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American Exceptionalism: Alibi of a Nation


Society & Culture  (tags: americans, culture, dishonesty, education, freedoms, history, politics, religion, rights, safety, society )

Kit
- 551 days ago - truth-out.org
Exceptional-ism is no collective neurosis or expression of American naiveté or hubris. It is the mask of command worn by the material interests who profit from the exercise.



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Kit B. (276)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 5:58 am
Image Credit: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout


Mike Lofgren | American Exceptionalism: Alibi of a Nation


Whenever a public figure bloviates about American Exceptionalism and the country's purported heavenly mission, one is reminded of the quip attributed to Bismarck: that divine providence looks after drunkards, fools and the United States of America. Accordingly, one is always on the lookout for anyone willing to debunk America's collective personality cult. It was therefore with hopeful expectation that I perused Patrick Smith's Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. This hope was not fulfilled. While the author makes many valid points, the book suffers from an incomplete understanding of history, and, more irritatingly, with a prose style as leaden and sententious as the architecture of Washington, D.C.'s World War II Memorial, which he describes as a metaphor for American myth-making about the past (the relevant excerpt is online here).

What is American Exceptionalism, anyway? It is the notion that Americans are somehow special because a deity saw fit to entrust us with his work on Earth; accordingly we are exempt from the usual operations of history and the rise and fall of nations (1). Smith makes heavy weather about where this syndrome comes from and what it would take to cure it with his overwrought pondering on the Freudian upwelling of the national id, the search for what he calls a usable past, and the alleged necessity for a revolution in spirit. But a usable past is simply one that is factually accurate, and it is there that we find less ethereal and more substantive causes for our national behavioral tics. There is no spirit of an age but that which has been laid upon a foundation of available resources, modes of production, and material interests.

What is often claimed to be the result of heavenly dispensation we actually owe, at the time of European settlement, to being one of the last lightly populated continent-sized territories on Earth with a temperate climate, millions of acres of arable land, and abundant resources. The native population was sparse and not technologically advanced (i.e., lacking firearms), and suffered the usual fate of indigenous peoples. Everything was in limitless supply except labor, and if one was not a chattel slave or indentured servant, America was probably an easier place to scratch a living than most of the heavily settled parts of the globe - details the Exceptionalism crowd tends to gloss over.

There is no doubt an element of satire in H.L. Mencken's claim that America was the last refuge of the incompetent who could not make a go of it in their own countries, but America undoubtedly held more promise, at least for free white labor, than starving in a ditch in Ireland or living a 13th century existence as a peasant in Galicia. It is a natural quirk of human psychology that large numbers of Americans would begin to attribute their good fortune not to geographical accident, historical contingency, or a bit of luck, but to divine guidance - just as John D. Rockefeller Sr., the first dollar billionaire, credited his windfall not to his own sharp business practices but to the inscrutable will of the Almighty.

Smith sees a fatal turning point in the 1890s, when America grasped the glittering sword of imperialism and displaced the Spanish as the overlords of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. But the fate of the Filipino insurrectos was already foreshadowed by a thousand massacres of natives defending their home territory; those massacres merely took place on the North American continent, and began long before the United States was even a nation. Polk's Manifest Destiny and the annexation of a million square miles of Mexican territory was the prologue to Henry Luce's American Century. There was no turning point, just an evolution of well-established tendencies nurtured in the soil of relative continental invulnerability.

No less important than abundant resources was the fact that the United States was and is protected by two vast oceanic moats from the Eurasian landmass. This situation does not confer invulnerability, as the burning of the White House in 1814 brought home; but that incident, as well as later misfortunes like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, was a mere inconvenience compared to having the geography of Poland or Belgium. This relative immunity from direct attack results in a feeling of invulnerability, even impunity (2). Piling up corpses in faraway places as part of a divine plan to spread democracy is more agreeable to contemplate when there is no prospect of immediate and severe retaliation (or blowback, to use CIA jargon). This sentiment also accounts for the exaggerated reactions of uncomprehending shock and indignation when there is an occasional successful terrorist attack on U.S. territory - notwithstanding the greater probability that an American will be killed by slipping and falling in his bathtub than from terrorism. The angry feeling of wounded innocence from such rare attacks also triggers the childish Exceptionalist belief that Americans can only be hated for their virtue.

