American Exceptionalism and Freedom

 

In 1983, when I was 16 years old, I lived in Germany (it was West Germany then) as an American foreign exchange student. It was a politically tense time, as Germans turned a critical and often suspicious eye toward America while Ronald Reagan negotiated nuclear arms reduction with the Soviets. The United States had deployed medium-range nuclear missiles to Germany in the Cold War and many Germans wanted them removed.

Reagan, however, wasn’t going to budge unless the Soviets agreed to reduce their armaments. It was a zero-zero arrangement, and the Soviets weren’t being very cooperative.  Many of the German youth took to the streets to protest American nuclear policy—protests fueled by nuclear fallout propaganda films and a general distrust of Reagan, who was rightly seen as an “America first” president. This was the environment I stepped into as a teenager from a conservative military town in the American South.

It wasn’t long before I got my first taste of anti-Americanism. I had just arrived in Frankfurt and was walking through the train station to head north to a small village near the Elbe river. The corridors were lined with young people, wearing grunge clothes covered in graffiti, their hair spiked and painted black. I walked awkwardly through them in my American jeans, tennis shoes, and plaid shirt, my hair in a pony tail, dragging my American Tourister luggage behind me.

As I waited to purchase my ticket, a man sauntered up to me, sucking on a crumply rolled cigarette and smelling like a wet ashtray. I turned to him and smiled, saying “Hi” and trying to uphold the stereotype of the outgoing and friendly American.

He stopped directly in front of me and just stared. I remember how the piercing above his left eye was infected and how his black nail polish glistened as he pinched his cigarette between two fingers. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone hold a cigarette like that. Where I came from people held their cigarettes between two outstretched fingers like sophisticated housewives in the fifties.

“Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” I asked with a very heavy American accent.

He blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth and flicked his cigarette to the ground.

“Leave,” he said coldly. “We don’t want you Americans here.”

And then he walked away.

I glanced around uneasily, alone in a strange city and feeling uncomfortable. My ideals about traveling abroad and meeting friendly people were dashed a little. Thankfully, I was young and optimistic, so I tried not to think about it as I boarded the train and took the long ride north through the beautiful German countryside.

Things improved. The family I stayed with was nice and welcoming. Politically, though, they had more in common with the punk guy on the street than me. The mom was a member of the Social Democratic Party and the daughter, who was just a couple of years older than me, was active in the Greens.

Most of my time in Germany was spent having typical teenage fun, camping by the Elbe, going to school, shopping in the village, riding bikes through the countryside, drinking too much beer at Schützenfests, playing soccer in the fields, and hanging out at nude lakes where everyone stripped off their clothes but me. Seriously, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and my friends teased me for my modesty, calling me the “little American Puritan.” They only stopped when I could drink many of them under the table (a natural gift that came from biology, not experienced drinking).

The girl I lived with was politically active and would insist that I go to demonstrations with her or visit local pubs to watch films about nuclear disasters. Most of the protests we went to were in Dannenberg, an idyllic German town with narrow cobblestone streets and outdoor markets.

People of all ages would come out and protest, demanding that Reagan remove America’s nuclear missiles from Germany no matter what the Soviets did. The anger and fear were palatable, and there were many occasions when I was thankful I had shed my obvious American clothes and had begun to look more German in homemade knitted sweaters, long skirts, and Birkenstocks.

As I watched the demonstration with the chant, “America Go Home,” ringing in my ears, I felt my cheeks redden with embarrassment. What was my country doing to these people? What right did we have to put them at risk for our own security?

I had come to Germany so proud of my nation, but I felt that slipping away. It wasn’t until later, during a conversation with a group of Germans at school about American Exceptionalism that I remembered why I had been proud of my country to begin with.

I was in a history class, and the professor was kind enough to have everyone speak in English for my benefit. It was the highest grade in the German education system, so everyone could speak English well. The professor, no doubt, saw this as an opportunity for them to practice, but he also wanted to make sure there were no language barriers as we discussed Reagan’s foreign policy.

