The dangers of American exceptionalism

Janice Kennedy writes: My fellow North Americans, can we talk? Yes, I mean you, my starred-and-striped friends.

I’ve been mesmerized by the election campaign that will send you to the polls shortly, and I’d love to bounce an idea off you.

True, I’m an outsider. And I know what you think about outsiders, when you’re even aware they exist. (We Canadians sometimes get huffy that you pay no attention to us, but we shouldn’t. Unless you’re being attacked, you don’t pay attention to anyone beyond your borders.)

But I hope, as continental cousins, you’ll give me a moment of your time.

Here’s my idea. How about climbing down the hill? How about abandoning that shining city you love so much, and joining the rest of us here in the real world?

I realize that will be hard. The “city upon a hill” has been your informing inspirational metaphor since John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked it in a 1630 sermon. Be a beacon unto the world, he urged the colonists. It’s a powerful image, crucial to your nation-building mythology. I can see why you’d be loath to abandon it.

But it’s time. American exceptionalism is no longer taking you where you need to be.

As long as you keep insisting you’re the biggest and best (a superiority complex that really grates on your world neighbours, whether in the Middle East or next door), your arrogant fantasy deprives you of the realities you need to fix your problems. In truth, you’re far from the best in many areas, as a brilliant essay in last Sunday’s New York Times suggested.

In The Opiate of Exceptionalism, reporter Scott Shane pointed to such things as the U.S. ranking in child poverty (34th of 35 countries); higher education among young adults (14th); infant mortality (worse than 48 other countries); incarceration rates, guns and obesity (top spot in all three).

And your cradle of modern democracy has become a sick joke, whether your gauge is woeful voter turnout (the U.S. ranks a distant last among G8 nations) or the plutocratic politics you have created.

But there has been no suggestion of such truths, from either party, during the campaign. In the presidential debates, there wasn’t even a hint that the U.S. is anything less than naturally the brightest and best. The mainstream credo of American exceptionalism means that some truths simply cannot be acknowledged.

In Tuesday’s debate (ostensibly about foreign policy, though the “foreign” seemed marginal), the president asked Mitt Romney how America can be expected to lead the world if it doesn’t maintain the world’s best school system — the assumption being that it’s already in place. Except it’s not.

Exceptionalism not only doesn’t recognize the truth, it doesn’t even accept that it might exist.

Nor does it accept abiding by the same rules that govern everyone else. Consider the murder of Osama bin Laden by Navy Seals — or other enemies, by drones — approved by a liberal president and applauded enthusiastically by Americans of all political stripes.

Romney (a classic exceptionalist, and not just because his Mormonism holds that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri) even voiced support for Obama’s kill missions during Monday’s debate. It is indeed desirable, he suggested from an ethical landscape shaped in the Wild West, to shoot up the bad guys.

In your city on the hill, might is usually right.

The thing is, you do yourselves no favours, at home or abroad, with your misplaced swaggering. We all like to think we live in “the greatest country in the world,” but only you Americans believe it wholeheartedly. Your claim to greatness is legitimate, but THE greatest? Ever? [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “The dangers of American exceptionalism

  1. Norman

    Nice words, but the oligarchs wont allow the change to take place. Besides, power only know other power, meaning until the vast hordes of down & outs get off their collective backsides, then nothing will change.

  2. DE Teodoru

    I had greatly resented the decade long trek my parents forced me on from the border of the USSR, West, past the Statue of Liberty, and into NYC on a grey rainy day. Whatever it’s historic faults, Europe is exceptional in that it is where where the Enlightenment took mankind from the Dark Ages, never looking back as a mass culture while universally teaching every citizen by the end of his/her public education all the mathematical, technical, literal artistic and scientific know-how one needs to succeed at a graduate level incompetent they were here, in any field. America, made of the world’s “teaming refuse learning to breath free,” nevertheless, when I got here, was ridiculing “egg heads” and prized the two mottoes that characterized its foundational very British-type economic class-culture: (a) “shop until you drop,” and (b) “there’s a sucker born every minute.” And yet, the Southwestern college I went to was obsessed over Britannica’s “Great Books,” planning to teach exclusively from them. The JFK Era had brought on a new American modesty and novel obsession with intellect. Then married to an American woman and about to have American kids, I felt comfortable enough baptizing myself as an American Conservative, fighting Communism on behalf of Western culture’s leader. This did not last long as the college kids of the ’60s grew up and became obsessed with the hedonics of the “ME-ist” Era. Today, the ultimate me-ists, the Bible-babble intellectually-neutered Yahoos, are on the verge of crushing all scientifically acquired knowledge, American modesty and social ethics, reverting to the corpoRATe c annibalism of the first half of the last century. Reagan must be turning in his gave, for Romney’s chameleonism for “profit in no way represents the Conservatism he believed in. I knew him and can say with certainty that he would cry if he could see what “Conservatism” has come to be as intellect and education declines to their lowest levels. But if we continue to reject a far better leader because he’s black and we’re racists, choosing nightmare deranged frauds like Romney and Ann Coulter as political and cultural leaders because they tell us the lies which, in our resentment of everyone else’s development, we want to hear. Indeed, we’re Mad Hatters at a Tea Party!

    American Exceptionalism, has become a know-nothing bully who religiously believes in Wall Street deception and manipulation as the basis of American global dominance. Romney&Co were too young and too myopic to realize how frightened America was of the Soviet Union. From Ike on to Poppy Bush, Americans were obsessed with the superiority of the universal level of technical public education in the Red Bloc. Onle with its collapse did we appreciate how incompetent the Red Bloc was and how much better than them did fear make us. However, totally awed by their own high-tech killing machines, Americans today do feel that “exceptional” sense about themselves, not because of their sense of moral, social and educational superiority, but because of what a big bang make their war toys against lightly armed “Towel Heads.” Americans never faced up to the meaning of the personal commitment of those “others,” never appreciating the strategic advantage our enemies enjoy having on hand fighters ready to die in order to kill us while we’re only willing to kill everything in order to stay alive. Since Vietnam, America has lost wars, winning just a few battles that only set us up disadvantageously, as in the case of the first Iraq War just set us up to militarily, once again as in Vietnam, lose the second Iraq War. At best, we’re leaving Afghanistan, after a decade of wasteful floundering, just as we did after Vietnam. Our military has never been led by such incompetent officers since the Civil War. We are exceptional only in how we deceive ourselves about our military prowess, much as we deceived ourselves about our technical prowess….until Sputnik, that is! Our only outstanding ability is in selling ourselves on illusions, much as we sell ourselves on TV ads-driven wants as needs. But then, nevertheless, there was the American Renaissance of the JFK Era, the 60s, when America was truly seen as exceptional and aped the world over. If we ever get ourselves more JFK-like inspirational leaders and less GW Bush-it type leaders… we proved in the past, Americans can be exceptional in how they can start educating themselves to lead a better world. No one else can evolve from the bottom-up, so fast that from outside it looks like a RE-volution, as Americans. But with leaders like Romney and Ann Coulter as political and cultural models, celebrating uneducated pomposity and ignorance, then we will be exceptional in how we squander the great gifts of abundance and bigness God so generously granted us as a people.

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