Exceptionalism and Conceit

May 26, 2022
You have to ask American Senator Ted Cruz, who’s propaganda is he and the gun lobby defending? Do we ennoble savagery, and do we falsify civility? These are the questions for the times, and it goes to exceptionalism for personal and national conceit. Exceptionalism is the condition of being different from the norm. For nations, […]

You have to ask American Senator Ted Cruz, who’s propaganda is he and the gun lobby defending?

Do we ennoble savagery, and do we falsify civility? These are the questions for the times, and it goes to exceptionalism for personal and national conceit.

Exceptionalism is the condition of being different from the norm. For nations, it is the belief that characteristics are not global, but unique to what persons want to believe is a very large ‘national community’; the norm. For persons, it is a legitimation of identity.

The world population has become so drugged on entertainment that it is too less perceived outside of critical reflection. Let’s take one pertinent example of screen entertainment.

Black Sails is an American historical adventure television series set on New Providence Island and written to be a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island. In the Rousseauan thinking of this era and place, savagery – violence and discord – was virtuous, ennobling, and it was civilisation which was false. Captain Flint is a persona of James McGraw, a young British naval officer, who falls foul of those establishment figures who resisted a scheme to civilise Nassau, the colonial outpost of the 18th century Atlantic empire for the British crown. Captain Flint, not only brings on younger crew members as they fight for the survival of New Providence island, but he also reinvents piracy as an all-out war against empire.

There is clearly a presentism in the entertainment. Colonialism is the modernist enemy. Piracy, however, was not virtuous in this way, but only in the way that ennobles violence and needless death of an enemy; a person, a human being. There is a twisted thinking that makes civility false when thinking, correctly, that that those who speak hypocritically of ‘civilisation’ are being false. War then becomes an ultimate solution, and here is where the stupidity sets in, since it becomes perpetual conflict with conceit and self-justification. The cognition is self-assured (conceited) and believes in its own flawed legitimisation. James McGraw becomes Captain Flint when the betrayal against him, and against the idea of civility, is twisted into the desire for vengeance and a destruction of authority. There is no better reasoning, no compassion, and no care. It is a reckless culture-history war. A new authoritarian regime take the place of the old.

The description of the conceit goes to the work, Ian Tyrrell’s American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea (2021). Tyrrell opens the book with a reference to the Republican Party’s formal adoption of national exceptionalism in the first decade of the new century. It came upon President Obama’s conclusion, in 2009, that exceptionalism for the United States might not be what Americans think it is, when the populations of ‘other countries’ can also be so conceited. We have seen in this week President Biden talk of ‘other countries’ in relation to gun violence for the United States. He has a critical point, but the exceptionalism which he refers to is not what rabble population thinks, those who ennoble their position as ‘pirates.’ The greater challenge is that an American political party also ennobles such violence upon its own people in the exact same way; ‘the American Way’. American exceptionalism, in the history of the United States, has become a cognitive tool to reject the ethical lessons from the ‘world out there’. Our war has noble purpose because we are an exceptional people, and I am an exceptional person. The world is then hated, for it is the norm.

Is there a better way of thinking?

In ancient terms, there are the compassionate Christian faith and the classical learning of the humanists. Both have had distorting turns as its ideas became dogmatic doctrines of faith and politics. There is a better way because common sense with critical thinking can show that savagery and violence is not to be desired, no matter the justification; and, for good or bad, we exist as civilised beings – persons in the bright metropolis or its shadow. It has been this way for millennia, and it is not about to change, unless we make the choice for an apocalypse. If democracy matters, then democracy says a no to an apocalypse. When does a population vote deliberately for its own species destruction? Only in war, with physical blows or as culture-history.

To then divert away from war, is to do what Joseph Rouse (2015) describes as ‘Articulating the World.’ Rouse has a deep technical argument on philosophical naturalism, and this swings us back around to the Rousseauan thinking. The critical question is the idea of ‘human nature’, a tug of war, not merely between Rousseau and Hobbes, but between Hobbes and Locke; for it is Locke who opens ups the possibility of having both liberated human nature and civility.

The postmodern era has put an end to the confidence in the Lockean project, which is why we have screen films like Black Sails. In rejecting the Lockean view of civilisation, we have become pirates. What I suggest, however, is a humanism against privateers (pirates in its original conception), and a humanism for public and educated dialogue. It is not a war I propose but peace in the educative process.

 

REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING

On the technical arguments re: the gun control debate, see the well-designed argument from ‘Steve Hofstetter Presents’

https://fb.watch/dfX0JBBH8b/

Arendt, Hannah & Canovan, Margaret (1998). The Human Condition (2nd ed. / introduction by Margaret Canovan). University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Baker, D. (2015). Collective Learning: A Potential Unifying Theme of Human History, Journal of World History, 26(1), 77-104. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/43818826

Grayling, A.C. (2002). Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age, Oxford University Press.

