a way that would not have struck many potential readers as needlessly offensive. But angry writers are seldom wise, a lesson that the reader would do well to learn. This is a book that could have been a great one had it been in the lines of at Atlantic history about the connections between Europe and the United States and how the United States was influenced by seldom appreciated historical and cultural and religious trends, but instead it was written in a tone of pique about the author’s irritation at American political trends that does not serve the strength of the book as a whole.