Norbert Elias's texts “Further aspects of established-outsider relations: the Maycomb model” and “Synopsis: Towards a Theory of Civilizing Processes” as contributions to the debate on American Exceptionalism
The insistence that the United States of America is an exceptional country is widespread, particularly and unsurprisingly in America. Given the country's economical and social history, the suggestion that the country is indeed fundamentally different from other nations can not be easily discredited. Many factors contribute to this idea and recent political developments, most notably the impressive comeback of the Republican Party in the 2010 elections, indicate that a majority of Americans disapprove of a political approach that would move the country toward a larger size of federal government, European-style socialism and an apologetic foreign policy.
The work of the late sociologist Norbert Elias is particularly relevant when American Exceptionalism is concerned. Elias examined the historical and social evolution of nations, a development which he called the Civilizing Process. He also focused on established-outsider relations and their underlying social dynamics and the friction that arises in communities with an established group and the outcast. In the case of the United States, one can easily detect patterns that bring to mind this part of Elias's work; the discrimination of ethnic or religious groups like native Americans, African-Americans and others (“No Irish need apply”).
The aim of this paper is to evaluate Elias's theories in the context of American Exceptionalism. The question of whether the American Civilizing Process is in line with Elias's observations or constitutes a unique phenomenon within human history has to be addressed just as well as the depiction of established-outsider relations that he deals with in his essay on Harper Lee's novel “How to Kill a Mockingbird”.
Norbert Elias's essay “Further aspects of established-outsider relations: the Maycomb model” elaborates on previous publications by the sociologist on the topic of established-outsider relations. By focusing on the semi-autobiographical American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, Elias frames his theory in the context of the novel's storyline.
The setting depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the town Maycomb in early 20th century Alabama, where segregation between the white and the black community was firm and the status of African-Americans was considerably inferior to that of the established whites who were in practice exclusively in charge of the power structure as well as in possession of firearms, the necessary means to uphold their power while simultaneously being able to arbitrarily make decisions over life and death. Ultimately, occurrences lead to the killing of a black man, Tom Robinson, who had been accused of raping a white woman, Mayelle Ewell. Although little evidence points to him actually being guilty, the mere idea that he could get away without punishment makes the white community insecure of the maintenance of their power structure and ultimately leads to the murder of Tom Robinson.
One of the special characteristics of the “Maycomb model” is the uneven distribution of power, most notably in the accessibility of firearms. While the blacks were barred from owning them, the white community was not constrained in wielding the weapons and the power that comes with them. Thus, one of the distinct features of American libertarianism, the ownership of guns, fueled the relentlessness of segregation by compromising the federal government's monopoly of power that Elias describes as a main engine for the progression of a civilization in his study of the Civilizing Process. The special role that individual liberty plays in the concept of America could therefore be seen as having aggravated segregation. If the federal government had accumulated more power in its own hands and had retained the exclusive right of access to firearms, the law might have been counted on to protect minorities in a more effective way. By leaving much of governmental power on the state and local level, which can also be seen as part of American Exceptionalism, the USA had been unable to extend its central power to the more remote areas as a means of easing established-outsiders tensions. However, one might also argue that equilibrating the status of whites and blacks could also be achieved by taking an even more libertarian approach to gun-control, banning any sort of regulation of the matter and thereby enabling blacks to bear arms as well instead of stripping them from the whites, which would have been a futile endeavor given the high circulation of firearms in the US. Additionally, the philosophical case could be made that in other countries, instead of the state not allowing people to bear arms, it is actually the people who allow the state to take away these arms.
Thus, the strong libertarianism at the heart of the American constitution can be seen as deliberately curbing the power of the state instead of the state granting power to the citizens. The transfer of power from the people to central government as a natural evolution in Elias's theory of the Civilizing Process is thus halted by virtue of the founding documents of the United States. This phenomenon is not only visible in the implications of the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but also in the first, banning government on abridging the freedom of speech. It is the spirit of the underlying assumptions of these amendments that is powerfully representative of American Exceptionalism. According to these assumptions, freedom is the default state of humanity and individuals ought not only be protected from one another by the state, but also from government itself.