George Yancy interviews Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia
Truthout, January 12, 2021
What will history make of the horror and disbelief experienced by the world on January 6, when the United States Capitol was violently broken into and vandalized by Trump supporters who attempted to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes legitimately won by President-elect Joe Biden?
The painful and unforgettable events that transpired that day, leaving five people dead, not only speak to the fragility of American democracy but also reveal deeply embedded realities about white supremacy and its current and historical efforts to undermine democratic institutions and ideals.
Eric Foner: As an historian, I was particularly shocked by seeing the Confederate flag displayed in the Capitol. I can’t think of another time in history where the Confederate flag was prominently on display. Maybe there was such a moment. I don’t know. But again, that’s Trump. He has, among many other things, closely identified himself with the Confederacy, with the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and all that. It is pretty clear what people who carry the Confederate flag around think it says. This is not just heritage, so to speak. It’s not just respect of history. This is a symbol of white supremacy. Everybody knows that.
George Yancy: But, you know, there is a sense in which America is seen by many Americans as buttressed by a kind of theological destiny, where American “exceptionalism” speaks to a kind of unique mission and superiority that the U.S. has been bestowed. How do you think about the concept of “American exceptionalism” in relationship to the events on January 6?
Eric Foner: You know, to my mind, as a historian, American exceptionalism is the great obstacle to understanding America. It’s built into our culture. It’s very hard for us, even for those who realize how ridiculous it is, to get away from it. But it is ingrained in our culture. And it has all sorts of deleterious effects. You can start at a very simple level and say, well, “American exceptionalism” means that American history is different from other histories of other countries. Well, but that’s obvious. Chinese history is not the same as French history which is not the same as Brazilian history. So to say that different countries have different histories isn’t saying very much. But, of course, if we move up the ladder a little, American exceptionalism says more than that. It says that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world. There’s no point in knowing about the rest of the world because we are so exceptional that what applies to them doesn’t apply to us.
This struck me years ago when Obamacare was being debated in the Congress. We’re aware that every other country has some kind of health care system, but nobody said why don’t we see what these other countries are doing. What’s going on in Germany or France or England or in Canada? They’re not all the same. They all have distinctive systems, but maybe we can learn something from their experiences. Nobody thinks we can learn anything from other people. And that’s very different from the Progressive Era a century or so ago. Americans really wanted to learn from other places about the processes of urbanization, industrialization, class conflict, which were happening all throughout the industrialized world. And American reformers and social scientists went over to Europe to see what policies were being adopted there.
A very good historian, Daniel T. Rodgers, wrote a book entitled Atlantic Crossings, which has to do with the idea of going back and forth. Now they don’t go back and forth. America tells other people what to do. Sometimes we tell them verbally. Sometimes we tell them by force of arms. Think of Iraq, for example. If you don’t want to be like us, then we’re going to force you to be, whether you want it or not.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
American exceptionalism. We can’t learn from other nations. We tell them what to do. We do not provide health care to everyone, yet we also do not listen to other nations that have done that. It is not that we do not have clear minds in people who know how to do it. A single payer improved Medicare for All would work just fine. It’s rather that we are exceptional. And what do we get for that exceptionalism?
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