Manifest Delusion: Debunking American Exceptionalism to Protect Human Rights


It's hard to not think about America with our Independence Day recently renewing fresh memories of fireworks, barbecues, and flags. A country of superlatives in matters economic, military, and cultural exports, talking about America's future finds fountains of opinions often strong but which mostly sing the same chorus. It seems easiest when the global pace seems accelerated and every day new conflicts of some kind somewhere brings another call for America to use its power in one form or another. To sing along with the chorus of intervention or isolation is easiest, especially since one can get isolationist merely by ignoring the world outside our borders or fall into the rhythm of intervention's drumbeats almost by habit or picking what is easiest to us. However, having the country think openly about the past might best inform our future. After all, we're Americans and we can do this, right?

Historians might fruitfully debate the details and particulars of the Founders and their intentions in American Independence, both prelude and aftermath, but we needn't get into those discussions. Let us currently limit ourselves to looking at terms: the notion of manifest destiny and the belief in American exceptionalism. Really two sides of the same coin, the first has long been a staple of history classes while the second has recently come back into more frequent vogue. Neither has received warranted attention.

Manifest destiny, while never a matter of official policy, helped to sustain the expansion of the United States from the territory of the 13 Colonies. Beginning with the independence of the Eastern Seaboard and creeping westward at first incrementally and later with leaps and bounds to the shore of the Pacific Ocean, manifest destiny involved ignoring both the presence of indigenous peoples and the purchase or conquest of lands from both Old World powers (United Kingdom, France, Spain) and New World claims (Mexico). Manifest destiny is the background that saw the United States justify claims to the entirety of what was then called Oregon, conquer and annex forty percent of the claims of Mexico, to ignore Native Americans audacity of existence during expansion, and to justify labor pools of orphan train children for farming and Chinese labor for railroad building. In short, manifest destiny helped to empower the achievement of the peculiar fortunes of contemporary American geography.

With a massive surplus of arable land, seaports for trade on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and variations in geography and climate to have internal security for both food and water, there was little to deter the isolationism of the United States after its own devastating civil war. Indeed, with isolation the norm and Europe at a distance, it was only late in the game that the United States became concerned about the first World War in Europe and initially divided over whether to enter on the side of Germany or the United Kingdom. Unrestrained German submarine warfare finally became the tipping point to American entry fairly late in the war, and with nearly half of casualties the result not of conflict per se but of exposure to the influenza pandemic known as the Spanish Flu. Bolstered by having chosen the winning side and with industry having seen how lucrative military manufacturing could be, the stage was set for then renewed embrace of the idea of American Exceptionalism.

With the disastrous Treaty of Versailles creating conditions ripe for the rise of fascist politics in Germany and the Japan's desire to avoid the fate of China's submission to European dictates encouraging a rise of militarism there, the next World War became the script for American self-belief as a necessary nation to protect freedom everywhere by fighting its enemies anywhere. Defeating Nazism was a moral quest that we recognize as the right thing to do. The quiet integration of Hitler's scientists after the war and the barbaric incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the war is something we prefer to just ignore without study or reflection.

Unfortunately, the idea that America can behave without regard to historical lessons or that our involvement is essential in spreading freedoms and democracy has wrought havoc the world over. Hidden behind this idea has been the establishment of so-called "banana republics" of Latin America to serve elite wealthy business interests, blind eyes given to despots from Cuba and throughout the Caribbean, undeclared and secret bombings in Southeast Asia, the green light given to massacres, false premises to wars for commodity control, and the ongoing disrespect piled on to the concerns of native peoples, minorities, and human rights principles. What has the result of these misadventures been? As a country, we have continued to lose standing throughout the world as a legitimate voice for human rights, as a responsible member of a community of nations, as an arbiter of peace, or as a party protective of the planet. We have seen our standing reduced from a beacon of freedom to a beacon of financial self-interest (as long as "self" refers to the 1% that foreign policy actually serves). It is time to rid ourselves of our manifest delusions so that we might deal with the realities we face. Our home-based myths have infected our views abroad as well.

There are laws (both international and American) that are supposed to preclude giving aid or funding to countries that systematically violate or ignore their human rights obligations. There are other countries that seem able to shout for their exceptionalism when systematically ignoring the rights of other peoples too. Do you think we should continue aid to an Egyptian government that continues to menace its own people? Should we stand firm for the security of Israelis while ignoring the security of Palestinians? Are we to pretend that Thailand hasn't faced yet another dangerous military coup? Shall Indonesia be a partner if their presidency puts Prabowo, an enemy of human rights, in charge? Will you contact your Representatives and Senators to ask them to enforce the requirements of these laws and without exception for the sake of universal human rights? Laws, principles, and universal human rights don't need to be bent or omitted selectively. They should be enforced and guaranteed without dangerous exceptions or attempts to argue that universal rules can be disregarded at will. Human rights need a single universal standard, not one that is dependent on any individual country's size or utility. Write an actual letter, make a phone call, or send an email. Send them this article. But get something sent. See if you're not sure who or how, but it's an essential step in letting policymakers know a change is needed.

It is time to look to what made the United States possible and where we might find a footing for the future. The United States should look to the land itself for its bounty, the diverse peoples who reside in it for its strengths, and for the principles it helped create in community with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a charter for humankind. With a readiness to be accountable for past mistakes, one that only results in more strength rather than less, the country could not only return to the position that it once aspired to, but might actually excel and become a model nation. Let us know the falsehood of doctrines of destiny and exceptionalism, so that we might work to become actually and truly worthy of the destiny we work for and the exceptional regard of the communities we are a part of and that we are composed of. After American Independence Day, after Bastille Day, and through the heat of the summer and beyond, let us show each other what we might become by defending the rights of what humans always deserve: full human rights for all.