This combination of relative impunity from wars of its own making and a priggish high-mindedness about its motives is practically the playbook of how empires have operated. The British Empire is the best recent example of this phenomenon – indeed it is partially thanks to the machinations of Britons like Mark Sykes and Arthur Balfour that the modern Middle East (whose imperial "burden" the United States inherited from Britain) is in its present appalling condition. At the British Empire's height, its apologists were as high-minded about humanitarian intervention as the present-day editorial board of the New Republic is about barging into Syria. These eminent Victorians threw themselves into worthy causes such as suppression of the slave trade (never mind Britain's enthusiastic and profitable involvement in it during the 17th and 18th centuries) or the practice of suttee in India. These actions may have gone some distance in compensating for the Boer War, the Amritsar Massacre, or the Black and Tans, but it is hard to argue, as celebrity-historian Niall Ferguson insists on doing, that the empire amounted to a philanthropic enterprise. George Bernard Shaw, whose native Ireland had plenty of experience with Britain's civilizing mission, expressed a more acerbic view:

There is nothing so bad or good that you will not find an Englishman doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles.

So much for the high-minded rationalizations of empire: They are the ideational superstructure of the enterprise. But to find the fundamental reasons why empires exist it is necessary to drill down into the bedrock of material interest: cui bono (who benefits)? The left-wing English historian A.J.P. Taylor, in a 1952 essay on economic imperialism in The New Statesman, criticized the Marxist "finance capital" model of imperialism that was fashionable before the First World War insofar as he could find no examples where the annexation of colonies actually gave the colonizing nation a net profit, and few examples where it even paid all the investors. That may be true, but there were select, influential classes of people who did benefit from colonialism just as they benefit still from American-style neocolonialism. Because empires become progressively more oligarchical in domestic politics, it is only natural that their wars economically favor the few against the many who foot the bill.

John Stewart Mill described the British Empire as an immense system of make-work for the younger sons of the English squirearchy who could not wangle a seat in Parliament or a sinecure with the Church of England. The empire gave them an avenue to lucrative and prestigious careers. It is not much different in contemporary America: What would the foreign policy experts in their sinecures at Washington think tanks and foundations do without an empire to justify? In the absence of pax americana, military generals would be less numerous and less likely to obtain second careers earning seven-figure incomes with contractors. At a less exalted level, how would the GS-15s at the Department of Homeland Security, the lieutenant colonels who trip over each other in the Pentagon's corridors, or the innumerable contract employees in our vast and privatized intelligence establishment obtain a living were there not an empire to administer and a homeland to protect against natives unenthusiastic about being liberated? What would these people do otherwise - flip burgers? The position of these "middle managers" is analogous to that of the minor administrators and chiefs of police for the European colonial empires – careers well below those of high finance, but certainly better than they were likely to get tending shop in their home countries.

The janissaries of empire, be they the District Collector of Simla or the chief contracting representative of KBR in Afghanistan, know what they are fighting for: their jobs. The millions paying the bills do not. That is why they must be fed a steady diet of myth, whether it takes the form of the civilizing mission of the British and other contemporary empires or the current American sloganeering about humanitarian military intervention. American Exceptionalism is simply the cover story and alibi for the extraordinary levels of violence that the United States has been exporting for decades.

This historical and economic background makes one wonder why Smith chose to mention the Tea Party as an example of American Exceptionalism. The Tea Party is only a phenomenon of the last four years, and its emphasis, however misguided, is almost exclusively on domestic matters. The Tea Party did not invade Iraq or overthrow Qaddafi, nor has it been a leading advocate for intervention in Syria. In assessing the century-long, bipartisan history of American military intervention in foreign countries, the Tea Party does not even merit a footnote. It is all too easy to stereotype the resentful lunatics who make up the Tea Party as the villains in all our current political melodramas, while overlooking the fact that it is one of the objects of the Tea Party's scorn, the Eastern Establishment, where the most avid proponents of American Exceptionalism are to be found.

For it is among the better sort with Ivy League degrees, people like Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton or Susan Rice or Samantha Power that the lust to remake the world with redemptive violence shines bright (Why so many women? The widespread belief that war results from male aggression may require revision). Beginning with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, liberals of this stripe have been consistent proponents of armed intervention, always with an alleged humanitarian pretense. While some of them retrospectively turned against the invasion of Iraq for reasons of partisanship or chameleon-like professional maneuvering, those who were obliged to cast a vote on where they stood at the time - like Hillary Clinton - have had a harder time fooling the public. The same applies, of course, to her male colleagues like John Kerry and Joe Biden. As the stakes increase in Syria, Susan Rice and Samantha Power are navigating towards positions of decisive influence; it is possible that the same Punch-and-Judy show that attended Iraq and Libya will be played out once more.

It is irrelevant whether they, or President Obama, or the Republicans who want to replace them in office in 2016 have assimilated American Exceptionalism as part of their mental makeup, or whether it is all a cynical pretense to gull the rubes. One must take a functionalist approach, since it is the deeds of the elites, not their motives, which are at issue. Smith's opinions notwithstanding, American Exceptionalism is no collective neurosis or expression of American naiveté or hubris. It is the mask of command worn by the material interests who profit from the exercise.
****Notes available at VISIT SITE****

By: Mike Lofgren | Op Ed | Truthout |
 

JL A. (276)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 8:54 am
A very interesting read. Thank you Kit. Wish it also explained why those with scruples never apologize for such ghastly historical decisions.
 

