Civil Liberties

Reason Writers Around Town: Shikha Dalmia on Whether 9-11 Claimed American Exceptionalism


Is America still an exceptional country 10 years after 9-11? Or has it become just like every other people, embracing liberty when it is convenient and jettisoning it when it isn't? Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia meditates on these questions in her column at The Daily. She notes:

Right from America's inception, whites used the state's muscle to perpetuate slavery. Nor did the much-ballyhooed self- reliance of Americans withstand the test of the Great Depression, when FDR erected the architecture for government planning, regulation and the welfare state. Over time, Americans have become every bit as fond of entitlement programs as Europeans. More ironically, the denizens of the Sweet Land of Liberty seem even less favorably disposed to free trade and open immigration than folks in less free countries. More to the point, Americans were perturbingly unperturbed by the massive abrogations of civil liberties following 9/11. Only 34 percent believe that the Patriot Act, which gives the government sweeping powers to snoop and spy in order to fight terrorism, goes too far.

All this seems more than enough reason to banish forever talk about American exceptionalism.

But should we?

Go here for the answer.

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  1. The writer is stunningly naive and ideologically blinkered: “While there are occasional outbreaks of class warfare, to be sure, there are no political parties seeking to use state power to protect class privilege ? as the Tory Party historically did for the aristocracy in England and socialist parties do for the working classes everywhere.” Can the writer not see how the Republican Party increasingly does exactly this for the moneyed classes of society? (And Democrats often do the same). The rich are the real protected class in America, and so the vaunted egalite that the writer praises slips further away every day.
    What was exceptional about America was our form of government, the innovation of the republic, and our history of peaceful transitions of power. But that is it. Little about modern American politics and foreign policy is exceptional, if it ever was.

    1. Yeah, the monied classes!

      I nearly got run over t’other day by some cov in his gold-plated chariot, when i wuz diggin tru the garbage for rag-scraps to sell…or maybe find some coal to heat my basement hovel…

      Is it me or do millions of normal americans have some kind of fantasy-life where they cast themselves (with their Starbucks coffees, widescreen TVs, hybrid cars, mauve bannana republic sweaters) as the *downtrodden* by invisible plutocrats? THE RICH is the problem!! Funny how ‘the rich’ basically look exactly like *you*.

      I guess they mean the Kochs. Yeah, that’s the ticket. They’re rich = source of all our ‘problems’! They’re the reason our schools suck, employment is down, healthcare is a mess…. it’s *all because of people who make more money than I do*! Not the stupid fucking politicians *I* voted for.

      1. With maturity comes the recognition that no matter what you wear or drive or the house you live in, someone will always have something better. The infantalization that comes with dependency on the state is connected to the never ending “I Want” jealousy of people who live lives of comfort that kings and queens could not conceive of.

      2. That’s insane. If the rich are so in control, how come they have the highest tax burden? How do they overcome the fact that millions of poorer people have the power in this country to steal the rich’s (and the not-so-rich’s) wealth and redistribute it to themselves? Increased access through campaign funding doesn’t even come close to offsetting the need to buy votes through largess.

        What was exceptional about the U.S. wasn’t some mythical bullshit about everyone being the same in reality (though they were under law). What was exceptional was our rule of law, concept of a liberal, very limited government, the basis of our political system being the individual, not the state or an aristocratic class, and our belief in a largely free market economy. It’s losing those things that has hurt us, not some rich bogeymen and “corporations” mysteriously sucking our ambition away.

        1. “What was exceptional about the U.S. wasn’t some mythical bullshit about everyone being the same in reality (though they were under law).”

          Jefferson’s words about all men being created equal are ambiguous. It would have been better if he had written that all men are created (or born, if you don’t like the theological implication) politically equal. At the time of the founding, it was understood that Jefferson meant that no one was born to rule or enjoy special legal privilege, but the ambiguity of his words have allowed the unscrupulous and deceitful to deliberately misrepresent his true meaning.

