American Exceptionalism - Myopic History = Oops!

I believe that America is an exceptionally good nation, but not more exceptionally good than it really is.  Bad American history turns America into an airbrushed supermodel--exaggerating its virtues and even inventing quite a few. One of the latest airbrushings is the somewhat unfortunate book Seven Miracles that Saved America, which, among other things, displays a profound misunderstanding of the damage that United States foreign policy has done to the world.

I say that Seven Miracles is somewhat unfortunate, because there are some things that I like about the book.  It states, for example--and I agree--that America is exceptional because:
  • Christopher Columbus was led (and claimed to be led) by the hand of God to the Americas. I'm glad he was, because America has the greatest religious freedom of any nation on earth
  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were claimed by many of our Founders and others to have come from the inspiration of the Almighty.
  • The American winning of the War for Independence was also thought by many to be primarily due to the hand of providence. Historical evidence supports the claim that so many occurrences could hardly have been coincidental.

It's just that its misstatements and airbrushings of history at a minimum negate any good the book can hope to accomplish.

In fairness, it is important to point out that America is exceptionally bad in a variety of ways as well. Our treatment of Native Americans and blacks are ongoing events of which we should, as a country, be monumentally ashamed. Modern American foreign policy, too, is exceptional, but almost without exception, it is exceptional in a very bad way.  It's okay to point out the positive characteristics of American exceptionalism, but for a book to ignore our negative traits is worse than the book having not been written at all.

Which brings me to the myopic history of Seven Miracles.  I have read enough of the book to know that Seven Miracles has airbrushed essentially all of the warts and blemishes from American history, except, interestingly enough, for those warts that are the product of the Democratic party in America. For example, the book's handling of Iran reads like a political broadside:
The most far-reaching consequence of Carter's human rights policy was the jettisoning of U.S. support for its longtime ally the Shah of Iran. Weakened by the loss of U.S. support, in 1979 the Shah was replaced by a fundamentalist Islamic regime, a regime that would soon become a major source of terror, military adventurism, and strife throughout the world. In November [1979], fifty-two Americans were taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran. For 444 days, they were held prisoner--casting a bright light on the inability of the American military or diplomacy to end the crisis.

Okay, now for a more accurate history. In 1953, the American CIA purchased the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. The unelected Shah was subsequently placed back at the pinnacle of Iranian government with the help of the CIA. Iranians were incensed and surprised that if republican democracy were good for America why America would double-cross Iran in favor of a dictator. (The Shah was perhaps as brutal then as the Iranian clerical regime is now.)  For years, the Iranian people's hatred of the repressive Shah simmered and bubbled and grew. The Shah was so terribly hated that in January of 1979 he left Iran. A few months later, Jimmy Carter, against the express warning of the United States embassy in Iran, allowed the Shah into the United States for cancer treatment. Many of those who had been present at the ouster of freely elected Mohammad Mossadegh just 26 years before were panic stricken at the U.S. move. "Oh, no! They're doing it to us again." They thought. Panicked and embittered Iranian college students did the only thing they could think of to try to short-circuit the return to Iran of the hated Shah--they took 52 Americans hostage in the US embassy in Tehran. This sentiment led directly to the selection of a leader who the voice of the Iranian people thought most able to counteract the dominance of the Americans and the Shah--the Ayatollah Khomeini.

So it wasn't Carter's human rights policy that was the problem.  It was Carter's continuation of bizarre American foreign policy that was so damaging.  In another way, American foreign policy vis a vis Iran is exceptional--it was and still is exceptionally stupid. One could say with not much exaggeration that the United States is to blame for the oppression that the Iranian people suffer today.  One only has to go back eight years to the American attack and occupation of Iraq to see that we have collectively learned nothing--to see an American policy decision that was at least as stupidly misinformed as the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh.

Even worse, Seven Miracles regurgitates the tired diatribe that fundamentalist Islam has arisen like a dragon to replace the monster of Communism. To be sure, Communism was bent on conquering as much of the globe as it could. But it is a gross misunderstanding of history and current affairs to think that Islam has such designs. Arab and Persian-speaking Muslims are bent on nothing more than being treated with dignity and respect, something that the American superpower has yet to give them very much of. If I were Arab or Persian speaking, I would probably hate America, too.  The reason most Americans can't fathom why is that (1) Abu Ghraib is about the only gross injustice against Iraq that didn't get airbrushed out of recent American history, and (2) they have been convinced by incessant repetition of falsehood that what goes on at Guantanamo prison facilities really isn't torture.