Mitchell D. (132)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 2:00 pm
"Bloviate" is a great word, very descriptive, on spot.
Going back to the book "The Ugly American," of the 195-0's, I believe, and perhaps fed by Saint Reagan's horseshit about resurrecting our spiritualism (he brought the right wing religious freaks into mainstream politics), we make the word "hubris" shrink in horror.
We also make ENEMIES this way, or has no one in Washington ever noticed!?
Look at the article about "Reagan's Secret Wars of Genocide," by Noam Chomsky, on tis site, for a picture of Imperialist America doing its thing. Why do you think we've lost so many troops in Iraq? For the oil companies.
We are NOT some god's gift to the world!!
 

Roger Skinner (14)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 4:02 pm
I had never heard the term "American Exceptionalism" until this last presidential election. It always sounded to me like schoolyard braggadocio, "my Dad can beat your Dad" sort if stuff.
 

Jennifer C. (169)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 5:25 pm
Thank you.
 

Bryan S. (105)
Thursday June 13, 2013, 9:11 pm
It's just sad that promoting American exceptionalism can still win elections, as opposed to American objectivism. We won't be able to hide behind nations, with no accountability for what they do, for too much longer.
 

Avril Lomas (0)
Friday June 14, 2013, 1:15 pm
Exceptional America is! Founded by GENOCIDE,Isolationism , racist ,xenophobic,etc etc. with an utterly corrupt and ignorant government who worship Money whilst denying climate change.,with a population whose God is a GUN,who cares for the rich and to hell with the rest, Whose education is in a rapid race to the bottom,who has little or no healthcare for the AveraGE CITIZEN.. AMERICA is EXCEPTIONAL IN THE INCREDIBLE BEAUTY AND DIVERSITY OF ITS ENVIRONMENT,WHICH IT IS RACING AT INCREDIBLE SPEED TO DESTROY..
American Exceptionalism. LOTS OF LUCK!
 

Birgit W. (152)
Friday June 14, 2013, 2:35 pm
Noted.
 

Mary Donnelly (47)
Friday June 14, 2013, 4:39 pm
Thanks Kit--great post.
 

Lois Jordan (58)
Friday June 14, 2013, 4:44 pm
Thanks for posting, Kit. Yes, Americans have learned well that "we're number one." We are fed that by the media constantly. It's the last final push of a dying Empire, I believe. Excellent piece!
 

Ravenna C. (20)
Friday June 14, 2013, 9:20 pm
"Bloviate" I like that word. I had to look it up :-) I can't wait to get to use it in a sentence. "Oh no, must we listen to ____________, bloviate about national security yet again?" Thanks Kit. Great Article!
 

Lynn Squance (232)
Friday June 14, 2013, 11:35 pm
"...a bit of luck, but to divine guidance - just as John D. Rockefeller Sr., the first dollar billionaire, credited his windfall not to his own sharp business practices but to the inscrutable will of the Almighty. "

I was amused by this one line because I think to actors, athletes and others who in accepting an award, always seem to thank God. They don't list the people in support or the time they took to learn their skill. They attribute their success to divine will.

Excellent piece Kit. I was struck also by the use of the term 'Pax Americana' which brought to mind 'Pax Romana'. And we all know what happened to the Roman Empire.

"It is the mask of command worn by the material interests who profit from the exercise." The oligarchs are everywhere.
 

Robyn Brice (4)
Saturday June 15, 2013, 4:43 am
Great article, thanks so much Kit.
 

Avril Lomas (0)
Wednesday June 19, 2013, 11:34 am
Love the bit re. "dying empire. America NEVER was an empire. In this case .the "Emperor "has NO CLOTHES!. Sorry to burst your collective bubbles.
 

Stephen Brian (23)
Wednesday June 19, 2013, 10:48 pm
"This combination of relative impunity from wars of its own making and a priggish high-mindedness about its motives is practically the playbook of how empires have operated. " ... No, not even a little bit. The article misses the primary point in what drives the growth of nations and what makes them exceptional. Rome, Parthia, Byzantium, Persia, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, the empires among the Warring States, Spain, France, Russia, the Mongolian Empire, and Macedonia had no such illusions about their motives and certainly no geographic impunity from wars, and those were just most of the empires of Europe and Asia. I could also get into the (native) American empires, the Songhai, and others, and the pattern claimed in the article just doesn't exist.. Even Britain, the other example used in the article, really had no such immunity: It had once been conquered by Rome, and then later by Vikings.

