By lex, on April 22nd, 2007
There are probably few things quite so off-putting to the world outside our borders than that innate sense of “American Exceptionalism” with which we face the outside world. It is a notion which is both ancient (by our standards, anyway) and culturally embedded. As others have remarked, it is not enough for us to think of ourselves as a “great country,” we must also be “the best.” Nor is it sufficient that our form of democracy is good, it must also be the most authentic – or, considering how much we moan over our own political class – it must at least be immune to outside criticism.
And it isn’t even merely an international phenomenon – we play Exceptionalism as an intramural sport as well. One my favorite bumper stickers from the days when I lived in Mississippi was the one that said, “We don’t care how you do it up north.” Although the south may have lost the Civil War, they never – for better or worse – entirely lost their southern culture. Knowing that we were disdained by many northrons for our backward ways, we were taught to return the favor with interest. “New York is a wonderful place,” said my father – who had spent many years there between his studies at Kings Point and his time in the Merchant Marine – “or it would be,” he would add, “if it weren’t for all those damned New Yorkers.” While simultaneously – and this is the really interesting part – standing cheek by jowl with the detested Yankees whenever someone from abroad tried to pick a fight.
A lot of us grew up during the Cold War and during most of that time we “pledged allegiance to the flag” and read the novel “Animal Farm” in most high school English programs because an allegorical novel written by an English socialist on the perils of socialism was considered morally instructive. Now that that’s over, Animal Farm has (for the most part) been replaced by “Romeo and Juliet,” at least in our local schools and the effort to vanish that godbothering pledge down the memory hole continues apace.
Which is fine, I’m rather more a fan of Shakespeare than Orwell anyway. But there has been a larger deconstructionist movement inside our educational and political orthodoxy over the course of the last decade or so. The dominant narrative of our westward expansion used to be one of Brave Citizens and Recent Immigrants Embarking on a Bold Journey in Search of Freedom. Which it was. But that part of the story was at first balanced and then increasingly overcome by the parallel narrative of a brutal native American genocide. Which, while there is certainly an element of truth to that, is not and ought not be the whole of the story. Similarly, although roughly 300,000 Bluecoats died in an effort to rid my ancestral lands of the “Peculiar Institution,” the dominant narrative that emerges from that time is not one of hard fighting and sacrifice to free a cruelly oppressed race, but rather it is racism and the “legacy of slavery.” We grew up being taught to celebrate our national “melting pot,” but modern political and cultural currents agitate us instead towards ever more narrowly drawn divisions of identity-based grievance associations, muscling around a finite, zero-sum trough.
But while that sort of mythic deconstruction serves a usefully deterrent purpose to our wilder excesses in carefully measured doses, it can definitely be taken too far: Nations that are not tied together by romantic visions of “blood and soil,” like most of “Old Europe,” or ethnic homogeneity like Japan – and both models come with significant drawbacks, by the way – must instead be held together by a Big Idea. Label it a “narrative” or a “national myth” if you prefer, but it is the necessary coagulant that prevents all kinds of social horrors, including the Cold War alternative of politics by class warfare – not as a metaphor, but with actual guns and bullets, corpses and concentration camps.
And our “Big Idea” is a kind of exceptionalism, that “shining city on a hill.” A place where anything can happen, where no one is cursed by birth or station, but where anyone with a good idea, some common sense and the drive to see it through can realize their dreams. A place where even poor people get fat. A place where, if you’re not careful, you might get elected president.
It is composed in part of an often crass but always energetic mercantalism which helps to generate the luxury of thoughtful ease – there are no big ideas where peoples live from hand to mouth. Atop this we ladle a generous dollop of what can sometimes be construed as preening moralizing, but which we prefer to view as virtue. I think it is the combination of natural self-interest, cultural energy, multi-spectrum capacity and presumption of good faith that so offends the rest of the world – any of these by themselves would be inoffensive, but taken together? Toxic. If only because it is relatively unique.
Every last element of our ongoing culture war is a battle over who will own the cultural narrative going forward, by the way – whether citizenship is an individual entitlement, with individual rights and responsibilities, or whether in the future it ought to aggregate to group identities and collective visions. And this is just the intramural scrum.
In the international sphere, we spent most of our first century disconnected from the rest of the world, isolated by our oceans, wholly absorbed with affairs of our own. Although it’s difficult to believe for a foreigner used to seeing US businesses, movies and yes, soldiers all around the world, there is an enduring element of isolationism which calls to us, an ever-present siren singing, “You don’t understand those people. You can’t. Come home.”
A secret part of us would love to disconnect from a world “outside,” a world we only dimly comprehend – a world which has often scourged us with its contempt in times of ease but which has all too often beckoned to us in moments of peril or existential need into costly and bloody conflicts whose antecedents are far too complex for us to understand with our foreshortened sense of history, not to mention our predisposition to self-absorbed navel-gazing – we have never been much of a backward-looking breed.
In choosing sides in these quarrels we were often forced to simplify because “analysis” sounds too much like “paralysis” to us, and history – not to mention current events – all too often reinforces our admitted bias to action. We even seek to personalize the matter – we fought against Hitler, not Germany; Tojo, not Japan; Saddam, not Iraq – because our fundamental belief that People are good, even if certain people are not. Our message to the world has too often been, “We cannot know you as well as you would like us to.” At times it seems we scarcely know ourselves.
But there is always something that needs being done in the world. After our Western European fore bearers bled themselves white in decades of internecine warfare during the last century, there was no one else left with the capability of doing what needed to be done – rebuilding the industry and infrastructure of a continent while manning the barricades against an exterior menace. Our fathers shrugged, took up the burden and went into the wide world, hoping for the best, willing to please and expecting to be pleased in return – an expectation that was routinely disappointed.
Americans fundamentally believe that it ought to be possible to “do good while also doing well.” Combine national self-interest – no crime throughout the rest of the world, but always suspicious in those who have the unique capacity to act – with a reason to feel as though we are doing the “right thing” (the will to go along with the means) and action is nearly inevitable. Not always to the good, but, it must be admitted, generally so – only contemplate the last 100 years absent American involvement. And yet this contains a kernel of why we are regarded with such ambivalence on the world stage – we are as necessary as we are all-too-often clumsy – even before we factor in economic envy and Gaullist pique. People would like us to be “us” but also more like “them.” Or failing that, at least do what they would like us to do rather than what we ourselves think best.
Worst case? “Somebody tie that man’s hands.”
This will not last forever, nothing does. Our secondary schools have lost their lead in important fields of study, we train foreign students at our best universities and then deny them residence, and even in the area of technological innovation our dominance in important ways has reportedly evaporated. Our moral authority – the will that fuels the engine of capability – has worn threadbare with the burden of fighting what many of us believe to be an existential struggle, but one whose very existence our natural allies (not to mention many of our own countrymen) do not deign to acknowledge. In another 20 years or so, if current trends continue, the Peoples Republic of China – a country that holds much of our national debt – will also overtake us in purchasing power. After that, who knows? One thing is certain only: The world will be a very different place.
When that end arrives, there will be many who quietly celebrate – not least those tender souls who fear us as a warlike, insufficiently contemplative race, but also those whose confident will to power has been held in check by the calculus of national and personal risk – two groups that share little else in common.
I wonder, between the two, who will celebrate last?