My whole life, I believed that America was number one. That was the saying; not “America is number two.” England is number, and China should be, like, eight. – Michael Scott, The Office
Some will cry partisanship. I’m a liberal/Democrat/socialist/communist.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: I have not seen a strong President of the United States in my life and do not have a strong positive opinion of any in recent memory. Yes, I am opposed to Bush and Trump – the latter being so deficient in character that I can hardly abide the idea that he is a fellow national let alone the elected chief executive.
However, I also have apathetic opinions of Clinton and Obama. The economy boomed during the Clinton years, but much of that seems to be the benefit of a strong global economy. Obama, controlling the full government in 2009, placated the Republican minority to the point of a GOP-controlled Legislative branch in 2010. American Exceptionalism and militarism continued under both administrations.
I do not remember Bush (41) or Reagan from my childhood, but what I have learned about American and world history turned my opinion of every US President since Franklin Roosevelt.
The United States was imperfect before World War II, but many regard the aftermath of the conflict as the true US ascension to world power status. The impact of the United States not only on domestic issues but also on global matters from that point forward has uniquely steered the course of world history.
My anxieties and cynicism do not stem from a bad faith reading of human nature. We can set aside conspiracy theories, ideological ulterior motives, and even simple greed as causes for the course of human events over the last century and still I arrive at the same anxieties and cynicism.
Why? Accountability (or my naïve understanding of politics regarding why accountability seems to elude the world’s “greatest nation”).
When I regard the United States through the lens of international relations and the modern problems we face, I see the fingerprint of the United States all over the foundations.
Americans worry about immigration, voter fraud, and other illegal activity (such as gang violence) often associated with it, with a particular emphasis on immigration from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Yet the impact of the United States on nations in these areas, especially in the 20th century, does not seem to enter the conversation.
Again, putting aside the motives of those responsible and taking the best interpretation, no one can deny that the United States de-stabilised many nations in the Americas. Fears of communism or economic interest – whatever the reason, the United States took an active role in persuading governments that were friendly to the United States and not best for their people. It destroyed economies and spurred violence. Many of the violent gangs we know today in America (like MS-13) have their roots in providing protection for fellow nationals under threat.
Does that make the United States wholly responsible for the negative aspects of these nations? No. It does make the United States responsible to some degree though, whether the majority shareholder or simply a partner in the chaos.
The same is true in the Middle East and northern Africa. Two of the biggest American villains of the 21st century, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, began their infamous careers with American financing against other enemies. Most of the predominantly Muslim nations in the region viewed with scepticism and fear today were friendly with the United States at some point in the 20th century, including Iran. Errors in US foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the Cold War, upset those relationships.
Again, how can we as a nation pretend that we had zero role in shaping those nations and our relationships with them? Perhaps the various administrations did act with the best intentions, but those actions had clear consequences. The belief in American Exceptionalism sweeps that under the rug, portraying them as purveyors of violence and the United States as the vanguard of the right.
Even our most titanic opposition, the governments in Moscow and Beijing, might have become allies at multiple points throughout history if the two sides had not miscalculated or outright rejected the idea.
This is not meant to propose a moral equivalency among all things. The actions taken by other parties have been atrocious, but we must examine the ways in which American policy decisions enabled those atrocities in the years and decades that followed.
Meanwhile, we continue to struggle domestically with race issues, opioid addiction, and countless others.
I summarise the others broadly because with these, such as climate change, some would deny that a problem even exists in an ideological gap that we cannot bridge. Scientific illiteracy causes some to distrust academia, the scientific community, or “intellectual elites”, or even to embrace conspiracy theories or pseudo-science that supports their ideological understanding of the world.
Journalism remains an important cornerstone of a free society, but the nature and quality of journalistic discourse deteriorated so severely that it feels difficult to defend most sources. While I would decry the vilification of the fourth estate by the Trump administration (or broader, neo-conservatives), I also find myself turning to major contributors and thinking, “Well now, in your capitalistic pursuit of viewership/readership you have made several missteps. The ideological commentary presented as news is not journalism, and what we need is the latter.”
Yes, I am talking about CNN and MSNBC just as much as I am FOX News. Although, yes, I view FOX News as far more egregious in this sense.
We are still striving for civil rights in the United States. Some readers feel that we achieved civil rights in some or all areas: feminism, LGBTQ+, and so forth. What I propose to those people is they pause and listen to the millions of fellow Americans who are expressing that is not the case and inequality still remains. In a free and democratic society, we should be asking ourselves, at minimum, why this perception remains among our fellow citizens.
The reality, I have found in my conversations and studies, is that these inequalities very much exist and the belief that they do not is the false perception. These false perceptions glaze over the institutionalised, systemic, ingrained nature of the inequality in favour of exceptional cases and contemporary manoeuvres meant to correct the issues.
For example, we now live in a world of suffrage – American citizens have the right to vote and that democratic voice does countermand a significant amount of inequality by giving the voiceless a voice. However, further government policy undoes this gain with tactics like gerrymandering and obstacles to voter registration.
The government presents policies like requiring identification when voting under the guise of protecting the integrity of American elections. Again, keeping the theme of this, let us assume that honest intention. It belies the reality that attaining adequate identification is not easy for many. I say this as a former analyst for a homeless services agency, one of whose mandates was assisting people with acquiring identification. The effect of voter identification policies, whether intended or not, is the exclusion of Americans from the democratic process.
