As an post-academic, I’m not prone to brevity but completion. I need rigorous, definite examples, and I must define every term for the benefit of the reader. No one wants misunderstandings, especially someone with a cogent argument. Although I recently wrote an article about Assassin’s Creed III and the subject of American exceptionalism for GameChurch, this article goes for my audience (a video game person who knows a lot about said games) rather than a general one. Think of them as complementary rather than oppositional and you’ll get what I mean. Without further ado, then:
Assassin’s Creed III, more often than not, errs on the side of American exceptionalism. Although the game shows Americans and the British in all their historically noted flaws, protagonist Connor Kenway (hope that part isn’t a spoiler at this point) isn’t bound to a fixed character of the past. In fact, he increasingly shows a form of American exceptionalism aware of its own future.
In that sense, Connor acts in a immersion-breaking anachronistic caricature, condemning the founders for excluding women and slaves. He frequently makes moral pronouncements that people desire “freedom” and “liberty” without explaining their meaning. Whether or not head Ubisoft writer Corey May intended this result or not, it doesn’t matter: American Indians become proto-”Americans” in his narrative. There’s good and bad in Assassin’s Creed III, and the winners write history – even an alternate futuristic history.
What is American exceptionalism?
So, what conception of “exceptionalism” does Assassin’s Creed III have, anyway? It is the belief that America exists as a unique nation in human history, not only because of its founding (by republican government), but because of the the principles behind said founding. Those principles include liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. These make Americans a unique people, fitted for the purpose of spreading democracy and breaking the chains of the rest of the world’s prejudices.
This unique founding breaks the arbitrary social divides found in other countries. As well, it makes America a prime candidate for the evangelization and spreading of these values across the world (which comes through in foreign policy, domestic affairs, etc). Who knows whether these actually apply; the importance, however, to ACIII is either whether it supports such an idea, or whether it rejects it. The answer, in a way, is both, perhaps even unintentionally.
Exceptionalism = Pragmatism?
To explain: the writers hold a notion of exceptionalism that prevents the game from making a relevant social commentary on the past. It’s an exceptionalism aware of America’s increasing diverse population and moral system, rather than than of the 18th century’s social issues. Even in history, this wasn’t the case. Alexis de Tocqueville, writer of the American political classic Democracy in America, provided the world with the first mention of exceptional nationhood:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
It is interesting that de Toqueville, a Frenchman, would recognize the pragmatic nature of Americans as an “exceptional” country – this is a far cry from a nation founded on “principles”. America was founded on a kind of idealism, certainly, but we can even see this example in terms of warfare. Remember what you learned in school, fellow Americans? We used guerrilla warfare; we did not line up in front of the enemy and wait to die. Our thoughts and our ideas ruled over our actions, not some preconceived notions of “tradition”. Isn’t that the whole point? Even W.E.B. DuBois, noted African American social critic, recognized this same ideal:
Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty.
Du Bois always criticized America for its failings, yet even he could see that the mode of thought and ingenuity that arose out of America’s founding shows us its essential element of pragmatism. In neither case, however, do we see America lauded as “great” for some philosophical ideal like the modern conception, which emphasize vague notions of“liberty” and “freedom”. In the vast majority of history books, we find a narrative approving of these author’s assessment. Maybe the Founders cast themselves into too great an exaggeration of their country’s greatness, as in Thomas Jefferson’s case:
The station which we occupy among the nations of the earth is honorable, but awful. Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence. All mankind ought then, with us, to rejoice in its prosperous, and sympathize in its adverse fortunes, as involving everything dear to man. And to what sacrifices of interest, or convenience, ought not these considerations to animate us? To what compromises of opinion and inclination, to maintain harmony and union among ourselves, and to preserve from all danger this hallowed ark of human hope and happiness. (Light of American freedom must be preserved for humanity ”To the Citizens of Washington”, March 4, 1809)
The exaggeration here would certainly throw a positive light on everything the Americans did during the Revolutionary War! If there were any quote more misused for a specific cause, it would be exceptionalism. America was certainly founded in a unique way – by revolution, of course – but that does not mean it is de facto exceptional in human history. It’s a misnomer to assume that elements of European society did not make their way into the Constitution or the American system of laws. Yet, there’s another element hidden here that tends to be missed: religion.
