ex-cep-tion-al (adjective): unusual; not typical; extraordinary; unique; special
American exceptionalism is an oft-used phrase that is generally taken as a bit of patriotic pablum that few people actually earnestly believe in the modern day. The concept’s critics suggest that it is inaccurate and jingoistic, and claim that ‘American exceptionalism’ ignores all of the country’s many flaws, past and present. Some who embrace it are naive in their understanding of America as purely good and entirely perfect, and use ‘American exceptionalism’ as a club with which to beat political opponents. Both are completely wrong. American exceptionalism is real, it matters, and it’s why I could never see myself living anywhere else.
* The images from the Appendix referenced herein are instead spread throughout the text of this essay for easier reading. Enjoy!
When the term ‘Italian Renaissance’ is used, most people think of figures like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Petrarch; this association with a flourishing of the arts and Western culture is understandable, yet it misses much of the complexity and dynamism inherent in the period, especially during the fifteenth century. That period – known historically as the Quattrocento – was a time of rapid change, political tumult, and dynastic struggle throughout the Italian Peninsula. These geopolitical evolutions were just as radical and revolutionary as were those occurring in the cultural world at the time; in fact, without the political developments of the Quattrocento, many of the cultural aspects of the Renaissance may never have gotten off of the ground. To gain a better understanding of these changes and their impact on society, one must understand the very different political situation in Italy prior to the Renaissance.
Italian history for the few centuries before the Quattrocento was largely dominated by two powerful forces: the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire of the Hohenstaufens. These factions were mutually reliant on one another for legitimacy as well as rivals for the overlordship of the Italian Peninsula. This conflict defined the late Medieval period in Italy, culminating with the Guelf-Ghibelline wars and vendettas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This all changed in the fourteenth century, however, as the Papacy relocated to Avignon, spiraled into a destructive schism, and lost much of the temporal power formerly emanating from its traditional seat in Rome. With respect to the Holy Roman Empire, a previously dominant power in Italy, the historian Jacob Burckhardt states that “The Emperors of the fourteenth century, even in the most favourable case, were no longer received and respected as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of powers already in existence.” Upon the return of the Popes to Italy in 1376 and the resolution of the Great Western Schism with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417, the Papacy once again sought to retake its temporal role in Italian politics. However, the Italian world into which this newly invigorated Papacy was returning to assert its traditional role was not at all the same one which it had left in the early fourteenth century. During the period of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Church, the political situation in Italy had devolved away from a more unified, hierarchical, feudal-type system into a patchwork of independent city-states, statelets, and kingdoms which often were involved in intractable conflicts with one another. The power vacuum created by the flight of the Popes to France and the aloofness of the Holy Roman Empire allowed for the flourishing of local civic identity, the creation of territorial rivalries, and the internecine Italian conflict which came along with them.
The idea of ‘unity’ in politics is a utopian pipedream, and not something which we should strive for.
It’s been less than a week of the new Biden administration and already we have a new political buzzword that is being used by both right and left: unity. In his inaugural address (and much of his messaging post-election), President Biden stressed his intention to unite the country behind his administration, saying phrases including: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”; “To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”; “With unity we can do great things. Important things.”; “History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity.”; “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.” I could go on, as the speech was chock-full of messaging around the theme of unity. Republicans have seized on this theme and have made a stink about how the Biden administration’s early actions have been the opposite of uniting, instead delivering wins for Democrats and progressives on many contentious issues. Both parties are wrong in their focus on political unity and what that means.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of speech is a fundamental aspect of American society and an important classical liberal ideal, but it is a right which is not always convenient, convivial, or comity-inducing. In fact, allowing the full flourishing of the freedom of expression and speech often includes permitting speech that much of society will find despicable, evil, offensive, or harmful. Unfortunately, there is a strong cultural – and outside of the United States, legal – movement to restrict speech freedoms and police the public discourse, sometimes with actual police officers. This trend is only accelerating with the mass adoption of social media and Internet communications more broadly, as well as the perpetually searchable online past of nearly everyone in society. So-called ‘cancel culture’ is commonplace in certain circles of political and social activism, and virtually every potentially controversial opinion (and many that are not) is met with the metaphorical gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. There are increasing levels of pushback against this trend, but the idea of ‘de-platforming’, stifling, or censoring speech which the vast majority of society considers beyond the pale – support for terrorism and blatant white supremacy, to give two examples – is quite popular, especially among younger people. According to a poll conducted by the Campaign for Free Speech, “61 percent of Americans agree that free speech should be restricted, and 51 percent believe that the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, should be rewritten to reflect the new cultural norms of today. Millennials feel a greater sense of negativity from free speech, with 57 percent agreeing that the First Amendment should be rewritten, and 54 percent believing that possible jail time would be an appropriate consequence for ‘hate speech.’” Despite the strong American constitutional protections for free speech, as seen in the First Amendment quoted above, without a strong cultural presumption and acceptance of the values around free speech, the right itself can be chipped away.
From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived. One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.