It was daunting to say the least. We talked about lot of issues, but there was one interchange I remember particularly well because it solidified for me why I love my country, and why I wouldn’t allow myself to get caught up in the emotion of the protestors and lose sight of the beauty and wonder that is America.

One of the German students asked me why Americans thought they were better than everyone else and why they thought they had the right to impose their will wherever they wished. I could sense not only the anger in his question, but the fear. And it was the fear I focused on in my answer. I told him that Americans are not better than anyone else. We are all the same—Germans and Americans. We’re all amazing human beings created in the image of God.

America is exceptional, not because it is composed of better people, but because it is founded on a superior idea that applies to all people—the idea that people who live freely can do anything, be anything, and become great if they live a moral, mindful life. 

America is the beacon of liberty in this world—and no one should fear it. It is exceptional because it is unique to human history, a convergence of circumstance, philosophies, values, reason, and faith—all coming together to create a new society unlike any the world has ever seen. And anyone can have it—it’s not a point in time, a special “golden age,” or even a utopian ideal. It is liberty—the key to human flourishing, the pathway to happiness. Without it, you only have tyranny and oppression to one degree or another.

I recounted that conversation to one of the leaders of the foreign exchange program when all of the American students met in Bremen, Germany, at the end of our stay. Later that week, she asked me to speak to the Bremen state assembly on behalf of the American students.

Never one to speak in public—and tortured by social and performance anxiety—I didn’t know if I could do it. She wouldn’t let me say no, so on a Friday morning in August, I walked into the ornate hall of the Bremen assembly and spoke to them about the greatness of America and why it was good for Germany. I told them about going to the protests and how I understood the fears of the German people. They didn’t trust our president because Reagan was concerned first about America’s self-interest. I admitted that this was certainly true. But, I explained, just because Reagan is for America doesn’t mean he is against Germany. And just because America is strong doesn’t mean Germans need to be afraid.

I could see the skeptical looks on the politicians’ faces, but I pressed on, fully aware of why I could proudly and unapologetically speak for the greatness of my country.

“You don’t have to be afraid because America is about freedom for all,” I said. “It is a good in and of itself because it is founded on the timeless principle of liberty given, not by man, but by Nature’s God, and when America is strong, all freedom-loving people in this world are better off.”

What I said in 1983 is just as true today. America is special, not because we are ethnically a better people—in fact there isn’t really any such thing as an American ethnic group. We are Americans because we believe in the values of liberty, faith, and unity amid diversity. It is only when people are free to live their own lives, to keep their own property, to love their families, and to serve their communities as they see fit, that they can truly be the best they can be.

America is about everyone in this world having that opportunity because without it human beings can’t flourish. Of course, that path to greatness is not always easy. We fail. We mess up. We are not a perfect people. We never will be. Freedom is no utopian promise. But it is the best, the only path, to happiness.

Sadly, we live in a day when people on the left and the right mock American Exceptionalism as if it was a quaint moment in history that will never be realized again. We live in a day when the President of the United States apologizes for American greatness and American values. We live in a day when people would rather have “equality” and “security” or some other “public good” as they define it instead of liberty and freedom. We live in a day when people prefer the “community” over the individual, failing to realize that, as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society: There are individual men and women, and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

We have to fight those who denigrate our dreams, our history, and our values. We need to believe in the idea of America again, the dream that liberty should go out to all the nations, that freedom is the wellspring of greatness, that liberty is the gift given to us by our Creator—free will, the ability to choose as an individual the path we want to walk to fulfill our dreams. And that ability is not autonomous—separated from the Creator’s hand—but it is freedom from the coercion and oppression of other human beings. We are each our own, our conscience bound by nothing other than reason and divine law written on our hearts, created to be in fellowship first between ourselves and God, then with family, and then with the broader community.

