The Shameful Self-serving Myth of American Exceptionalism

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“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional…. I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”

– Obama, 2009, overseas trip

” I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.”

– Putin, NYT Op-Ed, September 11, 2013

“America is an exceptional nation – that is, one like no other, not just now but in history – because it is dedicated to the universal principle of human liberty. This is grounded in the truth that all men – not just Americans – are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights by their Creator.”

– Jim DeMint, Heritage Foundation President

DeMint’s “interpretation” (which is a rather strange way of putting it) only shows he’s either ignorant of history or he hopes his fellow citizens are. And it’s not in any way “valid” because it isn’t the truth. Not that politicians would have any truck with that curiously strange thing called the “truth,” you know. It seems the main thing the USA is “exceptional” is self-delusion. Oh, and toppling other countries who won’t do what we want.”

– Darryl Thomas, blogger

Why all the hubbub over such a seemingly inconsequential and dusty term which hardly anyone outside the halls of academia has ever heard? Well, because the news agencies and the political wonks need something to talk about. First, Obama referenced it in his national speech about the possible military involvement into Iraq’s neighbor, Syria. Then Russian President Putin fired an op-ed in the New York Times cautioning the US about being too quick to assume an “exceptional” national identity. Then Texas congressman Jim DeMint chimed in defending the term with all the empty-headed enthusiasm of a Texas 8th grade  civics book. I had heard the term before, but it wasn’t a subject I ever thought I’d devote a blog towards, but here it is. Hope you like it.

Alright. American Exceptionalism. The term was first coined in print back in the Ben Franklin days of American History by the travel writer Alexis de Tocqueville. He used the term in a very narrow sense; America was exceptional in that it was totally different from any other place the well-travelled Tocqueville had visited. [1] For one, Tocqueville considered America to be far more religious than any country in Europe. It also had far more slaves than any country in Europe but that’s another story for another blog.

The idea has been bandied about and evolved over the past 260 years or so. The term was taken up again by the American Communists during the Jazz Age in the 1920’s. [2] It was used by the American Communists to describe their belief that the reason the socialist movement in America was failing to materialize and advance itself as much as it did in Europe was due to the economy of the times which were so favorable to the Capitalist state, and so it would take longer for the prophesied collapse to occur. In recent times, post-1960’s – the term was used among critical theorists and social scientists that either agreed or disagreed with the premise that America was somehow “qualitatively different from the rest of the nations in the world. Neoconservative and neoliberal politicians have latched on to it to assert America’s global hegemonic rights and powers, which the USA reserves for itself while denying it from other nations.

Now we are caught up. American Exceptionalism can be thought of as a politically religious or metaphysical concept that imbues one with a glowing nationalistic pride. That pride is undeserving because of the titanic mountain of evidence that rises up to meet it.

There are about five core ideas that make up the belief why America is so special. We Americans have been taught these things in various ways and through various means. They can be reduced to these:

LIBERTY

EGALITARIANISM

POPULISM

INDIVIDUALISM

CAPITALISM

None of these concepts have really been practiced on any sort of mass scale – at least not on any scale that didn’t involve requiring money. LIBERTY? Welcome to the nation with the largest disposable populace in the world. America has more people in jails and prisons than anywhere else in the world. Legal rights are being taken away and turned into “privileges” and subject to being overridden by “secret courts” that exist outside the normal boundaries of the law.

EGALITARIANISM? Well, it sure sounds nice. The different classes may not be openly enslaving people in sweatshops and having children making garments in factories (that’s what Asia is for), but since everything revolves around buying  and selling your survival to the next guy, equality is more like a faint outline of a nearly forgotten dream. Equality? People either fear it or don’t know what it means or care if it actually exists as long as they can get through the day without being hassled. That’s what the 21st Century has become.

POPULISM. Please. Half of the elected officials are millionaires working for billionaires. The American voter is typically uninformed and largely controlled through the media that pushes a narrow, slanted virtual reality that shapes a narrow, slanted world view which then the voter forms a narrow, slanted opinion which she will invariably confuse with factual evidence, yet nonetheless convince herself that she’s rational and only interested in reality. She hasn’t any idea that her responses have been programmed into her to become nothing more than a predictably passive consumer.

INDIVIDUALISM. Probably the biggest conceptual scam since reality TV. I have always found it odd that individualism is strangely accorded metaphysical status. It is a central tenet of the European and American Liberal tradition, so it’s had a long run and thus, has embedded itself into the national subconsciousness of the nations of the world. This tenet exists simply to provide a justifiable stance for predatory capitalism to exist and reach into every pocket, ironically. Individualism does not exist unless it exists within the system, to which one has no choice but to submit.

CAPITALISM. Or its 21st Century version, casino capitalism, which is a kindest word ever given to slavery. The chains are not made of iron, but of metaphysical zeros and ones spinning in existential data servers across the globe. There’s no liberty outside of capitalism, only a certain liberty within the system. Which isn’t a liberty at all, but more a submission to the soft cryptoauthoritarianism that destroys lives the world over.

Right. I could go into how taken together, these planks that make up the conceptual platform of American Exceptionalism can be shown to not be all that “exceptional” and downright self-deceptive. And dangerous, if politicians become too enamored of its cache and use it to justify American dominance across the world. Besides, this myth is used to cover a multitudes of lies.

I believe it is the tropes of the US standing for the “principle of equality” and “the principle of human liberty,”as DeMint’s letter puts it, are two clearly defined statements that can be easily rebutted because of that new thing the kids call history. You know, when you add in all that slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and second-class status for anyone who wasn’t a white male landowner – not to mention various genocides and invasions and assassinations of other citizens and democratically elected leaders in other countries that were no threat to America, one has to be self-deluded, grossly ignorant or simply dishonest not to own up to the facts. The shameful legacy of human slavery alone stands as a valid rebuttal to the stated virtues of the “liberty” and “equality” that America allegedly stands for, no matter how much true believers would like to dismiss it.

How does that Biblical verse go… Let’s see… “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” And if that doesn’t work, try this on for size: “Actions speak louder than words.” Oh, and “Pride goeth before a fall?”

American exceptionalism is a self-serving myth.

As long as there exist “secret courts” that operate outside of the bounds of the Constitution (a document our politicians are likely to uphold as a shining example of “liberty and equality”) and so empties standing law of all meaning,  as long as you have the NSA that secretly spies – err.. “collects data” on its own Citizens and then sends that information to Israel, as long as we have the exceptional USA conducting surveillance on its own journalists, its own civil society, and its own ordinary citizens and refer to them as “adversaries” we are not all that exceptional. I know it’s unfair because it’s so easy to argue against American exceptionalism by emphasizing the catalog of evil that’s the legacy of this country. If one examines the example of U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua that killed some 30,000 Nicaraguans, one wouldn’t feel all that great about America’s exceptional role in the world.

NOTES

[1] American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. Seymour Martin Lipset. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1996

[2]  Albert Fried, Communism in America: A History in Documents(1997), p. 7.

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