Periclean Athens and American Exceptionalism

A discussion between a Norwegian and an Australian

America’s Credibility Problem Persists Despite Obama’s Popularity

By Ben Katcher, Washington Note. September 10, 2009

Posted by Paul Norheim, Sep 11 2009, 12:53AM – Link

WIGWAG: “As for Paul’s comment about American exceptionalism, I have a sneaking suspicion that American exceptionalism is actually rather unexceptional. Haven’t all empires or superpowers thought they were exceptional during the period of their ascendancy?”

PAUL: Yes. And some of us have been astonished, reading about, say the Russians under the Tzar in the 18`th and 19`th century, arguing that Moscow was the “Third Rome” (Konstantinopolis being the second) etc, and seeing America expressing similar concepts in the “enlightened” 20`th and 21`th century. These are irrational historical concepts, just like those surrounding the byzantine emperors and the mystical source of their power (they represented God): or like the common perception of the power of the Ethiopian Emperor, the Lion of Judah, descendant of King Solomo etc. – Haile Selassie – while I grew up in Africa.

I`ve always wondered why this kind of superstition still has such strong influence on the minds of the elites in the most technologically advanced society with the best universities. It`s an atavism that the progressive commenter WigWag has no problem accepting. I find it astonishing.

WIGWAG: “While their power doesn’t suggest moral superiority (which they always think it does) doesn’t their ability to influence world affairs well beyond the ability of most other nations actually make them by definition rather exceptional?”

PAUL: Exceptional in the sense of being among the handful of superpowers in the history of mankind, yes, that`s a fact. But the concept of exceptionalism is at it`s core a moral concept, related to a divine/historic mission that goes far beyond simply being powerful. To illustrate the irrationality, the lunatic tendency of this perception, an analogy would be if WigWag, Kervick, POA, Kotzabasis or Paul Norheim suddenly realized that they had been appointed to fulfill a very special historical mission on this planet by God.

In the 21. century I regard this as a lunatic concept.

Kotzabasis says

Paul Norheim

Was it “atavism” when Periclean Athens in its exceptionalism was calling all other people other than Greeks barbarians? You are creating, if not reinventing human nature, fictitious ‘rational’ historical concepts whose only existence is in your wet dreams. Is it “irrational” for anyone who excels in some human attribute, e.g., beauty, intellect, etc., to consider oneself as being exceptional among the mass and to exhibit and display this “exceptionalism” in those areas where one is primus domo? And doesn’t this reaction also apply to human groups and nations?

A miniature illustration of the above is Dan Kervick. Anyone who is not biased against, or envious of, the man, would admit that he excels in constructing beautiful, and grammatically perfect sentences in a beautifully written prose. And one also notices that he is always imbued with the predilection to exhibit this excellence by writing serial comments on the same subject and thus also displaying the nuanced ‘multiversality’ of his thought, although, often, by ‘gearing’ himself on overdrive on the highways of cognition and imagination he moves from the ‘sublime’ to the absurd in his arguments and turns himself into a fool. Do you think Paul, that Kervick does all this out of some “kind of superstition” or “lunatic tendency?”

Paul, it’s obvious from your posts that you are a treasury chest of literary knowledge. But no amount of literary knowledge will save you from the bankruptcy of your political thought. 

Posted by Paul Norheim, Sep 11 2009, 10:07AM – Link


I`m glad, and a bit surprised, seeing that you share my admiration for Dan Kervicks prose. I think you are confusing excellence with exceptionalism – the latter being an ideology with irrational, superstitious sources.

Frank Gaffney expressed exceptionalism in his discussion with Steve, linked to above:

“Those of us who believe that there is something unique, something special, something extraordinary… I dare say exceptional about America, recognise that that it is so in at least substantial measure because of our constitution. (…)and to impute into that organization (the UN) some higher moral stature and authority than we have as a result of our… I think God given constitution…is… I think a serious mistake.”

“our… I think God given constitution…” Now, this goes beyond “excellence”, this is superstition, this is exceptionalism as an ideology, expressed in it`s purest form. As I commented then:

Gaffney`s statements imply that America is not only on a historic, but also moral, even metaphysical mission, initiated when God gave the constitution to America and the world through the founding fathers. On a fundamental level, the constitution was not the act of the founding fathers, created through their judgement, their analytical and political skills, their experience, and their studies of different states, laws, and governments through history. The constitution was an act of God.”

I regard this as an example of 21. century atavism. However, if Frank Gaffney actually didn’t believe what he said, then perhaps it was just some neocon junk intended for domestic consume, among the superstitious masses.

