Exceptionalism is a neutral word as it can reference something exceptionally good or exceptionally bad — human beings, and their respective nations, have clearly shown themselves to be capable of both.

The notion of American Exceptionalism has been regularly referenced by President Obama — most significantly in his West Point commencement address last year where he said that “I believe in American Exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” He also said that “The United States is the one indispensable nation.” This blind and exclusive nationalism is the rationale that all imperial powers use to justify their military adventures and is especially dangerous when employed by our nation, the only military superpower on the planet.

The psychologist Erich Fromm’s thoughts on this exclusive nationalism remain very timely:

Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare – never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

– Erich Fromm in “The Sane Society” (1955)


I feel that if we are able to take a sober, objective look at our nation, we will see that, like many other nations, we have done some exceptionally good things and some exceptionally bad ones. We fought and won an exceptionally good revolution to create a democracy and free ourselves from the oppressive rule of a king; yet, in the building of a new nation we did some exceptionally terrible things — we committed genocide against the Native American people and participated in the brutal and murderous institution of slavery.

A peaceful Native American settlement before genocide by Europeans and others.

In the building of a new nation we did some exceptionally terrible things, like genocide against Native Americans. For a better country we should, at least, reflect on our violent domestic struggles just the same as we do on our violent policies abroad. Credit: CreativeCommons / Drew Evans.

In my own lifetime I have seen both sides of our national character on display. Our journey to the moon and the first photos of the whole Earth were exceptionally wonderful contributions to humanity, as were our indispensable contributions to the developments of the internet, the mapping of the human genome and the development of the vaccine against polio. As a retired respiratory therapist I take great pride in the fact that one of our most exceptional contributions has been leading the worldwide struggle against the scourge of cigarette smoking. And I didn’t think I’d live to see the exceptionally wonderful accomplishment of the people of our nation coming together to elect our first African-American president.

On the other hand we have an exceptionally violent side which has led to some exceptionally bad actions: the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the holocaust that we visited upon Vietnam with our carpet bombing and massive use of chemical weapons, our illegal invasion of Iraq, our nightmarish development of drone warfare and a military budget that dwarfs the rest of the world. It is also exceptionally bad that we have the largest prison population in the world with 80,000 people in solitary confinement and that we remain the only industrial democracy in the world to not guarantee health care for all its people. We also have an exceptionally bad record when it comes to the issues of income inequality and dealing with the planetary emergency of global warming.

In thinking further about the notion of exceptionalism I conclude that, until we encounter another heavenly body teeming with such an astounding diversity of life, it is only our precious and truly indispensable Earth that can lay unequivocal claim to being exceptionally wonderful.

Jeff Vogel is a retired respiratory therapist, New York-based labor activist and a member of the New York City Labor Chorus.

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