If we give up that dream, we give up everything. If we give up on freedom, America is gone, and no one—not the rich or the poor; the young or the old; the black or the white; the man or the woman—will find the kind of happiness that can only be had when liberty rings from sea to shining sea. 

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Group Captain Mandrake

    D.C. McAllister: 

    I could see the skeptical looks on the politicians’ faces, but I pressed on, fully aware of why I could proudly and unapologetically speak for the greatness of my country.

    You did well, but in the end, do you believe that you changed their opinions? · 14 minutes ago

    They do have Angela Merkel. :)

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Manfred Arcane: Wow.  Let me be the first to enthuse rapturously about your writing skills.  This just tops about anything else you have written.  Don’t know when you are destined to max out rhetorically, but the view here on the escalator ride to the summit is mighty exhilarating.

    PS.  Good job on that presentation.  Not sure even at my advanced age I could better your effort. · 44 minutes ago

    Thank you Manfred. This means a lot to me. :)

    • #2
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    @JosephEagar

    Best post of the year, so far.  

    • #3
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    @DocJay

    A wonderful inspiring essay.  Pure truth.  I am printing it for my kids to read.  

    • #4
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    @DaveCarter

    I swear I heard music to this one. And every single note was packed with eloquent power. Magnificent, my friend.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Joseph, Jay, Dave—Thank you! I truly believe the message of freedom is still a powerful message. It just isn’t being proclaimed in any substantive way and it isn’t being lived through the policies that the GOP needs to be promoting. Politicians aren’t bold in proclaiming freedom because they’re not bold in governing according to it.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay
    Dave Carter: I swear I heard music to this one. And every single note was packed with eloquent power. Magnificent, my friend. · 17 minutes ago

    Maybe something like this?

    USA: Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheKingPrawn

    Not to be contrary (though I am), but I think an understanding and appreciation of liberty is absolutely necessary before one can experience it and achieve the flourishing you write about. Freedom does not always end well.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    The King Prawn: Not to be contrary (though I am), but I think an understanding and appreciation of liberty is absolutely necessary before one can experience it and achieve the flourishing you write about. Freedom does not always end well. · 7 minutes ago

    I’m talking about the founding principles of the nation, the founder’s notion of liberty in the context of limited government. Sorry if that was unclear.

    • #9
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    @WBob

    I think people get indignant about claims to American exceptionalism because they think it is a claim to American ethnic superiority or something like that.  As if the claim is that Americans are inherently superior to others.  It’s not true, but what is true is that American exceptionalism is a claim to American cultural superiority.  As you said ” a convergence of circumstance, philosophies, values, reason, and faith—all coming together to create a new society unlike any the world has ever seen” .  It stands to reason that some country or culture  somewhere would end up being the most free and strong.  It just so happened to be here in America for a variety of historical reasons.   If America abdicates its exceptionalism, there are plenty of other powers that would be happy to fill the void.  But it’s unlikely that they will be as benevolent a force in the world as America has been. 

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @Liz
    D.C. McAllister

    You know what’s funny along these lines, is my German friends would complain about how terrible the South is because it’s prejudiced against blacks–even though I had told them that this was changing and there wasn’t as much racism there as in the past. They were rather judgmental about it until I pointed out how prejudiced the Germans were toward the Turk population that lived among them.  · 9 hours ago

    …not to mention, the, er, Holocaust, and those 6 million Jews.

    • #11
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    @Freeven

    About half way through this, the voice of Ronald Reagan took over the narrative in my head. I could hear the words in his mouth, and they rang true to his legacy, style, and tone. A good deal of what you’ve done here could have formed the basis of a roaring Reagan speech.

    • #12
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    @Larry3435

    Beautifully written Denise.  Thank you for sharing that.

    • #13
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    @WBob

    Running through many of the writings of the Old Testament is the idea that God’s election of Israel as the “chosen people” was often misinterpreted by the Jews to mean that they were special, as if God chose them because they were the most meritorious of all people.  The prophets reminded them that their election by God was not due to any merit they had, but was rather a burden, a call to serve.  A proper understanding of this was necessary to truly serve God.

