When I think of the voice of American Exceptionalism, I think of the voice of my grandfather Max Feld. Mind you, for him it was primarily New York City expceptionalism, with the rest of the United States being thrown in by extension.
Max Feld was a New York Jew on the Lower East side. He was a socialist in his youth and an active union organizer until he married my Grandmother, settled down, and had a family. Like many men of his generation, he worked two jobs much of his life. And while he and his wife managed to save enough to put two children through Jewish day school and (after the Depression at least) live reasonably comfortably, there was nothing about them you would call "elite."
In the late 1970s, it was an annual ritual for me (sometimes accompanied by one of my brothers) to go down to New York City and spend a week with my paternal grandparents. Every day with my grandfather was a trip through New York, with accompanying explanation of why New york was The Greatest City In the World. For those who do not remember the 1970s, this is exactly the period when New York was in its great decline, following a city bankruptcy and massive "white flight" exodus. But you would never believe that to hear my Grandfather. It was not that he was unaware of the City's problems, he read three newspapers a day (two English, one Yiddish) and had no lack of opinions about how to solve these problems. But these were things people could solve if they simply were willing to do what needed to be done.
Instead, he would point with pride and ownership about what made New York City so wonderful. The 42nd Street Library would evoke a lecture on how the best public library was in New York City. "Where else can people come and read all these books, all these newspapers? Look at this building -- beautiful! And all filled with books! Think of a topic, there's a book here about it. That's what makes New York City so wonderful, you can find whatever book you need here for free." Or the Natural History Museum: "You can come on here and learn the history of the world!" A trip to Coney Island would summon a lecture on the wonders of the Subway: "hundreds of miles of track and tunnels, available for everyone to use!" Even the multicultural nature of New York was something to be celebrated (rather than feared). We would walk up to midtown
(he loved walking) and point out all the cultures that had passed through various neighborhoods. "These all used to be German, then it became Jewish. Now most of the Jews are moving out and Indians are moving in. Everyone comes to New York. Why travel when you can get anything from another country right here?"
Those who defaced these things or devalued them failed to understand. "These people don't understand, this is their subway! When they make this graffiti and spray paint all this drek they're just hurting themselves." He also didn't think much of those fleeing the city. "People don't understand how to work together these days. You don't solve problems by running away. People these days don't take an interest in their communities or their neighborhoods anymore." He was active in his synagogue and knew his neighbors not because he was particularly religious or particularly social (he wasn't), but because he felt that it was the right and obvious thing to do. Of course you stayed involved in things and did your fair share. "You know what kind of a person never wants to help out or carry his own weight? A bum! That's what! All these kids today who just want to know what's in it for them and don't think they owe anything to anybody? They're just bums! I don't care how rich they are. Anybody too lazy to do his share is just a bum."
The other voice of American exceptionalism was my maternal Grandfather, Herbert Marker -- although the actual voice belonged to my Grandmother Rose Marker, as my Grandfather Marker died in 1973 when I was 6. Grandpa Marker had come from a reasonably wealthy family, but lost their money in the Depression. Undaunted, my Grandfather and Grandmother opened an insurance practice (my Grandmother was the first woman licensed as an insurance broker in Brooklyn) and rebuilt the family fortune. My Grandfather was an Assemblyman and a Ward Captain for the Democratic Machine in Brooklyn, although his actual politics were more what would have been considered a "Rockefeller Republican" rather than a working-class Democrat.
Still my Grandfather Marker saw his job, both politically and in his personal capacity, as being about helping people. "Even though Herb was the 'Jewish' Ward Captain, everybody knew they could come to him if they had a problem. It didn't matter if they were Italian, or Irish or anything [ideas of cultural diversity in Brooklyn being somewhat different in the 1950s and 1960s]. If you couldn't make the rent, if you were a widow and needed clothes for the children, you came to Herb." Not that my grandfather had patience with those whose problems were self-inflicted: "If it was someone who was drinking, or gambling, Herb would look at them and say 'well, there's really not anything I can do, you have to help yourself first." But if it was people simply fallen on hard times, my Grandfather (and Grandmother) would do what they could, whether it was trying to mediate in the neighborhood or lending money from their own business as needed. "People would sometimes say to your Grandfather 'Herb, what about your daughters? How can you lend people money when you know they'll never pay it back?' and Herb would say: 'I've been up, and I've been down. And when you're up, you have a responsibility to help those who are down, because we're all in it together.' And you know what," my Grandmother would add, "nearly everyone paid us back. Sometimes it took years. Sometimes it was their children who paid us back, years later, but nearly everyone paid us back."
I will grant my grandparents may have been unusual, but I do not think they were so unusual for their time in believing that people had a responsibility for each other. That did not necessarily mean through government -- I expect my maternal Grandfather did not agree with my paternal Grandfather's love of publicly funded institutions rather than private charity. But both very strongly shared the sense that what made their communities and their countries great -- despite living through the Depression and encountering the antisemitism that still floated freely even in New York -- was the sense of belonging to a common enterprise larger than themselves. That they had an obligation to be informed and be involved in their communities not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Because when people came together to solve problems and do great things, whether it was building a subway, maintaining the 42nd Street Library, asking a building super or a grocer to extend a little credit for a widow on a survivor's pension, it made us all better.
If it be certain, as Galen says
And sage Hippocrates holds as much
That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man's touch
Then be good to us stars above
Then be good to us herbs below
We are afflicted by all we can prove
We are distracted by all that we know
So, ah so-
So down from your Heavens, or up from the mould
Send us the heart of our father's of old