Friday, April 15, 2011

On American Exceptionalism

Arizona man sues police, claims
Police dog violated his civil rights
and used excessive force.

The basic concept of American Exceptionalism can be traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835. There were essentially five characteristics of America that seemed to define us: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. I believe one could challenge these as truly characteristic of America at that time, and one could certainly question them as viable characteristics at the present time. The phrase American Exceptionalism was first used by the Communist Party in the 1920’s, as they believed because of these characteristics, especially the lack of distinct classes, America might be the first nation to avoid class warfare and the inevitable destruction that it would theoretically bring about. However interesting this may be, it is not what concerns me here.

There is another interpretation of American Exceptionalism, one that believes there is a qualitative difference between America and all other societies, a difference that results from the fact that we were exempted from the historical forces that affected all others. While the phrase American Exceptionalism does not necessarily imply superiority, those who believe in this qualitative difference seem to believe that it does. I do not understand how one could explain the behavior of the United States if one did not believe in this superiority.

Certainly we are exceptional in that we are regarded as the only remaining superpower, possessing the finest army in the world and a huge nuclear arsenal. Of course the nuclear arsenal is useless as it can never be used, and our army has proven itself unable to defeat even rag-tag civilian patriots in Asia and the Middle East. This does not seem to keep us from the belief in our “superpowerness.” We are also exceptional in that our nation is surrounded on east and west by vast oceans, and north and south by friendly nations. Why the rest of the world allowed a single superpower to emerge at all it not clear to me and was probably a grave mistake.

What this seems to create is an exceptional arrogance that allows us to believe we can dominate the entire world and impose our version of “democracy” on others wherever found. This seems also to include our belief that our basic religion, Christianity, is superior to all others and should be disseminated around the world. And we are quite exceptional in being the only highly industrialized society that still clings to religion, especially fundamentalism, and believe that it still competes with science as an explanation for natural and other events. This is related to the exceptionalism exposed in the suicidal belief that the education of our children is unimportant.

We are also very exceptional in our greed. Although comprising only some 4% of the earth’s population we use up 25% of her resources. This has been accomplished both by military and economic dominance over the past three centuries. We are certainly exceptional as a consumer society where the main focus of life is on the acquisition of material goods, with slogans like “shop til’ you drop,” and “He who has the most toys wins,” and so on. We are also pretty exceptional in our acceptance of built-in obsolescence, accepting merchandise with a relative short life expectancy that can be just discarded rather than repaired, and poorly constructed housing that can be torn down and rebuilt every few years. We are also exceptional in clinging to our belief in our “rugged individualism” even though it is largely just a myth. We are even more exceptional in being the only nation on earth with a morbid fear of socialism even though we practice it on a rather grand scale. We are undoubtedly exceptional in that we seem to be developing into a nation of hoarders, building storage facilities for our used junk much faster than ordinary housing, or so it seems.

While we may not be uniquely exceptional in short-sightedness and stupidity (after all we are members of the human species), we are probably at the top of the list. We have recklessly exploited the finite resources of the planet with little or no regard for the future, overfishing the oceans, destroying forests, fouling the air and the water as we go, destroying one species after another, even changing the climate of the earth. But being blessed with a relative abundance of resources, and safe from the rest of the world, we have developed more and more into a truly militaristic society, engaging in more wars in the past couple of centuries than most anyone else. This has been American Exceptionalism at its best (or worst). We now believe we do not have to even follow the rules of international law, thumbing our nose at whoever we choose, and hypocritically protecting our war criminals while demanding all others be brought to justice. This is imperial hubris at its worst.

Finally (for the moment, at least), we have now become dangerously exceptional in allowing our government and politics to become so dysfunctional as to be virtually useless for the vast majority of our citizens, being controlled by a few giant corporations and their obscenely wealthy cronies. Our much vaunted liberty is disappearing, egalitarianism is losing out to a two class system, individualism is not really permitted, populism, in that it exists, is managed by the powers that be. Laissezfaire has been promoted to such an extreme level it now threatens the collapse of our nation and the establishment of a permanent underclass. American Exceptionalism is not what it’s believed to be, if ever it truly was.

Everyone has a right to a university degree in America, even if it's in Hamburger Technology.
Clive James

Mali has the lowest literacy rate in the world at 26.2%.

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