In the decades after World War II, Protestant missionaries abroad were a topic of vigorous public debate. Public conversations about missionaries followed a powerful yet paradoxical line of reasoning, namely that people abroad needed greater autonomy from U.S. power and that Americans could best tell others how to use their freedom. In The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II, Sarah Ruble analyzes these public discussions about what it meant for Americans abroad to be good world citizens, placing them firmly in the context of the United States’ postwar global dominance.
In a guest post today Ruble writes about how Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom, continues the ongoing conversation about American exceptionalism.
In the first scene of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, The Newsroom, America’s most-liked anchor goes on a rant. Asked by a college student “why America is the greatest nation in the world,” Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, at first punts (“the New York Jets”) and then lets loose: It isn’t the greatest nation. Test scores, infant mortality, GDP—America isn’t first in any of them. He has no idea what the now startled student is referring to when she claims that America is the greatest nation—maybe Yosemite?
McAvoy’s rant, however, is not that of an anti-American grouch. He is a wounded lover. After challenging the assertion that America is currently the greatest nation, he goes on in softened tones: “We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right, we fought for moral reasons, we struck down laws for moral reasons….” He hearkens to a time when “we didn’t scare so easy” and we “didn’t beat our chests.” America isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore, but it once was and could be again.
Whatever the merits of The Newsroom (whether it is Sorkin’s next West Wing or his next Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip remains to be seen), this scene is useful. It gives us insight into how the notion of American exceptionalism, the notion apparently under debate in McAvoy’s monologue, becomes naturalized.
American exceptionalism, or the idea that the United States is somehow both different and better from all other nations, has a long history. From the decision to put novus ordo seclorum (a new order for the ages) on the back of the Great Seal of the United States (and on the $1 bills in your pocket) to President Barack Obama’s claim during his 2008 inaugural that “we are ready to lead once more,” many Americans have believed that their country is something different from anything that has come before or that has arisen since. A leader. A new order. This contention is also contested, as debates in the current election cycle over whether the president is committed enough to American exceptionalism or whether conservatives are too committed to it, aptly demonstrate. But with a few exceptions (such as television personality Bill Maher’s assertion that Americans need to “get over” the idea of exceptionalism), the idea itself is fairly ingrained in the national consciousness.
And The Newsroom suggests why. Even as McAvoy contests the notion that America is currently the greatest nation in the world, he reinforces the idea that, at its best, America has been and can be. What is more, he implicitly suggests that the United States can, at its best, operate by different rules than other nations. As McAvoy turns from frustrated to nostalgic lover, he remembers a time when the United States fought wars for moral reasons. Not power, not money, not because some states were succeeding or because a naval base was attacked, but morals. His remarks are reminiscent of the real work of another famous news anchor, Tom Brokaw, who celebrates the soldiers of World War II in The Greatest Generation (it probably isn’t incidental that during his rant McAvoy tells the hapless college student that she is part of the “Worst. Generation. Ever.”—apparently ranking generations is a news anchor’s prerogative). Our greatness was tied to our overcoming of such base, if normal for most nations, considerations as military strategy, geopolitical goals, or national security.
For a show all about telling the whole truth from behind the anchor’s desk, McAvoy’s opening monologue is shy on historical depth. Yet it manages to criticize one kind of exceptionalism—the notion that America is so exceptional that how it behaves in the world is necessarily right—while bolstering another—the idea that the United States has the wherewithal to be a new order for the ages if it will just be the best version of itself. While not all Americans buy either version, this rhetorical strategy allows people who are currently displeased with their country to remain committed to one of its most cherished ideas about itself.
Yes, it is a piece of dialogue from a television show on a channel you have to pay extra to watch. But it is part of the country’s ongoing conversation about its exceptionality, one place where ideas are contested, nuanced, and reinforced. If McAvoy had ended with the quip about Yosemite, the speech would itself have been somewhat exceptional. As it is, it is part of a discussion about America that Americans have been having for a long time.
Sarah E. Ruble is assistant professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College and author of The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II.