We at NR seem to have been talking a lot about exceptionalism this last couple of print issues. It started in the March 8 issue. The cover piece, by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, was a spirited defense of American exceptionalism, with some warnings about how the current administration’s policies threaten it. Then in the back of the magazine we had Matthew Scully’s review of Wesley Smith’s new book, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy. Smith’s book, Scully tells us, includes “frequent discourses on the theme of ‘human exceptionalism’” in defense of hunting, trapping, factory farming, and scientific experimentation on animals.
Both pieces brought forth good strong rebuttals. Conrad Black took on Lowry-Ponnuru here on NRO. Smith defended himself at length in the March 22 print edition of NR, with a brief counter-rebuttal by Scully tacked on.
It’s all online (what isn’t anymore?). The Lowry-Ponnuru piece is here, with a concurrent symposium here, and Conrad Black’s counter-blast is here. Scully on Smith is here, Smith’s rebuttal (with Scully’s counter-rebuttal) here. (Did I mention that you need an NR/Digital account for some of those? If you don’t have one . . . why not?) There have been several follow-up exchanges on The Corner.
Exceptionalism, in the broad generality, is a touchy notion. At the personal level, it may turn an individual astray into, at the worst, psychosis (ordinary rules don’t apply to me), or in milder doses, to mere arrogance. Lord Curzon in his youth inspired the following ditty:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
(Blenheim is one of the grandest English country houses.)
Yet in an individualistic nation like this, we are all supposed to cherish personal exceptionalism. No grade-school pep rally would be complete without assurances from the adults present that each of the kids is a very special person. This is not done to nurture psychosis, but to counter the natural conformism of children – to get the little blighters to seek out and develop their own particular talents.
It’s easy to mock this hortatory pedagogobabble. The cold fact is that very few of us are special in any interesting way. Still, kids can find that out for themselves sometime after they learn the truth about Santa Claus. The pull of childhood conformism is so strong, it needs countering. I write with feeling: My own two kids have suffered inward agonies because their foreign-born and -accented Mom and Dad are, as one of them put it to me with some bitterness, “not regular American parents.”
And who knows? Any particular child might be very special. Lord Curzon was indeed, in many admirable ways, a most superior person.
On larger scales, exceptionalism may inspire snobbery, racial supremacy, and even genocide. Exceptionalism, like fire, needs to be kept firmly in its place.
When it is firmly in its place, it is mostly healthful, at the social as at the personal level. Anthropologists tell us that most hunter-gatherer tribes refer to themselves by a term that translates as “the people.” (The German word for “German,” Deutsch, has this etymology.) Their language is “peoplish,” their territory “peopleland.” Plainly each tribe feels itself to be exceptional at some level, and this notion presumably has some bonding function.
It’s a short step from there to the patriotism of modern nation-states, and the even higher-level exceptionalism of religion, race, and ideology. There is always a suspicion that the latter exist mostly to the detriment of the former. John F. Kennedy had to keep assuring people that his American-ness trumped his Catholicism; persecuted racial minorities may feel more affection for the race-homeland than for their actual country of domicile; and Orwell, who wrote a good essay on all this, pointed out that for many leftist intellectuals in the 1930s, loyalty to the USSR was a surrogate for their lost patriotism.
Orwell also noted the curious fact that group-exceptionalism can be an entirely negative idea.
There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply the enemies of the U.S.S.R. without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. . . . A nationalist [Orwell was contrasting nationalism with patriotism — he was, I believe, the first to do so] is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist – that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating – but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs, and humiliations.
The most obvious style of negative exceptionalism in our own day is the ethno-masochism that has gripped much of the liberal intelligentsia in the West. The keynote here was struck by Susan Sontag in 1967, when she declared that: “The white race is the cancer of human history.” (She later apologized, saying that this manner of expressing her opinion was insensitive to cancer victims.) The blame-America-first mentality that pervades our mainstream media and narrative fictions is a milder form of the same phenomenon.
The enlargement of human understanding has not been kind to exceptionalism. Our common imagination has taken us, in just a few centuries, from being the image of a Supreme Being living at the center of the universe, to being a gifted primate on one inconsequential dust mote among trillions of the same. The tribe that called itself “the people” discovered, when they wandered into the neighborhood of an urban civilization, whose charioteers swooped down to round them up and ship them off to the slave market in the capital, that they were not so exceptional after all.
To the particular exceptionalisms we have been airing in the magazine, I’m going to declare myself a Conrad Blackian pessimist on the matter of American exceptionalism, agreeing with His Lordship that “half the horses of American exceptionalism have already fled.”
Possibly this is just a personal reaction on my part (and perhaps even on Conrad Black’s) to having lived through one experience of exceptionalism-disabusement. I was born into an England whose citizens believed that one of them was worth any ten foreigners, that the Wogs began at Calais, and that the principal function of foreigners in the grand scheme of things was to make Englishmen laugh. I now gaze across the pond glumly at a “nation” in which the national flag is shunned as “racist.”
When you have watched a nation tread that path, year by year, from bumptious conviction of its own exceptionalism to sniveling self-loathing, it does not seem preposterous that any other nation – including the one in which you have gratefully taken refuge – might take the same path. It especially does not seem preposterous when, on opening your morning newspaper, you see the same warning signs you saw in the home country 20 or 30 years previously.
On the other exceptionalism, I am a bit alarmed to find myself on the same side as Wesley Smith. (I think: I have not read his book, and am working here from his rebuttal to Matthew Scully in the March 22 NR.) Alarmed, because I have clashed antlers with the Discovery Institute crowd (to which Wesley Smith belongs) several times in the matters of their obscurantism, dishonesty, and general crankiness, and on at least one such occasion tagged them with the label “human exceptionalist.”
My meaning there was only to point up the hostility of religious creationists to ordinary biology and the lessons it teaches us – mainly, the lesson that Homo sap. is just one more branch on the tree of life, not gifted with any supernatural attributes. Even the most exceptional of our exceptionalisms, our moral sense, can be observed in a rudimentary form in our fellow primates, and even in lower animals, as biologists like Marc Hauser have told us.
Morality is of course the issue at stake in the Smith-Scully face-off. What are our moral responsibilities towards other animals? In Hauserian terms: What are the fundamental contours of the innate moral instinct in humans, as they relate to other animals? And what particular foliage has Western civilization planted and grown on those contours, that we should respect as part of our moral heritage?
Religion is very little help here. Riding home in the bus during my college days, I used to pass the headquarters of the Jewish Vegetarian Society on the Finchley Road in north London. You couldn’t miss it: There was a big signboard outside with Isaiah 11:9 on it: They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain. This is one of the very few Biblical pronouncements on the treatment of animals – pretty much the best that Bible-miners can do so far as moral guidance on human-animal relations is concerned.
Jesus of Nazareth had even less to say about the matter than Old Testament Yahweh, and St. Paul nothing at all, as best I can discover. My knowledge of the Koran is sketchy; but so far as I can judge, followers of the Abrahamic religions are on their own here.
I rest my own convictions on a Humeian attachment to ordinary human feelings, to the natural sympathy we feel for creatures as sentient as ourselves, if at a lower level, qualified by the enjoyment of a good steak.
I rather strongly suspect that at some point in the near future – a few decades, perhaps a century or so – our everyday massacre of higher mammals in pursuit of our own gustatory pleasure will seem barbaric. That will be then; this is now.
– John Derbyshire is an NRO columnist and author, most recently, of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.