          1. Their ability to rationalize government growth and statism goes far beyond having some dubious hook in founding documents. After all, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the Constitution was designed to be a short list of limited, enumerated powers. Yet statists today argue that the government can do anything under that same document.

            1. True. I am being a rememberer of conversations with college students who insisted that the FFs entire political vision should be discarded because “obviously” all men are not created equal because, like, not everyone is as good a basketball player as Shaquile O’Neil. Also, you know, “all men are created equal” completely leaves out women.

              1. And slavery!

              2. It should be discarded because it’s full of obsolete 18th Century ideas, trying to govern ourselves with that document is starting to become like trying to fly to London using the Wright Bros. plane.

                1. Stupid, obsolete freedom of speech, right to privacy, due process, checks and balances, *grumble grumble grumble*

        2. Your arguments are usually better than that. I am not convinced that the patricians are oppressed by taxes. When was the last time federal taxes were raised?

          The plebs may have had their run in the last century but the patricians seem to have had the upper hand lately.

          Until recently I thought the comparison of the late Republic to our republic facile but we do seem to have our own Optimates and Populares and we do seem to be trending toward tyranny under their alternating rule.

      3. Is it me or do millions of normal americans have some kind of fantasy-life where they cast themselves (with their Starbucks coffees, widescreen TVs, hybrid cars, mauve bannana republic sweaters) as the *downtrodden* by invisible plutocrats? THE RICH is the problem!! Funny how ‘the rich’ basically look exactly like *you*.

        Bravo. I do feel sorry for people who have lost their jobs or are underwater on the mortgages, but so much political commentary these days (viz. the NY Times talking of the “new gilded age”) is grossly historically and economically ignorant. Because of techological changes and other developments, there has probably never been a time or place in history where the fundamental, objective differences in lifestyle and consumption between the rich, the poor and the middling (in terms of food, clothing, entertainment, house decoration etc.) have been so small. Even blue collar labourers can wear clothes made of wool and silk, drive cars, have air conditioned hoems — above that, most of what the rich have is just positional prestige goods or enhanced versions of the same stuff.

        Poor people today have goods and luxuries that the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, not to mention medieval kings and dukes, could never have imagined (80% of officially “poor” households in America have air conditining!).

        If there has ever been a time and a place that anti-plutocratic populism has made least sense, it is in America and other western countries right now.

  2. Or has it become just like every other people


    1. (yeah, what JRinDC said, but my version wasn’t tl:dr)

      1. The problem is that what JRinDC said is functionally retarded.

  3. Having worked for and with Europeans of various stripes, I will attest that their class consciousness is palpable. The contrast with Americans is profound.

    1. Let me be clear. My objective is to change that, which is why I rail against the rich. And yes, I’m rich too, but that’s different.

  4. “…Americans widely regard individual liberty as an end in itself.”

    Some do, others see it as the only way to get the places we want – prosperity, even morality. This goes beyond mere utilitarianism, because freedom, virtue and economic vitality are deemed inseparable.

    “…if liberty lovers had to prove the practical utility of, say, protecting due process rights or the right of citizens to bear arms when an allegedly mortal terrorist threat looms, they’d have not a fighting chance of winning.”

    I can make a practical argument right now (don’t like the word “utility,” sounds too much like utilitarianism.

    If the passengers had been armed on 9/11, this week we’d be celebrating the 10th anniversary of a foiled terrorist attack – assuming the terrorists had even dared make their attempt.

    Americans have (with unfortunate exceptions) found it *practical* to separate the innocent from the guilty by using due process. That makes lots of real-world sense if we assume that protecting the innocent from wrongful punishment is at least as important as catching the guilty.

    What could be more practical than that?

  5. People are people. There is no “American exceptionalism”, there is only a country in which the individuals who decided to come to a frontier nation tended to be those seeking freedom and success. We are no longer a frontier nation, and therefore resemble non-frontier nations more and more.

