Exceptionalism: The perils of forgetting history

The views expressed in the following article are the opinion of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Newswire staff as a whole.


Some years ago, I was playing the latest expansion to Fallout: New Vegas, one of my favorite video games ever. This expansion was called “Lonesome Road.” Your character, a former courier, pursues a man named Ulysses who is at least partially responsible for getting your character shot. Though some elements of that particular expansion’s plot have faded from my memory, I remember one line with vivid clarity:

“Who are you, that do not know your history?”

There are plenty of reasons that quote is supposed to hit the player hard in the game, but it was something in society that came to mind when I heard it. We don’t know anything about our history anymore, and as a result we can’t possibly know where we are going.

Our history as the United States, and as a part of the West, stretches hundreds of years.

It’s filled with people and events that are inspiring, terrifying, depressing and magnificent. We have made horrible mistakes with dire consequences, and we have made brilliant choices that gave hope to generations. We are the heirs to a great and terrible legacy that we do not fully comprehend.

For example, nearly all people in the United States today take for granted that slavery is a horrific system and a crime against humanity. It’s something that existed at one point in time in the unenlightened past but something that we have moved past morally and couldn’t possibly ever return to. It is an unjustifiable evil. However, this majority negative opinion of slavery has only existed in the U.S. for maybe 150 years, perhaps 170 years if you’re generous. Western civilization and the world as a whole essentially ran on slave labor for the entirety of Antiquity through the Middle Ages, when it evolved to take on different forms or involve different peoples. We, with our modern sensibilities, are the exception when it comes to human beliefs about slavery.

The same is true for our system of government. Republics and democracies are the exception to the rule, not the standard. Most of the government systems humanity has devised have been empires, kingdoms or some similar variant. Even older republics such as Rome are not truly similar to the governments we have today.

We believe in our present society that every citizen should have the freedom to vote and decide who his or her ruler is, whereas a few hundred years ago that idea would be considered asinine at a minimum.

“American Exceptionalism” is a phrase once treated with sincerity but rarely said today without cynicism. This phrase came about because America represented the most well set up fulfillment of the exceptional ideas of the West. In reality, it is the concepts and ideas of the West that are the exception to the patterns of human history.

No, I’m not saying that we ought to ignore the faults and failings that exist in our history. Far from it, in fact. I believe that we must look back into our history and examine everything closely without any reservations. We must cast aside our modern ideological lenses — be it a feminist lens, a postcolonial lens, an orthodox lens, a nationalist lens, etc. — and attempt to understand the truth of the situation at hand.

I know what I’ve just stated is a lofty goal and is perhaps out of reach for us. However, I believe that the consequences of not attempting to truly and intimately understand our own history once again will be dire.

After all, we’re an exception to the rule. As I’m sure you’re aware, exceptions to rules tend to be extremely rare, and if not monitored and maintained properly, tend to become corrupted and fall apart.


Colin Lang is a senior history and Philosophy, Politics and the Public double major. He is a staff writer for the Newswire from Cleveland.

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