    Obama said “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  Obama is like someone from the Old Testament who, when he realizes that Israel should not think of itself as special or deserving of its election, says “I believe Israel is chosen just like the Canaanites and Jebusites and Hittites think they are chosen.”   He thinks he’s being nuanced and profound, but he’s just being sophomoric.  Because the proper response to being chosen by God (Israel) or by luck, chance or God(America) is to accept and be thankful for the calling and to live it out.         

     

     

     

    • #14
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    @VanceRichards

    Back in 1990 I got to spend several weeks in the USSR (mostly Kazakhstan). A friend I made there once asked me, “Why do Americans think they are better than everyone else?”

    The first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Because we are!”

    When she stopped laughing I explained that American isn’t a race or ethnicity, but an attitude. While I didn’t say anything as eloquent as, “freedom is the wellspring of greatness, that liberty is the gift given to us by our Creator—free will, the ability to choose as an individual the path we want to walk to fulfill our dreams” I did explain the importance of liberty. 

    At the time I felt that the oppression that I saw in other countries could not happen in America because Americans would never allow it. But today , I just don’t know.

    • #15
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    @FricosisGuy

    Good on you for standing up for the US.

    One of my GMU classmates went to the Free University for his doctorate. When we visited some acquaintances in East Berlin they predictably went after the US; first teasing, then more heatedly in just German. He came back at them with one sentence and they shut up completely and immediately.

    On the ride back I asked him what that was all about. He said that they started to rib him for coming from a country that held slaves. It was Mauer Tag and wasn’t in the mood to hear that crap from Germans, never mind East Germans.

    So he said: “Sure, and we’re so grateful that the Wehrmacht landed in America to free them.”

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Great essay. Are you familiar with Dennis Prager’s take on the American trinity?

    One of the greatest things about the American ideal is that anyone can be an American, as long as you believe in liberty in your heart. A political prisoner in the gulag, a peasant toiling on a Chinese farm, a middle class Brit, it doesn’t matter – if they believe in freedom, they come to understand that their actual citizenship is an accident of geography, because their soul is as American as apple pie.

    One of the great tragedies of recent American history is that rather than make the most of this worldwide reputation and welcome the freedom-loving people of the world to us with open arms, our immigration debate is fixated exclusively on one country and its promise of low-wage labor, not its people’s love of liberty.

    The other great tragedy of recent American history is the education system: I, an immigrant schooled in foreign lands coming to America as an adult, find myself far, far more patriotic than any of my peers, who almost to a man are ashamed of America and wish we’d be more like Europe or something.

    • #17
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    @user_542832

    A beautiful post. Much of what you describe of German attitudes towards America rings true today.

    Germans (and Europeans in general) are very fond of taking America to task for the “arrogance” of daring to claim their country exceptional. Underlying this, as you described, is a misunderstanding of American Exceptionalism. But what irks me is that Europeans can be incredibly morally condescending (read: arrogant) themselves. I’ll frequently hear Germans ridiculing the U.S. for being a bunch of backward, Bible-thumping fundamentalists; they cannot for the life of them figure out why America has failed to replicate the obviously superior European welfare states. 

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    @Concretevol

    A million times “like” DC.  Thankyou for giving me something like this to read to start my day.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @6foot2inhighheels

    Ridiculously good, Denise.  Sharing on Facebook and twitter!

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Michael S: A beautiful post. Much of what you describe of German attitudes towards America rings true today.

