Exceptional Us

"I don’t mind the human race," begins Kenneth Rexroth’s poem Discrimination. But soon admits: "I shouldn’t care to see my own sister marry one. Even if she loved him, think of the children." Many people share such reservations towards Homo sapiens, who has such an ironic air of misnomer about him. Homo bellicosus, perhaps… Homo screwloosus … but Homo sapiens? Wise Man??

Mark Twain’s take on the situation is typically arch: "Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired." Yes, we’ve come up with Lao Tzu, Bach, Rumi, St. Francis, Etta James, Una Muno, Maimonides, Shackleton, and Shakespeare. But then there’s the B List: Jim Jones, Stalin, Idi Amin, Barry Manilow, Judas Iscariot, Donald Rumsfeld… A case for human preeminence can be made, but with the B List allowed as evidence, it cannot be won.

And yes, there’s the Our-Brain-Is-Bigger-Than-Yours argument, which our species so often manages to make sound like a schoolyard taunt. But I don’t see what it really has to do with anything. By big-brain logic, why shouldn’t the apex of creation award go to the elephant for its trunk, or the chameleon for its tongue, or the cockroach for its resilience, or the ant for its abundance, or the mandrill for its backside? Big brains are fine, I guess, but does having one really make the experience of life vastly superior to that of, say, a green turtle or a head louse or an indigo bunting?

"Of course it does!" reflexively growl all but eight of the 6.6 billion Homo sapiens currently subdividing, as inequitably as can be gotten away with, the crust of this planet. Upon which we must trot out Mark Twain again: "God’s noblest work? Man. Who found it out? Man."

The notion of human exceptionalism is closely related to its sub-strain, the notion of national exceptionalism, boiling down in our case to: "God’s noblest nation? America. Who found it out? America." Are we special? Undeniably. Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Sojourner Truth, Edward Hopper, Marilyn Monroe… Point Reyes, the Golden Gate Bridge, the 1968 Tigers, the Chrysler Building… But enough lists. Are we different? Yes. Are we unique? In many ways, yes. But are we extra-special? Are we extra-extra-special? Are we immeasurably better than the French? Are we, in the Clinton Administration word, indispensable? That’s what the zealous proponent of American exceptionalism wants to hear. Not just that we’re special — that we’re specialer than anyone else in history. Our special is bigger than your special.

"The United States does not torture," a now-discarded President assured us in 2005. We knew it wasn’t true, we knew that the Bush government was very possibly torturing someone even as the denial was spoken. But we nodded our heads anyway, because overriding whatever else we knew was the fond notion that we’re special. Torture is something the evildoers do. We might indulge in a little "water-boarding" or "walling" now and then, but that’s different and as government lawyers went to a lot of trouble to discover, legal too. It could result in kidney failure or insanity or death, but it wasn’t the crude stuff the bad guys practice. How could it be? "America does not torture," a fresh President declared in February of this year, declining to note that we pay client states to do it for us. Masters of what Orwell termed doublethink, we pretend not to notice.

A few days ago, Stephen Green of Midland, Texas, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2006 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Green also killed the girl’s mother, father, and five-year-old sister, disgracing himself, the uniform he wore, and one would have thought his country. Yet one of the attorneys on the case found occasion to doublethink glory from disgrace: "This trial represents some of the most important principles of our Constitution and our democracy in action. The decision of how justice would be best served was left to the people."

Ah, a special ending, after all. The Will of the People! Democracy in Action! Justice Served! While it may be worth applauding that a war criminal has been tried and is going to prison, let’s recall that a number of war criminals are still at large. (The most high profile among them are busy with their memoirs.) And let’s at least acknowledge that our principles had as much to do with sending Stephen Green to Iraq as with sending him to prison — and plenty to do with sending Abeer al-Janabi, and how many like her, to an early grave. The Iraq War has been a sordid business from day one. Where was Democracy in Action when the serpent was hatched?

Through it all, a tone-deaf choir of American exceptionalists has remained center stage, like preschoolers chanting that venerable lyric: "I am special, I am special. Look at me! Look at me!" The tune has long ceased to entertain the ears of the world, and is even starting to grate on domestic ears. The choir is uncommonly persistent, but perhaps it is time to expand the repertoire or retreat to the wings.