“[E]xceptionalism is a national impediment America can no longer afford,” declares journalist Smith (Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post–Western World, 2010, etc.) in this challenge to Americans' view of themselves.
By exceptionalism, the author means the notion that America is a nation with a destiny, a view that "holds people out of history, in the space of timeless mythologies, where there are no choices or decisions." In four conceptually challenging essays, Smith contends that America stood outside of history until 9/11, understanding its past and conducting its policies by reference to myth and story rather than to "what is.” The events of 9/11 comprised such a crushing defeat of America’s “fundamentalist idea of itself” that we should take the opportunity it presented to abandon our dominant myths in favor of a vision of America as just another nation among many. Smith’s controversial and thought-provoking concepts, as elaborated from the arrival of Europeans in the New World through the first half of the "American Century," may indeed explain a great deal about the American character. For the period after 1945, however, the author contents himself with recounting the comfortable mythology of the left, with reflexive bashing of cardboard versions of Reagan, Bush and the tea party and praise for Jimmy Carter, who appears here as a foreign policy visionary. He ends with a call for America to “advance from a belief in destiny to a commitment to purpose,” which apparently entails adopting a "culture of defeat," more central planning, the subordination of the individual to society and an Orwellian "new vocabulary…the language must be cleansed." Smith's argument is further marred by sweeping and unsupported pronouncements of dubious validity and by a tone of condescension toward Americans collectively and individually that makes one bristle even at valid criticism.
A difficult, unsettling and ultimately disappointing critique of the American worldview.