The Evil Myth of American Exceptionalism

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On the basis of a Fox-news poll last week, I belong somewhere on the far left (at least by current neoconservative standards). In what Fox describes as a “stunner” and blames entirely on you-know-whom in the White House, only 44% of Americans polled said that “they are proud to be Americans.” Even more shockingly, only 28% of the respondents stated they consider “the US to be the greatest nation on earth,” and no more than three in ten are willing to recognize “American exceptionalism.” In recent conversations with GOP loyalists, I learned that these shockingly low figures reflect the attitude of a president who dared to say in an interview in Strasbourg in 2009: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believed in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believed in Greek exceptionalism.” What’s this country coming to if we all can’t agree on certain first things and above all that the US, with its vast government bureaucracy, centralized media and sprawling cultural industry, is the greatest thing in the solar system?

On Wednesday night I watched the All-stars on the Fox- evening news affirm with the solemnity of true believers that America is the greatest nation that has ever existed anywhere at any time. We are exceptional in a way that no collection of bipeds has ever before been. This is not only a new litmus test of “conservatism” but a belief that someone may have thought up in order to unify Fox-news groupies after the awful non-event in Mississippi on Tuesday night. Whoops, perhaps I shouldn’t have alluded to what was done to Chris McDaniel by Senator Thad Cochran and the Republican establishment in the Mississippi Republican primary! I mean the contest in which the party regulars got black Democrats to cross party lines to vote for Cochran, who promised more food stamps and close cooperation with President Obama. The GOP establishment ran ads aimed at blacks accusing Cochran’s small-government opponent of being a racist. This non-event, which hardly registered with the Murdoch press, is now being investigated for voter fraud, because it seems that some of the black Democrats who voted for Cochran against the “racist” McDaniel had voted in the earlier Democratic primary. Even with the open primary system that exists in Mississippi, one is not allowed to vote a second time.

But I’m glad that “conservatives” could put this behind them in order to focus on the declining belief in American exceptionalism. A Republican friend asked me why I couldn’t agree with the Fox-news’ credo, given that Kaiser Wilhelm uttered something similar about Germany at the height of World War One. Although I think the last German emperor has received an excessively bad press (and Churchill an extravagantly good one), I’ve never regarded Wilhelm as a tactful statesman. There is also a difference between the hyperbole that a war leader, surrounded by enemies, may engage in and a vainglorious assertion that is turned into the benchmark of American patriotism. How is it that I’ve never heard war veterans say anything even remotely as silly as what I’ve now been urged to profess? My late father-in-law was a paratrooper during D-Day and I doubt he ever said anything like what came from the mouths of the Fox-news Allstars on Wednesday evening. Yes I’m sure Senator McCain has said such things while trying to get us to bomb some Middle Eastern country. But then I don’t know McCain personally and I have no desire to meet him.

Allow me to explain why I couldn’t pass the Fox-news litmus test, even if I tried. As a child in the 1950s the only people I recall blowing air about American exceptionalism were insecure immigrants who wanted to be accepted as Americans. When I and my friends heard these individuals speak in broken English about this country being the greatest ever, we thought they were just trying to fit in. Never would I have expected to hear the families of the older settlers going on about America as the best nation ever. Later I heard prominent figures of the right praise certain aspects of the original American political design. But I couldn’t possibly conceive of any of them, whether George Kennan, Russell Kirk, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nisbet or Robert Taft, making the same noises as the ones I heard on Fox-news. Indeed these thoughtful figures were deeply troubled by the direction in which they saw the US moving, and they warned repeatedly about the loss of our freedoms and our once sound constitutional government.

But there is one group that is delighted with all the fatuous boasting in question. It is the neoconservative custodians of the GOP and the Republican media, who are both insecure in their identities and hell-bent on pushing us into new crusades for our supposedly exceptional values. Please check the relevant Wikipedia entry, which properly labels the doctrine in question as a neoconservative invention. GOP propaganda-junkies have absorbed quintessentially neoconservative bombast about why we are better than the rest of the human race. Needless to say, that special grace is supposed to bring with it the duty to make others like us, that is, to make them the way
we are right now, as enlightened progressives. After all Americans have undergone progressive changes that the neoconservatives delight in and we’re now being asked to engage in new military conversionary missions on behalf of what neocons believe makes us exceptionally exceptional. Let’s also not forget too that we’re a propositional nation that is driven by the foundational belief in universal human equality. That presumably makes us different from and better than traditional nations like the benighted Poles or unredeemed Estonians. We’re also (not least of all) the best nation ever because the neocons form a major element in our ruling class. If I were a neocon exercising their power, I’d be tempted to sing their tune.

Oh yes, lest I forget, I applaud President Obama for making an accurate historical statement about how empires at the zenith of their power view themselves. His observation on this topic is more reflective and more genuinely conservative than what I’ve heard on Fox. But I must express alarm that as much as 28% of respondents accept the identifiably neocon drivel about America in its present form being the best thing ever. I hope this figure isn’t as high as it seems and that some of the respondents were just trying to please the pollsters. I’m trying to repress the thought that millions of Americans actually believe what they say they do.

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