So here's the real question: What made them so powerful? The factors described in th article certainly didn't apply to any of them. Rome expanded into an already well-populated region with technology roughly on level with Rome (and many armies with individuals arguably better-equipped than were Roman soldiers, though the simplicity of Roman gear allowed them to quickly replace worn-out equipment so their weapons, for example, while very basic, were always in good condition). Unless there was some incredible coincidence, with power arising from separate sources each time, perhaps we should look at what that glaringly obvious aspect that they all have in common with the U.S. (and also Google, but that is another matter). It's exactly the thing that the author dismisses with no reason offered, the "revolution in spirit".

They all, every single one of them, had that same "revolution" (with one difference, but I'll explain that later). They all moved from a community-based world-view to an individual one. They all went through a period where people had the initiative and individual incentive to drive them to begin their own projects, while still maintaining patriotism, charity, and other such community-oriented values and traditions. During that period, they all had almost ridiculous economic growth, developed foreign interests, and secured them. The difference is where Americn exceptionalism really comes in: That initiative and drive was selected for among the original colonists and other immigrants since then. Those without initiative did not cross the ocean for opportunity. American culture is built, as near as I can tell as a foreigner living in the U.S., around it entirely.

Later there is another fundamental misunderstanding of history, or at least the differences between the modern age and how things used to work. It used to be that the right surname would get you the high offices of an empire. Nepotism and patronage were the rule, not seen as forms of corruption. They still exist, but the institutions of the U.S. military and civilian contractors are not built around it. U.S. foreign ventures are not make-work. They secure foreign interests upon which the U.S. economy depends. For example, I expect it to scale down its Middle Eastern ventures if/when it is oil-independent, and concentrate on protecting that ~$40 billion per year in trade that it has with Israel (and other benefits from its alliance), and its logistics for power-projection in Egypt.

"American Exceptionalism is simply the cover story and alibi for the extraordinary levels of violence that the United States has been exporting for decades." ... Really? When? Since the beginnning of the 20th century, which war was rationalized through American Exceptionalism? WWI, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya? Was American exceptionalism used as a cover, somehow, in Cold War proxy-wars?

His comments about the reference to the Tea Party and what follows below it really show what has gone wrong in the author's approach, a problem rampant in academia today: When looking into what American exceptionalism is, he began with his conclusion and then searrched for (circular) logic to back it up, rather than begin with a question and seek an answer. Had he done his research forwards, rather than backwards, he would have learned from the comment about the Tea Party that the exceptionalism is a domestic thing, not a rationale for foreign ventures or some religious thing. He would have understood that it is a confidence that arises, among Americans, from knnowledge of their own culture and some understanding of how culture impacts the history of nations.
 

Deborah W. (6)
Saturday June 29, 2013, 5:38 pm
The rapid fall from grace will be a good thing for a ONCE great nation gone bad ... hope it's not fatal.
 

jan b. (3)
Wednesday July 3, 2013, 12:01 pm
The USA was hesitant about getting into WW2.and until then the USA had no armaments industry. The conjuction of an immense millitary establishment and a large arms industry was new in the American experience.
The Tea Party that formed after the republicans lost badly was based on taxation because the people who joined didn't even realize taxes were the lowest in decades. They were a bunch of disgruntled republicans who didn't want to join the democrats and were too embarrassed to admit they were republicans. The party was funded by the Koch Bros who used the members as TOOLS cause the Kochs don't like regulations for their polluting ways or paying taxes.
The Fox-cons are very RIGID in their thinking ....actually non-thinking ways because they have no ability to think for themselves. Growing up to see things only in black or white and never able to see they grey areas or look beyond the surface is one of their drawbacks and certainly a problem for the rest of us.
 

Trish K. (93)
Friday July 5, 2013, 4:11 pm
American Exceptionalism ? Please . . . we are almost a Third World Country
 

GGmaSheila D. (169)
Saturday July 13, 2013, 2:37 pm
Where's our American Exceptionalism now??
 

Ryan Gergely (0)
Saturday July 13, 2013, 6:35 pm
American Exceptionalism is valid because we are the greatest nation on Earth. End of story.
 

Kit B. (276)
Saturday July 13, 2013, 7:42 pm

Said an American.
 

Robert Hardy (68)
Friday July 26, 2013, 10:12 pm
With all the troubles in the world is this really something that needs to be said...again. An Ryan G. would you explain why America is the greatest nation on the Earth. What is your criteria for "greatest." Wars, exploitation of poor nations, exploitation of our own working class as it exports jobs, etc. etc. etc. Is there a "greatest" nation?
 
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