Commentary Magazine


The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Godfrey Hodgson

Big Bad Us

The Myth of American Exceptionalism
By Godfrey Hodgson
Yale U. Press, 221 pages, $26.00

Godfrey Hodgson is a British journalist who has spent more than four decades writing about the United States, in part because, as he explains, he has “always felt particularly comfortable with the rhythm and temper of American life.” Now he has taken pen to paper once again, this time in discomfort, for he fears that “the practice of American democracy, at home as well as abroad, is in mortal danger.”

The peril came to a head as a result of the attacks of September 11, 2001, which “revealed [the] true values” of George W. Bush. His administration seized the event as “an opportunity [that] justified extreme measures,” especially “attacking Iraq,” something that Bush had secretly wanted to do “from the very first days of his administration.”

For all its insidiousness, Bush’s gambit was no unique episode but rather the culmination of a long process. Hodgson recalls that as early as the late 1970’s, he began to feel that

something was going wrong in American public life. The balance of political and cultural power was shifting, from working Americans to their corporate masters . . . from the center Left to the far Right. . . . Discourse [took on] an unpleasantly Prussian tone. There was a glorification of military power, a demand of obeisance to a nationalist . . . creed.

Hodgson sought the source of this lamentable trend and believes he found it in America’s excessive self-love. “American history has been encrusted with accretions of self-congratulatory myth,” particularly the myth that America is superior to other countries and that Americans constitute, in Hodgson’s words, a “master race.”

This myth starts with accounts of the country’s beginnings. Americans seem to think, he says, that the United States “emerge[d] like Athena from the brow of Zeus, or by a kind of geopolitical virgin birth.” But Hodgson is here to inform us that the American Revolution was influenced by geopolitical events in Europe, notably the conflict between France and England; that the ideas of the founding fathers derived from the writings of European philosophers; and that the American settlers themselves were originally European.

Americans believe there was something special about the political arrangements that their founders created, but these were nothing more than the natural unfolding of European migration to various corners of the world. Hodgson instances Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, then adds: “If democracy was of slower growth in Latin America or the Indian sub-continent, there too eventually democratic institutions and the practice of democracy took root.”

Moving forward to the twentieth century, Hodgson says that Americans believe that their country entered World War II for the selfless purpose of saving the Jews; that they defeated Nazism without any help from England or the Soviet Union; and that European scientists made no contribution to the development of the atomic bomb.

Today, Americans are so convinced of the superiority of their medical system that they think “it [is] only a matter of time” until American doctors “discover a cure for death.” And they believe that the World Wide Web was of American provenance when in truth it was invented by a European team.
Exactly which Americans believe these things is nowhere specified, but whoever we may be, Hodgson is prepared to disabuse us. To start with the distant past, he says:

One reason it seemed safe to American politicians in the decades after the Revolution to allow men with little or no property to vote was that . . . they were seen as unthreatening . . . . There was no such thing in America as the industrial proletariat that alarmed the owners of property in England. It was this rather than any national commitment to extending suffrage that accounts for the relatively high proportion of American men who could vote.

Americans are equally deluded about current-day facts. For example, contrary to their belief that they enjoy a higher standard of living than Europeans, “In Western Europe at least, it is a question of whether the American average income is reached next year or the year after.” And considering that American income is so concentrated in the hands of the super rich, it may even be that most Europeans are better off than most Americans. True, America’s economy was once the envy of Europe, but that was only because America emerged unscathed from World Wars I and II while Europe was laid low.

Warming to his subject, Hodgson points out that not only are Americans less exceptional than they like to tell themselves in regard to positive political and economic achievements, they are indeed quite exceptional in many negative ways. For example, and despite its rhetoric of liberty, America “deprives an exceptionally high proportion of its citizens of freedom in the penal system.” In economics, “the United States is now exceptional for its extreme and growing inequality.”

In addition, “the performance and especially the availability of health care in the United States is not impressive.” True, America spends vast sums on therapies “commonest among middle-aged white men, namely heart disease, cancer, and stroke.” Nonetheless, “in many respects Cuba, a poor country made poorer by American boycotts, has health care as good as, or better than, the average in America.” In education, “the learning performance of American school pupils has fallen behind international standards.” American universities were once admired, but they have been decimated by state budget cuts, causing an overall decline in higher learning “concealed by the highly publicized performance of a couple of dozen schools, mostly private ones with large endowments.”