    Germans (and Europeans in general) are very fond of taking America to task for the “arrogance” of daring to claim their country exceptional. Underlying this, as you described, is a misunderstanding of American Exceptionalism. But what irks me is that Europeans can be incredibly morally condescending (read: arrogant) themselves. I’ll frequently hear Germans ridiculing the U.S. for being a bunch of backward, Bible-thumping fundamentalists; they cannot for the life of them figure out why America has failed to replicate the obviously superior European welfare states.  · 45 minutes ago

    You know what’s funny along these lines, is my German friends would complain about how terrible the South is because it’s prejudiced against blacks–even though I had told them that this was changing and there wasn’t as much racism there as in the past. They were rather judgmental about it until I pointed out how prejudiced the Germans were toward the Turk population that lived among them. 

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    Adrian: Great essay. Are you familiar with Dennis Prager’s take on the American trinity?

    I loved everything in your comment, Adrian. Thank you. I’m not familiar with Dennis Prager’s American trinity. Do you have any links about what it is? I would like to read about it. 

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister
    6foot2inhighheels: Ridiculously good, Denise.  Sharing on Facebook and twitter! · 11 minutes ago

    Thanks, 6ft2. I need to get over to my FB page. I’ve been neglecting it. :( Too busy.

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Member
    @Viruscop

    I think the Chinese have done pretty well not having liberty.

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay
    viruscop: I think the Chinese have done pretty well not having liberty. · 2 minutes ago

    The Chinese murdered 40 million of their most intelligent people under Mao.  They still do their best to copy other successful civilizations even though I’m not sure they can do that while they still kill girl babies, repress women and imprison dissenting views.  China’s banking system including their shadow banking system is in a world of trouble currently despite their numerous currency games and China’s attempt to build it’s own internal buying infrastructure is falling apart because of the building glut and other countries copying what China has done.  China’s might will continue to rise for a while but her stability is precarious for numerous reasons (environmental, economic, regional and that pesky little drive in some humans to be truly free).  freedom-mel-gibson.jpg

    braveheart.jpg

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  26. Profile Photo Member
    @Viruscop
    DocJay

    viruscop:

    China is not like it was under Mao. They have realized that you don’t have to be ideological in terms of a belief in any particular political or economic system. In fact, most of the Chinese approve of their government as revealed in an independent survey conducted by Harvard. My point here is that not all people want nor care about political liberty. Most care about the utility that can be derived from their government’s policies (and rightly so).

    On a related point, how does the Constitution and American Exceptionalism not become irrelevant once the PRC is the most powerful country on earth?

    This is a bad thing. Surely the United States, in order to regain its primacy, should make investments in infrastructure and reform its legal code, not resting on its laurels while trying to calm itself with platitudes about greatness.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheKingPrawn
    D.C. McAllister

    The King Prawn: Not to be contrary (though I am), but I think an understanding and appreciation of liberty is absolutely necessary before one can experience it and achieve the flourishing you write about. Freedom does not always end well. · 7 minutes ago

    I’m talking about the founding principles of the nation, the founder’s notion of liberty in the context of limited government. Sorry if that was unclear. · 3 hours ago

    I agree with what you have written, but I think it a foreign concept to many Americans these days. Freedom has been redefined to mean the ability to do whatever one wants rather than an absence of government interference to human achievement and flourishing. The left treats people as though they cannot make positive use of their freedom. Many people, sadly, do all they can to prove the left correct in these beliefs.

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Viruscop—sorry for not being specific, but it was my understanding that the leftover monies for tarp went specific to shovel-ready jobs. Stimulus money went to infrastructure. It was suggested by the Dems and supported by many Republicans. If I’m wrong about that, I apologize, but the point remains that many senators and congressmen constantly bring back money to their districts for infrastructure in the the form of pork. Dems do it and Repubs do it. As for the founders, if Hamilton had his way we would have had more of an aristocracy. I believe John Adams also thought that way, but it was the Federalists and the more Jeffersonian understanding of liberty that won the day, and I for one believe America was better for it. If you don’t ink so, if you think this nation isn’t all that great, there’s always China for you to move to. :)

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DCMcAllister

    Sorry I can’t fix my typos. iPad. :))

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I wish America could stop being “exceptional” and just be nothing more than a homeland for Americans.

    • #30
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