TCS Daily

The Inimitable Nation

By Lee Harris - June 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Once there was a farm located by a tranquil river. One day a duck from the river bumped into a chicken from the farm, and they immediately fell head over heels in love with each other. Sadly, no one else in the barnyard community could appreciate their romance, and both were mocked by all the other animals. "Ducks and chickens were not meant to fall in love," guffawed the cows and the dogs and the roosters -- especially the roosters. Deeply mortified by the ridicule, the duck told his beloved hen, "We will flee these narrow-minded bigots. Come, let us find a place free from such ignoble prejudice." And with these inspiring words on his beak, the duck plunged into the river, followed by the love-stricken chicken, who, of course, promptly drowned.

We are not told what lesson the duck learned from his tragic experience. Being a duck, he may not have learned one at all. He may even have gone to other farmyards and urged other love-smitten hens to follow him to their watery graves. Perhaps he thought, one day I will find a chicken that can swim.

Ever since our miraculously successful revolution in 1776, other countries, falling in love with our democracy, have tried to follow in our webbed footsteps, only to drown miserably in the misadventure, as France would do in its revolution of 1789, and as nations like Mexico or Venezuela would come to do after the collapse of the Spanish Empire in 1808. Sometimes we have, like the duck in the fable, cheered on the chicken to her aquatic death; sometimes we have merely been the inadvertent inspiration. Yet, in case after case, the chicken always ended up dead, while the duck went happily quacking down the river.

Why is this?

It is because Americans take to democracy, so to speak, like a duck to water. It is our element. We thrive in it and prosper in it. It is our refuge and haven. But, like the duck of the fable, we too often forget our natural element may not be the natural element for other peoples, whose history, culture, and ways are radically different from ours. We forget that, just as the duck has evolved to survive in the water, so America has evolved to survive in the midst of democratic bickering and dickering.

We Americans have been produced by a set of extraordinary circumstances. We have been provided, as it were, with webbed feet and water proof feathers -- we didn't create these adaptations ourselves; we simply inherited them from our ancestors. They are nothing for us to gloat about; yet they are characteristics that make us different from all the other animals in the barnyard.

Historians have a name for the idea that America is radically different from other nations and cultures: it is known as the thesis of American exceptionalism.

To hold this thesis you don't have to be a flag-waving American. You can hold it if you are a patriotic Italian or Tibetan. The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, writing about us early in the nineteenth century, recognized that our historical and cultural circumstances marked us out clearly from the rest of humanity. Around the same time, the German philosopher Hegel, though he never stepped foot in America, agreed with de Tocqueville that America was a radically new and different kind of society. For de Tocqueville, we were exceptional because we were not burdened by the dead weight of the past: we did not have to fight against feudalism, or against the heavy hand of the Catholic Church. For Hegel, we were exceptional because of the spirit of self-reliance and mutual trustfulness that was associated with Protestant congregationalism -- a curious faith in which the religious community monitored itself and did not need the intervention or support of either the state or a church hierarchy. Its motto was and remains, We can take care of ourselves, thank you.

Since Hegel and de Tocqueville, other thinkers have emphasized the theme of American exceptionalism, and it has been explained in various ways. The American historian David Potter in his book The People of Plenty argued that Americans were different because our prosperity prevented the dog eat dog mindset found in those societies in which the struggle for existence operates at the most brutal level. Others have pointed to the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, and that our population was made up primarily of adventurous people who were willing to turn their backs on their cultural past and to make an entirely fresh start in life.

These are all factors that set us apart, and yet for which none of us deserves any credit -- no more than a duck deserve credit for having ancestors who had adapted themselves to an aquatic environment.

Yet the duck has a duty to remember that he is a duck, and this is something that America sometimes forgets. It forgot in the aftermath of World War One, when Woodrow Wilson encouraged the rest of the world to take the plunge into the bracing waters of democracy; and it appears to have forgotten it again.

Paradoxically, America can only help the world if it remembers how profoundly different we are from the rest of the world. By assuming that other nations can copy us, we are forgetting that we are, in every sense of the word, inimitable -- the product of an exceptional set of circumstances that occurred in one spot of the globe at one particular moment in the history of mankind. That is why any foreign policy that refuses to recognize our own uniqueness is inevitably doomed to failure.

Like the duck in the fable, America cannot expect others to continue to follow our lead if we leave in our wake a string of drowned chickens. We must remember that everything has a nature of its own, nations and peoples as well as ducks and hens. We cannot expect hens to float simply because we wish them to.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.


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