    1. Maybe we should all move. Each state’s population to be randomly assigned another state to swap with.

      1. Screw random. I say shove California into Rhode Island. And then sink it.

        1. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations? Fitting that the biggest state in population would move to the state with the longest name.

        2. I say sell California to the Chinese. The Chinese need to do something with their dollar holdings. The US government needs to do something about its $14 trillion debt. And most Californians behave as though they want to live in a Peoples Republic.

          It’s win-win-win, except for some conservatives in Orange County. Perhaps they could negotiate a carve out for an Orange Free State that would operate like Hong Kong.

          1. Why not sell Washington, D.C. to China? Or, wait, maybe they already own it.

            1. That’s a damned lie. They rent it.

              1. Why buy the cow?

    2. Nah. Cultures do differ and that difference is reflected in national character. Just compare the former colonies of European nations. The former colonies of Britain have developed differently and fared much better than the former colonies of Spain, for instance.

      Human nature is human nature, but different cultures have different philosophical outlooks. America was founded by people who were heavily influenced by political philosophers concerned about political and economic liberty and that made/makes America exceptional.

      “We are no longer a frontier nation, and therefore resemble non-frontier nations more and more.”

      Despite the concern in some quarters about overpopulation of the world, there are places on Earth which are sparsely populated and qualify as being on the frontier and yet they don’t exhibit the characteristics of early America.

      I would chalk the change more up to waves of immigration from the countries of southern and eastern Europe which brought political perspectives substantially different from that of America’s founders.

  6. America is exceptional.

    Also acceptional and excesstional.

  7. The one truly exceptional thing about America is our lack of tradition and the personal shackles that go along with tradition. At heart, I think that what the American conception of freedom is all about, above and beyond the legal and political manifestations.

    America is (still) a country where you can invent yourself. No one is tied to ancient notions of what they are “supposed” to be.

    I’ve had immigrants tell me that this is why they came to America and stayed here.

    The downside of this lack of tradition is a constant state of low-level chaos and rootlessness, which some visitors and immigrants find off-putting.

    The thing that concerns me most about where the country is headed is an increasing tendency towards credentialism and against risk-taking. We become more like the Old World every day that we go down that path.

    1. “We become more like the Old World every day that we go down that path.”

      The American political class craves the level of privilege enjoyed by the European political classes and that is why some of them keeping pushing the “America is not exceptional” meme. They want to make America more like Europe and part of their efforts is to suggest that since America is really no different from any other country, it should imitate Europe politically.

  8. While 9/11 aftermath raised civil liberties issues, they were far less severe than the aftermath of other national crises. Compare Gitmo to internment of the Japanese, or the widespread powers of arrest during the Civil War. Was America exceptional back then?

    Also, relying on a public opinion poll about the PATRIOT Act is ridiculous–few of the respondents know what’s in it, which portions have been ruled unconstitutional, etc. Moreover, it’s unfair to ask the average American about a civil liberty issue that they are unlikely to ever encounter. E.g., the PATRIOT act allows the goverment to use evidence obtained in wiretapping a conversation with a foreign party in a criminal proceeding, where it wasn’t allowed before. How many americans ever engage in phone conversations with foreign parties? Even if most did, how many of those conversations are likely to be surveiled or could ever be used in criminal proceedings?

    A better benchmark would be something that affected or could affect most people, such as heightened scrutiny in airports and border crossings.

  9. I don’t take exception to this

    1. You’re the exception that proves the rule.

  10. Nor could one ever imagine Americans worshiping the symbols and trappings of state power, as the British do with their king and queen.


    1. Being the citizen of both the US and a Commonwealth Realm, I can tell you that there is way more “worship of the symbols and trappings of state power” when it comes to the President of the US (and Congress for that matter) than HM QEII. And anyway, since — for over two centuries — the British monarch has been a figurehead, the trappings are functionally harmless. Not so POTUS…

    2. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

      No worship of symbols there, no, none at all.