Because of the historical inequities in the United States, this exclusion disproportionately impacts certain populations. For those who argue that this position is simply philosophically or ideologically different when opponents allege racism – this is why the policy is racist. The policy opens a wound created by racism to disenfranchise those same populations today.
We live in a nation where some refuse to participate in activities meant to improve the environment, citing either (or both) the nonexistence of the problem or a need to prioritise economic growth. Both positions deny the science of problem, the economic impacts of worsening environmental conditions, and the practicality of caring for the planet on which we reside.
Humans will never destroy the planet. It’s far too resilient for that. We can deteriorate things to the point that survival for us is impossible though, and I am thoroughly opposed to that position.
I am not making these observations from the perspective of a politician or even historian. I am a mere citizen relying on the expertise and leadership of others. What I want is a quiet, peaceful life. I am not am ambitious person, but I am a person with ambitions.
It makes sense in the kaleidoscope of American history that fellow citizens would regard me as a Commie insurgent. I am often critical (not disrespectful) of capitalism, religion, and the idea of American Exceptionalism.
However, I regard capitalism as the best system of economics – the natural state of economics. I simply believe Americans exceed what that natural system allows, indeed propping up the whole of American society on a perversion of capitalism. Acquire the most while spending the least. Redistribute the finite resources of the world with little regard for the problems the resulting inequity will cause.
Capitalism did not cause the problems of the world. People did. Whether greedy, short-sighted, or simply blinded by the notion of American Exceptionalism and gilded streets, the activities have caused a society rife with class struggles.
But the problems are not related to class alone. I admire the spirituality of religious people, but I fear the zealotry of organised religious belief. The people-pleaser and diplomat in me refuses to deny anyone their religious belief, to claim it outright false, but the evangelical fervour with which some people pursue ideologies that have no verifiable, reproducible basis terrifies me. It became particularly terrifying in the current age of Evangelicals, whose Book of Revelations-inspired joy at the prospect of annihilation under the right circumstances seems to pervade increasingly powerful circles.
There are few places in the world where I would live outside the United States – at least partially in fear of how locals would receive me as a former American if I did decide to expatriate anyway. I have a life of privilege and do enjoy a relatively comfortable existence here, but I rejected the notion of American Exceptionalism in the years following 9/11.
My patriotism stops well short of regarding the United States as the greatest nation on Earth. We are but one nation in the global network of peoples. What we do affects people everywhere; what people do elsewhere affects us here.
I believe in a policy of compassion, empathy, kindness, and trust (even when inconvenient and fear may be the dominant emotion). I believe, even in a world where we reject the idea that the United States supports itself on the basis of a perpetual wartime economy and it engages in foreign policy on the basis of good faith, that peace achieved through kindness rather than the threat of force is the only peace that can succeed.
I also believe that in this nation of American Exceptionalism, my views have no place among the ruling class. Too many of my fellow citizens will disparage and dismiss my views as weak (even more so than ineffective) and bully me out of the discourse. Overcoming that resistance through a policy of compassion, empathy, kindness, and trust is impossible when the culture of bluster and bravado is so ingrained in the national psyche.
John F. Kennedy, a President whose decisions showed the same flaws as Truman and Eisenhower in his early years, seemed to begin to embrace this sort of policy before his assassination. The same might be said for Robert Kennedy. Henry Wallace is another name in American politics I have come to admire, and his political fate was that of a real Jefferson Smith – no Hollywood ending.
Malcom X, who had rejected the “by any means necessary” rhetoric of his early career and turned more towards the compassionate policies promoted by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated. MLK himself assassinated. Harvey Milk – assassinated.
Since that time (before my birth), I have seen the 2000 and 2016 elections erode American trust in the democratic process. Corporate failings like Enron, WorldCom, and the like, followed by the later 2008 economic crisis resulted in alarmingly few consequences for the parties responsible.
My sense of America as a grade school student was like that of Michael Scott. The world had a clear ranking. America was number 1; England was number 2 – hell, that’s why Hugh Grant’s speech in “Love, Actually” was so funny, right?
What I learned in my adolescence and early adulthood was something closer to the Steve Carell-portrayal I saw later:
We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice, or that fraud is mean… for fifteen thousand years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught; things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did. – Mark Baum, “The Big Short”
I have watched the compassionate murdered and pushed aside while ideologues not only ascend, they seem to avoid accountability for their failings – whether the result of an honest miscalculation or something more despicable.
And I don’t have answers. People like me are not supposed to have answers in America. Even if I could muster enough faith to run for a public office (which I never could with my anxieties and philosophical sense that I could not survive politics anyway), I would never win election in this country speaking truthfully. I find myself compelled to make the best out of the situation and hope that my time here ends before things take a severe turn. I dream of a daughter, but fear the world she would inherit to the point of doubting my willingness to parent.
Where do we go facing our problems with our collective ideologies about life?
One thought on “Exceptional America”
This piece is excellent, James. I wish I were more articulate today, but I have to compliment the way you approached all of this. A few parts of this resonated even more strongly with me than others.
Yes, the US is partly or largely responsible.
Yes, voter ID policies result in the exclusion of Americans from the democratic process, on a vast scale, even as it is often selective in the worst ways.
You put it best about capitalism as fair trade is and the natural state of economics. I also believe that Americans tend to exceed what that natural system allows and to celebrate such absurd excesses as an ideal to pursue. And of course capitalism did not cause the problems of the world; people did.
I know we can do better. I hope we can pull it off before we lose what the majority of us humans actually value the most.
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