When histories are written, they should be fair. Seven Miracles that Saved America fails miserably in this regard.  It's hard for me to recommend Seven Miracles for reading, although let me say this: it's not nearly as bad as Glenn Beck.



  1. I find American exceptionalism so disgusting that I would probably not even pick up a book with this title to read the back jacket. I would go further. I don't think a loving God would have guided Christopher Columbus to bring death and destruction to the lives of the peaceful people of the Caribbean. I am perfectly willing to believe the Declaration and Constitution were informed by European Enlightenment thought and that the Revolution was won primarily through the intervention of France and the stupidity of the British as well as the persistent efforts of Washington and his army.

    I don't need to glorify any of it. America, like every other nation, has done good and ill all of its existence. It has been ruled by great statesmen and ignorant bumpkins. It has given freedom to some and denied freedom to others. The sooner we get down off our high horse and see ourselves as others see us, the sooner we can stop trying to run the world.

  2. How funny - I've been thinking along the same lines lately! (Been working on a rough-ish outline for a series of posts in case my family still checks my blog, LOL...)

    The one thing that chafes me about these discussions in general is the assertion that we should be ashamed because of our flawed history.

    I don't like the "we should be ashamed" verbiage. It may seem like semantics, but it's much deeper to me: An individual shouldn't be ashamed of what that individual didn't do. No one should feel guilty about (or be held accountable for) things over which they have no control.

    I'm disgusted with so many of the flaws in our history, and I'm definitely dismayed about the white-washing; but I also find it difficult to have a discussion about how to right the institutional and foreign policy wrongs done by our government, when the discussion's very vocabulary implies that I'm personally guilty of those wrongs. I know others bristle the same way.

    It's like racism. Institutional racism is TOTALLY alive and well - it's the foundation that so many massive government programs and projects have been built on. But I don't know many racist individuals. Cries of "racism" have a very personal implication, and that makes it tough for people to acknowledge the problems that "we" have *as an institution*.

    In fact, that semantic problem is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to reaching common understanding; I've been trying to think of alternate verbiage that doesn't trigger such personalization of the issue, but haven't come up with anything concise yet, LOL...

    That said, (and a long rant made out of a short phrase), I really, REALLY appreciate the book review, and particularly your summation of our dealings in/with Iran. I don't know nearly enough about that history yet (just enough to know we should butt out), and it's wonderful to have such knowledgeable individuals sharing what they've learned! :)

  3. Frank I agree with some of your points but you are way off base with the "Arab and Persian-speaking Muslims are bent on nothing more than being treated with dignity and respect".

    Jihadist Islam is the greatest threat we face today and is wide spread. Ignoring it or thinking if we only sent some olive branches to the Arab world or stop supporting Israel that they would like us and stop the terrorism.

    Militant Islam is Hell Bent on world domination just like the communists. What makes this even more dangerous is that even the Soviet Union feared using a nuclear weapon because they knew it would be suicidal. Militant Islam does not have that fear and would use one in a heartbeat if they had one and the means to deliver it.

  4. 1. Columbus was inspired, not by God, but by the ancient geographer Ptolemy and a desire to find gold.

    2. The four references to God in the Declaration of Independence were based on Deist philosophy, not Christianity.

    3. I don't know what they mean by "historical evidence," but I'm a History major and I'm here to tell you that coincidence plays a major role in historical events. Lucky for us the French were at war with England, or the Revolutionary War might have ended differently.

  5. Ken--

    I've never met a muslim hell bent on world domination, and I've spent years living in the Middle East. What are you talking about?

  6. Richard:

    I'm not sure if you read the whole article that you linked to. The author cites 4 times that God is referred to in the declaration, and then says that only the first reference to "Nature's God" was a deist term. The other three, although not overtly Christian, are clearly things that Christians believe. And so is the first one for that matter.

    Deists don't believe in "providence" or God acting on our behalf to save or protect us. I don't think deists believe that God will one day judge us.

    It's better if we look to the religious utterances and writings of the founders, which indicates very strongly that most of them were Christian.


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