A historian reminds us that, much as the sitting administration might think otherwise, we’re all in this together.
If Americans knew or cared to know anything about history, the notion that “American exceptionalism” is misguided would be self-evident. Because we live in a time of historical amnesia, however, this critique by Bender (Humanities/New York Univ.; The Unfinished City, 2002, etc.) has its uses, particularly as a touchstone for the authors of historical textbooks, who could use the reminder that the U.S. is one nation among many. Bender begins on a Heisenbergian note: “the nation cannot be its own historical context,” he declares. Yet for too long, historians have been teaching American history as if the nation were indeed “a self-contained carrier of history,” somehow immune from the usual historical processes and problems. That said, he goes on to work out some far-ranging themes, observing, for instance, that the American Revolution was played out on a world stage and can be viewed as an episode in the global conflict between England and France that went on for nearly 130 years; provocatively, he notes in this connection that the Treaty of Paris was a powerful impetus for the development of the U.S. Constitution, if only because so much political power lay vested in the individual states that the new national government really didn’t have any basis for agreeing to that treaty’s terms. The winner writes history, of course, and Bender knows that full well; he remarks in passing that the American empire has been a long time in the coming and relies today on the same justifications as were advanced for it two centuries ago—and ones that tied in to other nationalisms, and other empires, elsewhere.
A useful argument against exceptionalist cant, if perhaps one unlikely to carry the day in a jingoistic age.