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In reviewing the latest news and information about science and space, I noticed an item yesterday that got me to thinking. It was a planetary scientist’s blog post on “American exceptionalism and space exploration,” which begins: “Why is the term, “American exceptionalism” so readily and predictably panned by writers and commentators…? Do those who condemn and ridicule its use understand the concept and origin of that term? I believe they do not, so let me spell out what American exceptionalism is.”
I don’t know about condemnation and ridicule…. We scholars are trained to be critical – to question claims, test them, validate or invalidate them. I am familiar with the ongoing scholarly critique of claims of American exceptionalism. I myself have made some small contribution to that critique. For many years I have been studying the ideology of space exploration, in hopes of finding some way to develop a 21st century rationale for space exploration that might be more meaningful to the majority of human beings who are not engaged in or otherwise enamored of the enterprise (and who, by the way, are not American or “Western”). See, for example, my chapter on “Ideology, advocacy, and spaceflight: evolution of a cultural narrative,” in Societal Impacts of Spaceflight (2007).*
The Random House Dictionary defines exceptionalism as “a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.” The Collins English Dictionary defines exceptionalism as “an attitude to other countries, cultures, etc based on the idea of being quite distinct from, and often superior to, them in vital way.” While exceptionalism is not peculiarly American, the ideology of American exceptionalism is peculiarly persistent, and it is deeply embedded in the U.S. rationale for space exploration.
For those who are interested in exploring the ideology of American exceptionalism, I would recommend the works of scholars who have studied it in depth. The late Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading political sociologist and the epitome of a public scholar, wrote extensively about American concepts of democracy and exceptionalism. Among his works are American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (author, 1996), Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (editor, 1968), Democracy in Asia and Africa (editor, 1997), and Democracy in Europe and the Americas (editor, 1998). No wild-eyed leftist by any measure, Lipset was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution for many years. He also was director of the United States Institute of Peace, a member of the U.S. Board of Foreign Scholarships, co-chair of the Committee for Labor Law Reform, co-chair of the Committee for an Effective UNESCO, and consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Humanities Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the American Jewish Committee.
Also see the work of Boston University political scientist Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). Deborah Madsen, professor of American Studies and director of the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Geneva, has pursued in-depth studies of the ideologies of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny – see, for example, American Exceptionalism (author, 1998) and Visions of America since 1492 (editor, 1994). The late James Q. Wilson, a prominent political scientist edited (with Peter Schuck) a volume entitled Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation (2008).
Both Lipset and Wilson served as president of the American Political Science Association at some point in their careers.
Beyond the boundaries of scholarly critique, space advocates may be interested in Newt Gingrich’s take on the subject – A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters (with Vince Haley, 2011).
Back to the blog post that piqued my interest…. Here’s another quote from it: “The United States of America is the first country founded on the principle of individual liberty and freedom.”
According to Wikipedia’s entry on “democracy,” the city-state of Athens, Greece, “established what is generally held as the first democracy in 508-507 BCE.” About 15 percent of inhabitants were considered “citizens” qualified to participate in their democratic government. Upon the creation of the United States of America and the establishment of a democratic government, those qualified to participate in their democracy were similarly a selective group – excluding women, native Americans, and slaves (who were property at the time, not “people”).
In the thousand years or so between the creation of Athenian democracy and U.S. democracy, other democratic political systems rose and fell. According to that reliable source Wikipedia, “the South Indian Kingdom of the Chola in the Tamil Nadu region of the Indian Subcontinent had an electoral system 1000 years ago.” In an advertisement for a pricey excursion to Iceland, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, deems that nation “the world’s oldest democracy.”
We’ve all heard some variation of philosopher George Santayana’s observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is important for us to know about our past in all its glory and ignominy – warts and all, as the cliché goes. At a time when international cooperation is becoming a necessity in pursuing goals in space, perpetuating a uniquely American rationale for space exploration that arose out of Cold War, East-West competition and embodies beliefs that may not resonate beyond U.S. borders does not appear to be practical.
I’m privileged to be a participating citizen in American democracy. Our democracy is unique, imperfect, and mutable. We’ve come a long way since 1776, and we can continue to improve.
* Historians Roger Launius and Stephen J. Pyne, among others, have also explored historical rationales for exploration. See, for example, their contributions to Critical Issues in the History of Spaceflight (2006).