The last, best hope of Earth?

Is the United States unique? Roger Johnson examines the role that exceptionalism has played in the p

John McCain and Sarah Palin have made a peculiar addition to the language of presidential campaigning. On 11 September at a Columbia University forum and at the vice presidential debate, each expressed a belief in the idea of American exceptionalism.

It is a mild surprise to see these candidates appropriating a term more commonly found in academic discussion of American society and history. “American exceptionalism” is used to describe ideas that the United States contains unique factors that make its culture, politics or character qualitatively different from any other. Such ideas are found in historical interpretation, but also in national ideology - and at points where they intercept.

Describing themselves as exceptionalists might be new, but the idea they expressed was resoundingly consistent with presidential rhetoric. Significantly, Palin twinned the idea with an evocation of Ronald Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.” Responses, such as Roger Cohen’s at the New York Times have focussed on this latter association, with its threads to John Winthrop and undertones of religious destiny. Others, such as Rush Limbaugh and Gerard Baker, have grasped at the theme of exceptionalism, seeing it as a dividing issue between the candidates. The impression persists that it belongs to and defines the American right, and by extension the McCain/Palin campaign. This is due to easy assumptions about America’s cultural divide, but also to President Reagan’s remarkably successful appropriation of exceptionalist narratives of American strength, righteousness and destiny, and his persevering hold on the current Republican party image.

At best this underestimates the giddy exceptionalism that infuses Barack Obama’s own rhetoric and image, at its most absurd it depicts him as an unexceptionalist – one who seeks to expose America’s limits, and relegate it to the ordinary.

Obama has depended on narratives of America’s unique and transcendent nature, and has presented himself and his future presidency as the product and evidence of an exceptional nation: “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This came from his speech last March which focussed on the issue of race in his candidacy and in America.

Though rarely part of Reaganesque celebratory national narratives, America’s racial divide is often interpreted as vital to its exceptional nature, defining the country and shaping its history. In confronting it, Obama implicitly accepted this, but also constructed around it a narrative of unique American potential for change and self-betterment.

Also implicit was his potential as a symbol through which racial understanding and national unity could be achieved.

In the end, the presidency is a fundamentally exceptionalist institution, through the myths it contains about the potential of American citizens to rise to the top, about the potential of American power and world leadership, and about the preservation and perpetuity of American democracy. It demands of its candidates to draw on and promote what it represents, and offers in its past an illustrious array of symbols through which they may do so.

While the Republicans have chosen Reagan, Obama has consistently evoked Lincoln and his vision of America as “the last, best hope of Earth.”

Roger Johnson is an Associate Tutor in American Studies at the University of Sussex. He studied at the Institute of the Americas in London and is pursuing a doctorate on cultural memory and the Reagan administration.
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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.