      1. don’t forget the salute:…..salute.jpg

  11. Right from America’s inception, whites used the state’s muscle to perpetuate slavery.

    From their perspective, that is because slaves were property, and it is proper to use the state’s muscle to protect property.

    Naturally, I do not agree with slavery, but to engage in this Now We Know Better post facto condemnation is fucking stupid.

  12. What is remarkable about the US response to 9-11 is how measured it was. Go back and look at what the country did during other wars sometime. This is nothing compared to interning the Japanese or the Alien and Sedition Acts. Shika just likes to get her panties in a wad.

    1. Turn off Limbaugh and go read Glenn Greenwald. This country is increasingly resembling a paranoid garrison state. Bin Laden got what he wanted. Wherever he is, he’s laughing his ass off at us.

      1. That’s utter nonsense. The last thing on Earth bin Laden wanted was the American “Empire” to increase in power and scope and to become even more entrenched in the Middle East. Yes, he said some things about how everything worked out as planned, but going by everything he and other al Qaeda nuts said prior to 9/11, the very last thing they wanted was more U.S., which they got. In spades.

        9/11 was a colossally stupid miscalculation on their part. The fact that we knew that such an attack was insanely idiotic is precisely why we didn’t have defenses against it.

        1. Pro Lib–

          America has bankrupted itself, ruined its international reputation, destabilized the Middle East further, enraged Muslims (Saint Barack didn’t fix that surprise surprise our approval in the Muslim world is EVEN LESS than when Bush left office now), and led to the destruction of our middle class etc. as the money we could have used to invest in our economy was pissed away on Terror Drones and killer robots that look like a proto type of the Imperial Walker.

          This is what dying Empires do. They piss away their wealth and prestige against endless wars with smaller, weak powers. Meanwhile, China laughs.

          1. They don’t laugh, they raugh.

            1. Me and Nigger Jim built a raugh.

          2. China is a joke. It’s a place where the West goes for cheap labor. It’ll collapse long before we do.

            1. We’re finished within 10-20 years.

              This is how Empires die–letting bridges and roads collapse while pouring billions of dollars (borrowed from foreigners) into building useless Superweapons that can be defeated by a simple MANPAD or DF-21 that costs about $1 million.

              Take a good, long hard look at Detroit, East St. Louis, and Cairo, Ill. That’s America’s future. That’s what happens when you outsource all your jobs while spending money on useless Superweapons. As soon as the current crop of engineers that were educated when we still gave a damn about our university system dies off, and we fail to attract (buy) engineers from China and India due to our failing economy, we wont be able to do that anymore, either.

              1. I got lost and drove through Cairo, Ill. this summer! I thought I took a wrong turn at Haiti or something. But when I crossed the river into Kentucky and got a couple miles down the road, it looked reasonably normal again.

                What’s up with that? Differences in taxes?

                1. Maybe you should reconsider what you just said about Illinois? I’ll send some friends over to help you think it through.

              2. That is such complete horseshit. Things don’t happen in a straight line, and trends don’t last forever.

                Do you not see the massive clusterfuck awaiting the Chinese, with their real estate bubble, corrupt banking system and upcoming demographic meltdown?

                The USA has some big problems and some hard times coming, but those things can be overcome. Our fundamental cultural strengths still exist, and those will get us through, far more than any political program ever could.

                1. As far as our relative position goes, we’re still way ahead of everyone else. Now we could keep fiddling while Rome burns, but I think we’re much more likely to start cutting back on spending and regulation. We still have a good core of common sense business-savvy in this country, which should keep us from going any further down statist road.

                  1. “Business savy”? Toyota is the world’s largest car company, Nippon Steel the world’s largest steel company, the top luxury goods come from Germany, the best electronics are from South Korea and our software is coded by Indians.

                  2. I guess we DO lead the world, though, in fat, sugary, greasy fast food. Who needs to make things like TVs or cars or luxury goods when we can export Thickburgers? USA! USA! USA!