Although it may have only been in the late 1970’s that Hodgson first sensed something wrong in America, today he can see much earlier faults. When John F. Kennedy became President, he “redefined the national purpose in terms of a ‘long twilit [sic] struggle’ against communism.” Hodgson explains that “opposition to the Other . . . had always been an element of the national ideology,” but the “identity of the Other” had changed over time, beginning in the colonial period with “the Native American.” Now it was easy “to cast international Communism as an implacable enemy.”

Hodgson grants that the Russian revolution “eventually under Stalin turned into bloody tyranny.” But America’s post-World War II fears of Communism were exaggerated. “Probably the Soviet Union . . . had no real intention of marching to conquest in Europe,” even though Stalin “supported Communist governments, or governments dominated by Communists, in one country in Eastern Europe after another.” Nonetheless, American rulers used the specter of communism to justify the creation of what Hodgson variously calls a “national-security state” or a “garrison state.”

The bad news about America even antedates the Cold War. Hodgson claims that, typifying the arrogant ignorance of his countrymen, Woodrow Wilson (once a professor of political science) was unaware as he traveled to the Versailles peace conference in 1918 that the leaders of France and England whom he would meet were chosen in elections. His purpose in going was that the First World War “presented the United States with the historic opportunity to become the greatest power on earth. Woodrow Wilson understood that opportunity and set about grasping it.”

Although Hodgson bills himself as a specialist on America, affiliated with Oxford University, he makes a variety of factual faux pas. He explains that the term “bracket creep” refers to the requirement for “working-class voters to pay property taxes,” and that “dean’s list” refers to “the children of alumni or donors” who are favored for admission over “equally qualified nonprivileged applicants.” He complains that a series of U.S. administrations “almost ignor[ed] the developing rivalry in the Communist bloc,” listing among others that of Richard Nixon, who famously traveled to Beijing in 1972 to inaugurate a tacit alliance between Washington and China against Moscow. He points out that even though Americans think of themselves as good friends of Israel, the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid is Egypt, “a key enemy of Israel” until the peace agreement of 1978—ignoring that American aid began as a consequence of that agreement.

His snide reference to medical research on heart disease, stroke, and cancer as diseases of “white males” is likewise erroneous. Two of the three maladies do afflict more men than women, but all three are more common among blacks than whites. The same can be said emphatically about the largest focus of recent medical research, AIDS, which also disproportionately affects homosexuals, not a group that Hodgson considers privileged.

He also errs often by curious omission. For example, his explanation for why America in its early decades allowed a larger proportion of citizens to vote than did European countries—whatever its truth—omits the point that, unlike the Europeans, the American voters were actually choosing their government. Similarly, although adverting repeatedly to the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Hitler as a datum that Americans ignore or repress, Hodgson never says a word about the USSR’s role in aiding Hitler, with whom it partnered in launching the world war. Nor, in alluding to Stalin’s “support” for “Communist governments” in postwar Eastern Europe, does he mention the role of Soviet occupation forces.

In making his case that the American economy historically was not more advanced than Europe’s, that America’s poor were not better off than Europe’s, and that America’s achievements were inextricably enmeshed with Europe’s, he avers that “massive immigration . . . was living proof of the interconnected character of the European and North American economies.” Yes, it was that, but did it not also say something about the relative circumstances of the two continents? Or else why weren’t Americans massively emigrating to Europe?

Hodgson labors the point that America’s modern-day economic advantages stem from the two world wars, which left it unscathed while Europe was demolished. He never stops, however, to consider where those wars came from. Were they acts of nature that just happened to descend on Europe, or the outcomes of European ideas, politics, and statecraft?

Again and again, he complains that Americans claim for themselves achievements to which others have made major or decisive contributions, but when he strains to show that democracy and prosperity are widespread and not unique American feats, he neglects to mention how much America’s model and policies contributed to spreading democracy and how much its aid, trade, and investment spurred other economies.

In sum, Hodgson’s coarse and sloppy work is nothing more than an outpouring of bile. Why one of the leading universities of a country besotted with self-love would publish such a book is a question he does not seem to ask—although it is a question I would like to put to the editors at Yale. And then there is a question I would like to put to Mr. Hodgson: just what is it about “the rhythm and temper” of this “garrison state” that has always made you feel “particularly comfortable” here?

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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