Demanding American Exceptionalism
Editor’s Note: Since the Reagan administration, Republicans and the Right have made great political hay out of accusing their opponents of not embracing a thoroughly uncritical view of the United States. As Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick put it, there are those who love their country and those who “blame America first.”
But this demand for blind patriotism has caused the United States grave harm by discrediting constructive ideas for addressing the nation’s problems. That is, because acknowledging problems requires seeing flaws in America’s “exceptionalism” which opens a politician to attack as an “America-hater” – a dilemma that writer Don Monkerud addresses in this guest essay:
A plethora of wannabe presidential candidates is beating the drum again for American exceptionalism, a warmed-over rehash of bravado, jingoism, and chauvinism.
This latest super-patriotic call seeks to revive a concept dragged from the dustbin of history by George W. Bush. Bush resurrected American exceptionalism as an excuse for his destruction of Iraq, and the unilateral disregard for the rest of the world.
Under Bush, the U.S. overturned international treaties, denounced the U.N. and international cooperation -- except when to America's advantage -- and rejected legal views routinely accepted around the world. Bush and his neocon cheerleaders claimed that the U.S. has its own set of rules, judgments, and solutions to every issue, based on national advantage.
Many of today's politicians, urged on by Fox News, are replaying these old arguments.
Exceptionalism reaches back to historic national decisions that were similar to the invasion of Iraq: dropping the atomic bomb on Japan; clearing out indigenous people to make room for white settlers; and enslaving Africans to build and run plantations. Those in favor of such moves claim God gave America a unique right to rule, and ignore the rest of the world, because we are special.
In one way, exceptionalism is merely another weapon now being used to undermine President Obama and pave the way for the GOP to capture the presidency in 2012. The term also justifies conservative policies, such as unbridled capitalism, limited government, abolishing taxes, and imposing Christianity on the nation.
Let's examine the concept. A 2008 Brookings Institute conference on American Exceptionalism outlined the ways Americans diverge from world opinion.
Some 75 percent of Americans are proud of their country, while only a third of Germans and Japanese are. Half of Americans consider a public safety net important while 75 percent of Europeans do. Two-thirds of Americans believe success comes from individual effort, while the same proportion of Europeans believes success is the result of forces beyond their control.
Above all, America is deeply rooted in religious belief. Half of Americans believe God is essential to morality, while only a third of Europeans do. Forty percent of Americans go to church once a week, while less than 10 percent attend in Europe. Do these characteristics justify America forcing its will on the rest of the world?
The notion of exceptionalism includes the boast that America is the greatest nation on earth. Perhaps because few Americans read newspapers or travel abroad, they cannot adequately judge the truth of this claim.
Corporate-controlled politicians claim America has "the greatest healthcare system in the world," only to reveal their ignorance. The World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 37th among nations in healthcare performance in 2000, although we pay more for less service.
Numerous studies reveal that the U.S. is mediocre in treating illness. For example, compared to the G-8 countries, the U.S. has the highest infant mortality, the most mothers who die during childbirth, the most lives lost that could have been saved, and the worst in treatment of cancer.
The U.N. rates the U.S. even worse: 74th in healthcare performance. And in 2009, the C.I.A. ranked the U.S. 49th in life expectancy in the world.
Nor is the U.S. "the greatest" in essential categories. The U.S. is second after the European Union in GDP, 41st out of 130 in public debt, has the worst balance of trade of any country, and is 32nd in student math, reading and scientific performance.
We do have the greatest wealth disparity in the world. In 2007, our top ten percent controlled 72 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 percent controlled 2.5 percent. The poverty rate increased from 12 to 14 percent since 2004, and the current recession has left over a quarter of the working population either under-or un-employed.
The U.S. does have the most expensive military in the world because we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined. We also spend more on our for-profit medical system-two and-a-half-times more than the world average.
Pointing out an anomaly of historic development is one thing, but adopting "exceptionalism" as government policy ignores the disastrous failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the meltdown of the world economy, huge national deficits, and the rise of Iran and China on the international scene.
Flag-waving politicians like Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, and Newt Gingrich use the concept of "exceptionalism" to prove how much they love America. Such hyper-nationalism, usually tied to a Christian God, denies our common humanity with the rest of the world, undercuts international cooperation, and promotes an arrogant disregard for world opinion.
It remains to be seen how Americans will react when they realize their imperial ambitions in the New American Century -- a neocon dream of world dominance -- is a hollow myth. America lived beyond its means for too long and now must accept its place in a new world. China, the E.U. and even small countries increasingly challenge America's role in the world.
Will the U.S. become isolationist, engage in more militaristic adventures, or join the nations of the world to push for world peace? We shall see.
Don Monkerud is an Aptos, California-based writer who follows cultural issues and politics and writes occasional satire.
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