        2. “9/11 was a colossally stupid miscalculation on their part.”

          Was it? Sure, U.S. military involvement in the ME dramatically increased in the short term, but Americans seem to be getting war weary and even some warmongers seem to want to scale back U.S. interventionism. Some of the Republican nominees talk about pulling back from the ME, most of them advocate increased domestic energy production so as to reduce money flowing to Arab states, the “Arab spring”, arguably spurred on by American military adventurism, is changing what little stability existed between Israel and the Arab world (there was a story not long ago about arms being shipped by Egypt in through Gaza). I think it could be argued that the economic and political strain of American activity in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan may be weakening the long term ability for the warmongers to maintain support for American involvement in the ME. Since al Qaeda wants to drive the U.S. out of the ME, they might be making progress.

          1. Whether we’re actively there or not, the precedent that the U.S. is, really, the sole legitimate user of force in the region is set. Witness Libya, which was really a war where we’ve been acting on Europe’s behalf.

          2. They’re not that clever. Nobody is, before the fact. The best analysis I recall reading said that 9/11 was actually *too* successful for them.

            The intent was to create a splashy show of strength that would inspire a “Jihadi Spring” across the Muslim world. Al Qaeda had seen before that we would not react when they attacked U.S. and allied facilities.

            Yeah, even that plan was “pie in the sky.” But the jihadis truly wanted to believe that the Muslim masses were primed and ready to rise up and install them as the new Caliphate. 9/11 was supposed to be the spark to light that fire. Nothing more.

            The last thing they wanted was a long-term U.S. military presence in their lands.

            And ultimately, they learned to their dismay that the vast majority of Muslims really weren’t interested in restoring the Caliphate. Or at least not interested enough to actually do anything about it. That’s when they shifted their tactics to infiltrating specific vulnerable countries like Pakistan.

            1. “But the jihadis truly wanted to believe that the Muslim masses were primed and ready to rise up and install them as the new Caliphate. 9/11 was supposed to be the spark to light that fire.”

              al Qaeda has repeatedly stated that their goal is getting the West out of the ME. Creating a new Caliphate gets mentioned mostly by westerners. Not saying that their aren’t Muslims who want to create an pan-Islamic empire, but OBL wasn’t shooting for that.

    2. “Go back and look at what the country did during other wars sometime.”

      What war are we involved in at the moment? I don’t remember the declaration.

  13. Shikha Dalmia pretty frequently disappoints, this is no exception.

    1. You missed the link didn’t you?

  14. I agree with John, and I agree with Eduard. But the trend, in any case, is obvious. The fact of the matter is that unless something monumental occurs to prevent it, in the near future the flag will be a symbol of a very dead set of ideals. And we’ll have ourselves and/or our neighbors to blame for it.

  15. Delta’s ready when you are.

    1. Love it or leave it, right Mr. Mark?

      1. None of us have to love it, but this woman’s articles glow so brightly with her hatred of America that I just have wonder – WTF is she doing here? When I don’t like a place, I go where the grass appears greener…but that’s me.

        1. Your mistake is equating ‘America’ with it’s government, policies, and politics.

          I’m sure the author loves America, its constitution, and it’s traditional value placed on individual rights. What she does hate is it’s current government, policies, and politics and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that hate.

        2. Did you actually read the article, Mr. Mark? I don’t get any sense of hatred of the U.S. by Ms. Dalmia.

  16. And watch out for that door.

  17. We both got our statements straight from Limbaugh and other dittohead spam that’s used to make the Daily RNC Blast Fax.

    1. which is financed by the Koch Bros.

  18. We’re exceptional allright–exceptional at locking people up (world’s biggest prison population, both per capita and in raw numbers), exceptional at being fat (highest obesity rate in the developed world), exception at class immobility (second to last, just barely ahead of the UK) and worked exceptionally hard for exceptionally small benefits (1 or 2 weeks of vacation if you’re lucky, crappy health insurance *at best* millions without).