Harris, J. (2003). Hiding the bodies: The myth of the Humane Colonisation of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal History, 27, 79-104. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/24054261

Lydon, Jane (2015) H. G. Wells and a shared humanity, History Australia, 12:1, 75-94, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2015.11668554

Matherson, Francois, Translated by G.M. Goshgarian (2003). Louis Althusser: The Humanist Controversy and Other Writing, Verso, New York NY.

Olin, John C. (1987). Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, Fordham University Press, New York, NY.

Rouse, Joseph (2015). Articulating the World: Conceptual Understanding and the Scientific Image, The University of Chicago Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1947; 2007). Existentialism Is a Humanism, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

Tyrrell, Ian (2021). American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea, The University of Chicago Press.

 

Image: Giambattista Vico, Hannah Arendt, Black Sails

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Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.

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Steve
2 months ago

haven’t read the links, or bothered following the usual gun outrage/gun lobby justifications. just re: yr post: This needs to be disentangled – just what is American “exceptionalism”? as a concept that American policy makers have applied (to themselves) in world affairs, and as a concept that Americans apply to their own self-image of themselves and their society contra all others? very interesting that American conservative values (the Constitution, including the 2nd amendment, is a Sacred document) is the first (and only?) instance where Burkean conservatism is based not on organic, unconscious, long built up and established historical “forces” in… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

because to Burke the customs, mores and laws of a country (its entire “culture”) were the results of long processes, piecemeal and slowly arrived at in a perhaps “irrational” fashion; they perfectly fit the society that has grown up and with them and the individuals are habituated to and for them, their souls are part and one with and formed by an entire organic process that cannot be planned and they cannot be transferred to other cultures who have their own individual processes. They should not be tampered with by what he considered, the fantastic ideals of dreaming reasoners; societies… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

because Rousseau did not consider that the savages lived in a state of violence and discord; they certainly had to struggle with Nature to survive, but not between themselves: they were “good”, their feelings were naturally compassionate and communal. It was only after they exited this primitive state of nature and private property and the stratification of civiilisation were established that war and oppression began. In his 1st discourse? (I think, long time since i read him) he shows (or attempts to) that the evolution and development of civil society, the increase in refinement and power of the arts and… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

i used “character” as just a expression, not in any technical sense. just meant that this love of guns is so much part of their history and is so ingrained in the American psyche as to be part of their being (see Burke). I definitely don’t see it as a “mythology”, as something not real: it is a very real element to Americanism. One only has to go to America and mix at ground level with them to observe and feel that it is a very different type of society to say, here. And guns are very much part of… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

entertainment is not an aesthetic in my terms. I meant that up until about the mid 20th century America was producing major, original figures in the arts (certainly in literature and painting). But also, the idea of America as the land of infinite hope and complete Freedom, endlessly creative and expansive, at the forefront of Man’s frontier at all levels, this was a fascinating and intoxicating idea; one was always considering: what new thing will America produce next? That’s finished, I think (and one reason is like you say, the all suffocating enveloping miasma of the “entertainment” industry). But the… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago

but then the issue becomes more tangled the more its considered. Might end up similar to Roe v Wade if it gets overturned. Then u would have the overarching law banning abortion, but – the devil is in details as with most applications of laws – there would probably evolve enclaves (the NE, West Coast) where the law was applied laxly or got around through myriads of state and local regulations making it practically possible to get an abortion done. Same with guns – what seems to be evolving now; certain State enclave areas where either guns are given a… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

well, it may be so on the level of good old British “common sense”. But, as indicated in above posts, guns resonate and mean far more than the actual physical implement to a significant number of Americans. They would lose a part of their souls if their guns were taken from them (Burke again). No one I think realistically considers that an option (again, as referenced, trying to take out the 2nd Amendment would probably lead to at least riots and terrorism, if not outright civil war). Curbing access to high powered assault weapons might have some hope, through some… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

It was a kind of rhetorical question. I’m well aware of the American neo-con justification for their forays into never ending wars since WW2, the meddling of the CIA and their backing for repressive regimes: all as means (in their terms) to protecting and furthering the American project; America as the best and brightest hope of humanity etc. In their terms, American power cannot be constrained by the norms of international law (as the other nations should be) if furthering the higher ideals of democracy and polities based on Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are gradually to be… Read more »

Steve
2 months ago
Reply to  Neville Buch

“and the modification in the late 18th and early 19th century provided the framework of American democracy and the republic” Locke was the blue print for Jefferson. Its been said that America is a creation of Locke. Jefferson actually uses his exact words in the Declaration but changes the ending – Locke’s formula for what a good polity should aim at is life, liberty and the protection of property of its citizens; Jefferson, L, L, and pursuit of happiness. Apparently to allow for the strong religious aspect in American culture. I think you are thinking of Socrates, put to death… Read more »