Kotzabasis says

You are not only a bad political ‘thinker’ but also a very, very bad logician. The definition of exceptional in the Oxford Dictionary is “unusually good,” “outstanding.” The definition of excellence in the same dictionary is “extremely good,” “outstanding.” Are you going also to re-write the Oxford Dictionary as you are attempting to re-write history? I repeat, was Greece in its Golden Age, under the great statesmanship of Pericles, expressing its exceptionalism that was rooted in its brilliant philosophy and in its democratic ethos and culture-among despotisms and satrapies-a form of superstition?

Posted by Paul Norheim, Sep 11 2009, 9:40PM – Link

“Was it “atavism” when Periclean Athens in its exceptionalism was calling all other people other than Greeks barbarians?”

Do I admire the particular fact that they called all other people “barbars”? No. However, I hesitate to use labels as atavism or superstition on ancient cultures.

Since the Enlightenment was such an important source for the American
constitution, and since we now live in the 21. century, I find it more appropriate to use such labels on people like Frank Gaffney.

“During the George W. Bush administration, the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests, and Americans subscribing to the political theory of neoconservativism, among others, view the United States as being “above” or an “exception” to the law, specifically the Law of Nations. (This phenomenon might be called a priori exceptionalism or “neoexceptionalism,” since it is less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law.)”

It doesn`t seem outlandish of me to regard Frank Gaffney as one of those “proponents” supporting this interpretation, does it? And since I talked about Gaffney in the discussion with Steve Clemons that I linked to, that was roughly the definition of exceptionalism that I thought about when I used the word above.

 Kotzabasis says

Initially the core of your argument was the “mystique of the superpower” (America) that has been transformed into a “dangerous sense of EXCEPTIONALISM (M.E.) among the American people and its leaders.” Now that you have become conscious of the shallowness and fragility of your inchoate argument you have shifted the point of its reference to certain individuals, like Gaffney, and your terms of “atavism” and “superstition” apply only to them. And further, so you can have another bugbear in support of your revised contention, you quote Wikipedia that refers to exceptionalism not as “American uniqueness than with asserting its IMMUNITY (M.E.) to international law.” No wonder that with the three-tiered reference compass of confusion in your hand you cannot find the cognitive path to your argument.

Nadine is right! In your total inability to argue the core of your case you are crafting “straw men.” In other words, you are becoming intellectually unhinged.

 Paul Norheim says

 If I wished to change or clarify one thing, it is this: I didn`t say – as you claimed – that “the “mystique of the superpower” (America) that has been TRANSFORMED into a “dangerous sense of EXCEPTIONALISM”. I said:

“But also America itself has often been a victim of this mystique. It GENERATES arrogance. It generates hubris. It generates unrealistic expectations, and a dangerous sense of exceptionalism among the American people and its leaders.”

If I had written it now, I would have preferred to say that the “mystique” ENHANCES (and not “generates”) a dangerous sense of exceptionalism.

But I have a suspicion that you are not so interested in clarity as you pretend.

The biggest mystery to me is this: Why are you, Kotzabasis, dedicating 90% of your post to attacking Steve Clemons, Dan Kervick and myself? Why do you invest almost all your energy at TWN attacking, insulting, and ridiculing us in particular? Why do you spend practically all your time here claiming that we are weak, comical, don quijotic, intellectually and politically bankrupt? Why invest all this time on us, if you really
think so? Couldn`t you chose someone more worthy of being your opponents?

Is it so boring to be retired in Australia?

 Kotzabasis says

 Because all three of you in your political and intellectual weakness and lack of depth are strengthening the dangerous fantasies of soft power and policing methods as an antidote to the dangerous realities emanating from apocalyptic fanaticism that are hovering over the head of Western civilization and threatening it with ‘decapitation’. Of course such an existential threat you and Kervick, if not Clemons, would diagnose as paranoia. But anyone who has studied history, without being a prisoner of it, might come to the conclusion that the art, the vocation of a statesman is to identify promptly an irreconcilable implacable enemy and destroy him before he becomes stronger.

Already the soft power fantasy as embodied in the new foreign policy of Obama is irreversibly failing. In the diplomatic overture to Iran, in resolving the Middle East conflict, and in clinching a concord cordial with Russia, of which Obama was so confident that he would have the support of the latter on the issue of Iran. Now we have Putin and his foreign minister Lavrov declaring that they would veto any resolution in the Security Council that would impose new sanctions on Iran.

Clemons, Kervick, and you, with your characteristic geopolitical and strategic myopia and romanticism could not foresee the failure of this new foreign policy of Obama based on ‘loving- holding hands’ and soft power that is unravelling now before everyone’s eyes.

~ by kotzabasis on September 20, 2009.

One Response to “Periclean Athens and American Exceptionalism”

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