The New Criterion, January 2012.
American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been seen as different, even peculiar, to people around the world. I am thinking of qualities such as American industriousness—not just hard work, but the way that Americans have treated their work and their efforts to get ahead in life as a central expression of who they are. There is American neighborliness. Many cultures have traditions of generous hospitality to guests, but widespread voluntary mutual assistance among unrelated people who happen to live alongside each other has been rare. In the United States, it has been ubiquitous. I am thinking also of qualities such as American optimism, present even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it; our striking lack of class envy; the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies; and our famous naïveté in assuming the best of a random person that we come across. Finally, there is the most lovable of exceptional American qualities: our tradition of insisting that we are part of the middle class, even if we aren’t, and of interacting with our fellow citizens as if we were all middle class.