U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Final Plenary on American Exceptionalism

For those who missed the conference or who missed the final plenary, I offer a couple of photos. Above and to the left, Ben Alpers introduces Mike O’Connor who chaired the plenary. Above and to the right, the panel: (L-R) Eric Foner, Beth Bailey, Michael Kazin, and Rogers Smith.
The idea for the plenary sprang from a post of Ben’s and took shape under Mike’s direction. The turn out was solid for a Friday evening in NYC. A lively question and answer session followed an interesting exchange among the panelists.
Of the many themes addressed over a couple of hours, two stayed with me: all the panelists made note of the need to place whatever might be considered American exceptionalism in an international context. To that end, Eric Foner mentioned Ian Tyrell’s work a few times. See Tyrrell’s website.
The other theme was the production of usable myths that accord with ideas of American exceptionalism–a point raised most clearly and succinctly by Beth Bailey. I have wondered in posts on this blog what Americans think the American military is doing when it goes overseas, and what the nation’s soldiers think they are killing and dying for, if not for a theology of American exceptionalism?
While I have argued that civil religion covers this idea more comprehensively, Beth Bailey made some very serious points regarding the construction and consequences of ideas wrapped up in the exceptionalist narrative.

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