The Myth of American Exceptionalism

There are a lot of great things about my country, but insisting on being exceptional isn't one of them. In fact, given the history of Great Powers, our trumpeting our exceptionalism is, ironically, rather typical.
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"Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it..."
--George Bernard Shaw

Vladimir Putin recently said America is not exceptional, and the flag-draped idiocracy has gone nuts. How dare he! And Putin's history of brutal lawlessness became hotly discussed, which is what's called an "Ad Hominem" attack -- rather than argue the point, attack the speaker. And with Putin there is so much to attack! The guy is a jerk. But what about the whole "exceptionalism" thing?

Now, I've never understood the concept of "American Exceptionalism." What is it, exactly, that we are an exception to? It seems to mean, basically, that whatever rules apply to all other countries should not apply to us. No one should have nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons -- except us, and we can use them whenever we like. Offensive military action, attacking a country that has not attacked you, is absolutely wrong... except when we do it. Then it's unquestioningly hunky-dory. No country should interfere with the internal political workings of another country, try to influence its elections, or assassinate its elected leaders without declaring war. Except the United States, which has used all those weapons and more to undermined every government -- democratically elected or not -- that we cannot profit from. "American Exceptionalism" is simply the belief that internationally recognized rules, morals, and ethics should apply to everyone - except the United States. I'm sure every country would love to have the same exceptionalism, but they are not strong enough to impose their will on just about everyone else. So instead we are despised for openly demanding that every other country accept that the U.S. is special, exceptional, and fundamentally better than they.

The U.S. has always had two things that make us special, and have dictated our rise to dominance -- the Atlantic and the Pacific. That's it. We have oceans that divide us from our major industrialized enemies. This means that in both of the major wars of the 20th century our factories didn't get bombed. Really, that's it. Every other industrial nation had their factories destroyed, and lost a lot of their skilled workforce. The U.S. -- which also entered both wars after much of the damage had been done -- didn't suffer industrial collapse, and after each war benefitted by becoming the factory for the rest of the world. Basic consumer items were "Made in America" because it was very difficult to make them anywhere else, and the world was happy to buy them from us. Our economy boomed because our factories hadn't been bombed, and they hadn't been bombed because we have these two big oceans on either side. It's nothing inherent in the American soul or mind, no special spirit, no divine providence, no exceptionalism. Our factories didn't get bombed, and theirs did. And our economic slide began in the late 60s, when they finished rebuilding their factories. So there is nothing exceptional about our economy, or our economic theories, or our way of life.

And, despite our militarism, our military isn't exceptional, either. Historically the U.S. has actually been very select about waging war. History: In WWII England declared war on Nazi Germany, France declared war on Nazi Germany, the U.S.... didn't. We waited until Germany declared war on us, years later, after our "allies" had been devastated. That's how important defeating fascism was to America. In WWI we didn't enter it until the war was almost over. In the war against Spain we declared war on a poor nation whose empire was collapsing as colonial rebels fought for freedom... and the U.S. spent more time and money fighting against those Freedom Fighters than we did against the Spanish. The war on Mexico? We took land from a poor, weak country. Vietnam? Somalia? Iraq? Afghanistan? And don't get me started on the Indian Wars. I'm no militarist, but Alexander the Great took on the freakin' Persians! Rome fought Carthage, the Moors took on the Mediterranean Basin, the Irish took on the British, the British took on Napoleon, and Napoleon took on the rest of Europe. Geronimo took on the United States. The Mongols took on the world. American military prestige is built on not fighting major powers at their height, on fighting small powers, or coming into major wars late.

And with our history of spying on,blacklisting, jailing, and killing law-abiding unionists, civil rights activists, environmentalists, feminists, Anarchists, Communists, and Socialists, and with the evolving story about how extensive the NSA's spying on us has been, how craven our elected officials have been in the face of it, or how journalists have been and continue to be jailed for reporting on our government's misdeeds, one certainly can't say our freedoms are exceptional. They can be ignored by the government just like the rights of the citizens of every other country.

And in a time of monarchy was our democratic founding exceptional? Remember: the Founders didn't want independence right off the bat, they wanted something like Home Rule. And when they did get independence there was a movement to make Washington "President for Life," i.e. king - like so many other countries had. Except the Swiss. They've had democracy for almost 800 years. If our democracy makes us exceptional should that make them extra-super exceptional?

No, it shouldn't, because no country is exceptional. America is just another country which benefitted from an accident of geography. Heck, if the colonies had been a bit closer to England the American rebellion (I can't say "our rebellion" since my ancestors were, at that time, enslaved by those fighting for "freedom") probably would have been crushed like the rebellions in Scotland and Ireland. So jumping up and down about how "exceptional" America is strikes my as pointless. Egypt thought it was exceptional, so did Persia, so did Rome. So did England at their height, and so did Japan before their fall. So did Germany. So did the U.S.S.R.

I'm not saying the United States isn't neat, or that I'd want to live anywhere else. I like lotsa stuff about my country! I like the free public schools, the clean water, and the clean-ish air. I like the lack of dead bodies in the street. Of course right now there are those want to privatize education, de-fund the whole water and air cleaning thing, and give everyone guns, but that's beside the point. There are a lot of great things about my country, but insisting on being exceptional isn't one of them. In fact, given the history of Great Powers, our trumpeting our exceptionalism is, ironically, rather typical.

Instead of demanding special treatment from the world, perhaps we should focus on making this country the best we can, helping those most in need, investing in creating an environmentally sustainable economy to hand on to our children, and emphasizing peaceful conflict resolution rather than threatening to hurl missiles at anyone we don't like. That is how we can be, if not exceptional, at least admirable.

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