From time to time someone will tell me that Boston and San Francisco are alike. I’ve been to both and I know the truth. Each is near water and each has buildings, but after that it seems to me like a pretty weak resemblance.
In fact, I would call Boston a great national city; people visit to see Paul Revere’s home, Fenway Park and eat lobster. Then they go home.
However, San Francisco is a great world city that sucks people in when they visit and holds onto them. Its gravitational pull is very strong even here on the East Coast; I myself lost two brothers to the belly of the beast.
In fact, I believe that San Francisco is the great, iconic American city of the 21st century. And it’s all wound tightly into my emerging theory of American Exceptionalism.
I got interested in the topic here, but the abridged version goes something like this: One of the great strengths of the American people is that they feel exceptional, meaning they fully expect to lead the world to some bright, new future by shaping history--not being shaped by history. Daniel Rodgers said American exceptionalism is about “suspending the very laws of historical mechanics.” Gordon Wood says, “It’s a very, very controversial term among academics, because it seems to suggest to some of them that we are superior to other people. I don’t think it has to take on that connotation. But certainly Americans, throughout the 19th century, felt that they were exceptional, that they had a special role,” Wood says.
“If you don’t like exceptionalism, then you don’t like Abraham Lincoln, because that’s what he’s saying: We have a special responsibility to show the world that democracy can work. We’re the last best hope — all of those phrases that Lincoln used to mobilize the North, to preserve the Union, were based on his sense that we were an exceptional nation that had a special responsibility to promote democracy.”
President Polk summarized by saying America believed its history lay ahead of it. That’s the crazy talk of people who think they’re exceptional.
Let’s be clear, though: American Exceptionalism doesn’t mean that Americans really are exceptional, just as Marines aren’t necessarily the finest fighting force in the world, or Starbucks doesn’t make the best coffee. (Just don’t try to tell that to a Marine or a Starbuck’s executive.) What’s important is that they happily drink their own soup, which allows for exceptional things. In America, it probably put a man on the moon. That was good. It also probably tried to plant democracy in the Middle East. Crazy stuff like that.
Now, here’s where Boston and San Francisco come in.
Boston, I believe, was the original seat of American Exceptionalism. This was thanks to John Winthrop’s desire back in 1630 to plant “a city upon a hill”--God’s shining example for the entire world to gaze upon. This was a kind of exceptionalism built on religion, and it held strong for over a century and only began to fade around the time of the Revolution when more and more Americans wanted to go to brunch and read the New York Times on Sunday mornings. Not to mention the emergence of disestablishmentism, when places like Massachusetts finally took the Constitution seriously and stopped forcing official churches on its citizens.
So, the age of religious exceptionalism, when America was going to lead the rest of the world to a new Heaven on Earth, had Boston as its symbol and looked something like this:
Of course, even if Boston didn’t seem any more exceptional than London or Moscow by 1820, Americans weren’t ready to give up their Exceptionalism. It just required, shall we say, a little shift in emphasis. In fact, after the American Revolution, Americans thought they might teach the rest of the world how to become democratic and free. This was round two of American Exceptionalism—perfection through a Republic--and the gravity shifted to the nation’s capital. Boston gave up its status as the iconic American city to Washington, D.C.
This all felt right until the country almost fell apart in the Civil War, which called into question (and not for the last time) our nation-building abilities.
Not to worry, however, as America had taken hold of the Industrial Revolution, turning mass production and commercial enterprise into a new form of exceptionalism. If we couldn’t outpray or outgovern the rest of the world, we could certainly outsell it. The great American beacon was capitalism and our newest iconic city became New York City--with Wall Street and Madison Avenue its gravitational center. We worshipped at the shrine of mechanization, the electrical grid, the internal combustion engine, and GNP. Now things looked like this:
Mind you, these are not hard and fast periods. American Exceptionalism in religion still exists, though Boston is not necessarily its center. (The Mormons, for example, believe the Garden of Eden was near Independence, Missouri, which is also where the New Jerusalem will be.) There are still plenty of Reagan Republicans who were happy to pit American political exceptionalism against any number of evil empires. Certainly, too, we’re still the largest and strongest economy on earth.
However, along came the Great Depression in 1930 when Americans could no longer trumpet their variety of capitalism as the Second Coming.
So, what was left? Of course. Enter technology. In the last generation, Americans have decided that we will lead and save the world once again, but this time with software and apps and iPhones and cool technology. And where’s the capital of American (and world) technology? San Francisco. My chart now looks like this:
So, that’s my theory. It says Boston and San Francisco really are alike, but less as 21st century sister cities and more as bookends to almost 400 years of American Exceptionalism. San Francisco is doing its best to keep the “city upon the hill” dream alive. We’ve traded Heaven on earth for the Singularity, but one way or another we’re determined to lead the world to the next place, wherever that turns out to be.
How do you truly know when you are exceptional? It’s when people think you dress weird and act strange and it’s easy to hate your guts, even as they envy you. Boston’s had all that going for it. Washington and New York, too. The black t-shirted, coffee-swilling folk in San Francisco are well on their way.
The problem, of course, is that if China or India surpasses America as the technology capital of the world sometime later this century and starts inventing all the coolest stuff, Americans are just about at the end of their Exceptional ropes.
But fear not; you couldn’t have convinced anyone in Boston in 1835 that the hick town of Yerba Buena out on the West Coast would be the most American city in America in 2011.
The French may have exceptional food. The Germans may have exceptional cars. Americans may have burned through exceptional religion, democracy and capitalism, but no worries. We’ve got technology and San Francisco.
When that runs its course, which it will, we’ll just think of some new way to be exceptional. We always do.