    Exceptional? Exceptionally stupid!

    1. Americans are not exceptionally stupid. They are, however, exceptionally proud and arrogant.

      If the US were truly exceptional in any good way, Americans wouldn’t have to boast about being exceptional. It would be obvious. Kind of like it is obvious that Americans are indeed exceptionally proud and arrogant.

      1. and fat. Gawd, are they fat. fat like sit-next-to-me-in-case-our-plane-crashes-in-the-Andes fat.

    2. Honestly, do you think we have more prisoners than China? Really? Compare us to the West, and I agree that’s a meaningful statistic. But it’s just barely possible that totalitarian regimes lie.

    3. “exception at class immobility (second to last, just barely ahead of the UK)”

      I guess that’s why America has also been, over generations, exceptional in attracting poor immigrants. They want to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and leave their friends and country of birth because they would rather be poor in the U.S. than poor where they come from.

      “Exceptionally stupid!”

      Here is a better place for your personal confessions.

      1. Immigration has collapsed since 2008. Nobody wants to come here anymore. Our economy is a joke. Those brilliant Asian engineers we had to import because we can’tr train our own? They’re going home, and new ones aren’t coming. Why would they? We have 20% real unemployment, falling wages, collapsing infrastructure, widening inequality, and rampant obesity/drug abuse.

        1. “Immigration has collapsed since 2008. Nobody wants to come here anymore.”


    4. Wow, nice talking points, there.

      Just as annoying as the “America Fuck Yeah” crowd are the “America Sucks” folks.

      You know what? Every country on Earth has its problems and weak spots. I’ve traveled to other countries. Nice ones. I’d rather live here, even with our problems.

      By the way, the term “exceptionalism” doesn’t necessarily imply a uniformly positive value judgment. American culture, as I said above, is exceptional in that it rejects tradition and stasis more than any other culture on the planet. That has both good and bad results, but it’s who we are. If you can’t deal with that, go live somewhere else.

  19. American Exceptionalism was manifestly more obvious at the time of the Revolution and adoption of the Constitution and G.Washington voluntarily giving over the reins to J. Adams. Look at how other nations were governed and behaved in, say, 1800. Even during the time of the Civil War, most of the ruling class in Great Britain rooted for the Confederacy as their victory would show the instability of Yankee individualism. So “exceptionalism” to me means “at the time the Republic was born” and very much less so today.

    1. I disagree. American individualism is still quite alive and well, even if the conditions that created it are no longer present. Politics change, governments change, but cultures tend to evolve very slowly. We are basically the same people we were 150 years ago. This tends to be reinforced by immigrants, since the positive benefits of individualism are why they come here in the first place, even if they will grumble about our culture occasionally.

      1. I guess we can agree to disagree. I’m over 60 and have seen a big decrease in self-reliance and self- responsibility in America. Seems like everything is someone else’s fault.
        Turn to Government for the solution first instead of as last resort. Sue someone if you don’t like an outcome.
        Blame the teacher when your kid gets a D for not doing his homework. Yes, go to a Students for Liberty conference and you’ll be impressed as hell with the passion for individual liberty.
        But how wide and deep is the river???

        1. I’m into middle age and have noticed those changes myself. Thing is, I still see American individualism underneath all those problems.

          Much of what you cite is due to a society that has become spoiled from decades of easy prosperity built by the sweat of our ancestors. We’ve pretty much blown through all that wealth now, and I think some hard times are coming that will change much of that. But our basic culture is still the same as it was then, I believe, and it might be our best hope for getting back on our feet.

  20. Indeed, when the pendulum swings too far toward statism, America’s commitment to freedom automatically generates pushback.

    Real Americans also work hard to make sure everyone know the Truth.

  21. American individualism is still quite alive and well, even if the conditions that created it are no longer present. Politics change, governments change, but cultures tend to evolve very slowly. We are basically the same people we were 150 years ago. This tends to be reinforced by immigrants.

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