The Role of Religion
One should hesitate to say their platitudes came without warrant. Many of the Founders were religious in some sense, whether orthodox Christians or Unitarians and sometimes a Deist mix in-between. John Adams, though technically a Unitarian, believed in a governmental system along the lines of the Puritan model for the new government’s founding. Though not adopting a Trinitarian view, he felt that God “has given us Reason, to find out the Truth, and the real Design and true End of our Existence.” Benjamin Franklin, though not associated with any particular Christian tradition, was raised within a conservative Calvinist household; although a Deist by nature, Franklin took hold of the diligence, frugality, and dislike of religious pretension that came from the Calvinist tradition. He also believed in the sinful nature of humanity; hence, Franklin viewed organized religion as a benefit to society, encouraging public virtue and social order.
Of course, if we do not understand Deism, these connections to religion will lose their flavor. Deism, in its very core, believed the metaphysical foundation of the world lied in reason, experience, orderliness, and a law-like functionality. Through ordinary experience, it was posited, the rational human mind could detect an orderliness in reality that abstract mathematics and analysis subsequently proved. That rational beings were capable of discerning this orderliness implies that the human mind is a microcosm of the universe; hence, this implies a deity with those same characteristics created the world. Although the nature of this God cannot be known, the world that God created can be examined. Reason, thus, becomes a instrumental tool to understand nature, and by association ethics can determine what the “natural law” is. In fact, the primary Deist preoccupation was the development of moral perfection in accordance with God’s nature, and subsequently in human nature.
This, in turn, explains many of the Deist Founders’ contributions to legal theory. One only has to observe The Declaration of Independence to see that
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Or, as Ann Coulter would say it:
Fifty-two of the fifty-six signers of the American Declaration were orthodox Christians who believed in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or as they would be known today, “an extremist Fundamentalist hate group”.
Certainly, it is well known that much of the Constitution’s ideas were based on the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; however, they do not prescribe divine morality. The American Deists, on the other hand, affirmed the moralizing and stabilizing influence of religion upon a culture to fill this gap. George Washington believed that every person had freedom of conscience, and thus encouraged the Constitutional Congress to ensconce religious liberty and toleration as essential principles of the new government – as this fostered morality, order, and stability, this was most useful towards a right and proper society without coercion. Jefferson, under the same vision, continued to give money to the building funds of Episcopal, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations even with his denial of Jesus’ divinity. James Madison, James Monroe, and many of the signers were Deists, although they identied themselves under various Christian denominations. Their similarity of belief ensure that the stabilizing and moralizing role of government would continue even without the binding of religious authority.
To summarize, then: the Founders believe themselves unique by virtue of their Founding, surely, but not on abstract principles. They took what worked and applied that to the new country which they founded. Religion, contrary to its usually ancillary role, became a central tenet of the new government – but, as with most things, Choice became the essential element. Yet, in the end, religion really held as the stabilizing element of any government full of free peoples. If the Founders weren’t reading their Bibles, they certainly inherited a notion of Romans 13:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
Here in America, though, the authority rests in the people; hence, religious people become the authority of God in their Christian communion. They created a government, intentionally or not, that relied on the religion of providence and that of God. Since Deists believed all those Christian denominations worshiped the same God, they even went to church! Were they Christians? Hard to say; sounds more like “independant Christians” to me, but they saw religion, not reason, as part of why America was exceptional. Heck, just compare the French Revolution’s godless turn (my God, the horrors) to America’s relatively civil revolution in comparison.
Assassin’s Creed III, in other words, is the materialist version of American exceptionalism, almost an idealized portrayal of the French Revolution.
Continue to Part 2 (next Friday!)