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11:00 PM, Feb 25, 1996 • By WOODY WEST
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In a rude time, the notion of American "exceptionalism" has been spun on its axis on campuses and in other closets of higher social criticism. In such precincts, America is portrayed as exceptional usually for its racism and sexism, its economic and social inequities, the scope of its flaws.

It is useful, then, when a modulated voice penetrates the clamor. Seymour Martin Lipset's American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (Norton, 384 pages, $ 27.50) offers a perspective grounded in history and based on honest empirical comparisons with other developed countries. "There can be little question," Lipset writes, "that the hand of providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him. When I write the above sentence, I believe that I draw scholarly conclusions, although I will confess that I write also as a proud American. But I should hasten to add, not as one who thinks his country is better than other democratic societies, but as one who believes that the greatness of free polities lies in their institutionalization of conflict, of the continued struggles for freer and more humanely decent societies."

America is exceptional in its genesis, born from a revolutionary event and, as part of that origin, possessing a "Creed" embodied in the Declaration of Independence and a "political religion" that developed from it. This is a stark distinction from countries that define themselves "by a common history as birthright communities, not by ideology." From the seedbed of the American Creed -- liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire - - has flowered a society competitive, meritocratic, anti-statist, religious, and committed to equality of opportunity.

This would all seem the stuffofa primer. But Lipset insists that contemporary trends and social phenomena be viewed in historical context. Preoccupied with the present as most of us are (for reasons of practicality, contrariness, or laziness), our failure to contemplate the past can lead to civic sourness -- the assumption that things are bad because we don't actually consider how bad they have been before.

What is less evident is that so many trends we mutter about -- crime, drug abuse, permissiveness, and divorce, on the short list -- are the waste matter of precisely those characteristics that make America "qualitatively different. " Lipset contends that the positive and the negative are frequently opposite sides of the same coin. "Individualism as a value," he writes, "leads not only to self-reliance and a reluctance to be dependent on others, but also to independence in family relationships, including a greater propensity to leave a marriage if the marital relationship becomes troubled." And America's higher divorce rate goes back to the 19th century, not to the day before yesterday. Lipset, now a professor at George Mason University, appears to have read every study, survey, sample, and poll since social science was a pup, and he marches and counter-marches this material like a Marine Drill Instructor.

There is one "great exception" to the Creed -- the experience of American blacks. Affirmative action and its corollary "quotas" in the past quarter century represent a rupture in the fundamental belief in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of results. "It is the egalitarian element in the American Creed that helped to create the consensus behind the civil rights revolution of the past thirty years," Lipset writes. "But the more recent focus of the civil rights movement, with its emphasis on substantive equality and preferential treatment, has forced the country up against the individualistic, achievement-oriented element in the Creed."

Here, Lipset ventures into the prescriptive. Invoking the military's success at integration, he writes that this "argues in favor of a large-scale national service effort." This would offer blacks career training and incentives for success -- acculturation (though he does not use so freighted a term) to individualism and meritocracy. This policy lurch, rare in the book, is more appropriate for faculty argle-bargle than legislative corridors.

Despite the group-rights virus, Lipset concludes that the extent to which American exceptionalism "is still unique is astonishing." But if the Creed endures to this degree today, what of its prospects? Lipset notes a pessimistic current in public opinion over the past three decades. He is convincing, though, that critics have exaggerated many of the problems the nation faces "in the quest to demonstrate decay," and that the press has consistently mischaracterized national economic achievement.