Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

American exceptionalism has been dealt a body-blow. I want to suggest, however, that the variant of exceptionalism that was upset by the Bush era was only a vertical model, and that a horizontal image has not only survived, but is flourishing—perhaps, in fact, finding ultimate expression in the personage of Barack Obama as the official representation of the body politic.

Traditionally, there have been two distinct, coexistent images of American exceptionalism—one vertical, and one horizontal. The vertical model envisions America as the pinnacle of a global hierarchy, the privileged “city upon a hill” over an otherwise flat or downward-sloping world. The horizontal model pictures America as being, instead, a consummation, the “melting pot” where the peoples of the world meet, intermingle, and are ennobled by virtue of constituting collective humanity within morally important national borders. In the first picture, America is separate from the world of nations, and in the second, America has subsumed the world of peoples.

The tropes coexist and are mutually constitutive. Indeed, the vertical picture relies on the notion of a national tradition of Judeo-Christianity, and on the idol of the Revolution as a moment of rupture with world history which marks the beginning of a teleology of justice. But also, in part, it relies on the horizontal picture itself, just as the horizontal image invests importance in the national borders in part on the premises of the vertical model. They are, in complex ways, interdependent, but their sources of confirmation are separate. The vertical model, a hierarchical image, is confirmed in the world of nations, by the maintenance of an image of America in a position of dominance. The horizontal model is confirmed in the world of peoples, where still-particularized Others are pitted against notionally de-particularized, democratically humanistic Americans. That is: where the vertical model finds confirmation in, say, American-led “coalitions of the willing” (as long as they are American-led) the horizontal model is confirmed by the very idea of (ethnically marked) Islamic fundamentalism.

So, while many have claimed that the Bush era has ushered in a decline of American exceptionalism, I want to suggest that it is only the vertical model which has been upset. The sure sense of dominance in a global hierarchy was interrupted by the terrorists attacks of 9/11, reasserted through entrance into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but continually shaken thereafter as foreign policy outcomes, as well as images of America being reflected back from without, made America’s position as transcendent “top dog” increasingly implausible. The political culture that allowed America to be judged by the standards of other nations—and found lacking—was one which severely damaged the vertical picture of exceptionalism.

And that vertical diminishment, iterated in, for example, Dick Morris’s claim that Obama “repealed the Declaration of Independence” during his European tour (a conviction doubled when he bowed to the leader of another state), is now deeply felt—if one can gauge by the number of times it seems to have been repeated across cable news and (particularly right-wing) online media.

Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric has frequently confirmed the view that his administration is deliberately dismantling the vertical model; he seems to aim for a stance which (either in fact or appearance) is one of pragmatic world-engagement. For example, his campaign speech last summer in Berlin was riddled with gestures that move away from a position insisting on American preeminence, such as his claim that “there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world.” And though his speech on the subject of globalization and global problems has often been more tempered at home, the general direction, I think, is the same. Vertical exceptionalism has been dealt a body-blow; sooner expect Obama to speak of a world with many “cities upon hills” (to which, perhaps, “torches of liberty” have been passed) than the American nation as a lordly, lonely city upon one.

The horizontal image, however, has not only survived, but flourishes—perhaps, in fact, finding ultimate expression in the personage of Barack Obama as the official representation of the body politic. Horizontal exceptionalism, after all, is about the consummation of cultures. It is, in short, the exceptionalism by which Americanization is synonymous with universalization. And it was given new wings in Obama’s Inaugural Address:

We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

If what I’m calling “vertical exceptionalism” posited an America that was a shining city upon a hill against a world of assumedly un-American darkness, can this new horizontal version, now shorn of some of its vertical underpinnings, instead both recognize and engage with a world which has, partly through the workings of all the variants of exceptionalism, actually become increasingly Americanized? And—this is the real question, as America enters what appears to be a new era of engagement—can it do so without repeating the mistake of the past: assuming that, because Americanization is supposed to be merely a form of universalization, it is benign?

The above passage from the Inaugural Address implies an American role in “revealing” the world’s “common humanity;” I wonder whether the form of that revelation might yet be a violence against particularities, violence still rationalizable in the terms of horizontal exceptionalism because those particularities (Islam, Chinese-style mixed economic forms, racialized solidarities) obstruct American-style “universal” democratic humanism, and hence are particularities in which the cultures of people obstruct “our common humanity.” Barack Obama has named his tradition: a patchwork heritage, in which tribal lines dissolve, the subject of which was the mainstay of his recent address in Cairo.

Still, it’s too soon to say how Obama’s idea of heritage will convert to global destiny.

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]