Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism

Here’s something that caught my eye for no particular reason, from The Interpreter, the blog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy (Australia). Michael Fullilove wrote this in response to Barack Obama’s claim, most recently in his speech on race, that his story is only possible in America:

I know plenty of first and second generation immigrants sitting in Australian parliaments; our deputy prime minister is a woman and one of our most senior ministers is a gay woman of Chinese heritage. The French recently installed a man with a Hungarian name in the Élysée Palace. New Zealand’s foreign minister is a Maori. Golda Meir was born in the Ukraine and Canada’s Governor-General hails from Haiti. Furthermore, in most of these countries it is possible for a first generation immigrant to aspire to hold any political job, whereas Article II of the US Constitution provides that only ‘natural born citizens’ are eligible to be president.

Obama’s life story is remarkable by any measure, and America’s history as a great immigrant nation is one of the country’s most attractive features. But it is past time for Americans to get over the misconception that they have a monopoly on social mobility.

Fullilove’s point is well taken. There are a number of countries around the world that have multi-ethnic, multi-racial populations, based on either the “American model” of immigration (England, France, Germany, Holland and Australia come to mind), colonial inheritance (most of Africa, India), or expansionism (China). All have their own models of integration and assimilation, some more successful than others, but the idea that the typically American narrative of “immigrant makes good” is somehow exclusive to America is pretty obviously false.

Still, Obama’s speech got quite a bit of international attention, as has his candidacy in general. The reason for that, I think, is because it is taking place in America, in the context of both America’s racial history and America’s standing in the world. It’s important to remember that, during the Cold War, America’s racial history was one of the principal accusations used to undermine its standing in the world. So while success stories like Obama’s have certainly happened in other countries besides America, the fact that it’s happening in America, I think, does distinguish it, both in the eyes of Americans, but also in the eyes of the world.