About a year ago (March 7, 2012, to be exact), I was thinking about, and still consider accurate, “the American Exceptionalism myth.” Nothing has happened in the last (almost) year to change my mind. Greenwald’s essay — How Can Anyone Still Believe That America Is the Greatest Country on Earth? — has a related focus, beginning with recent news. Before getting to that, I’d add another consider: sequestration. How can the “greatest country on earth” justify this situation, along with income inequality, too big to fail, growing poverty, disemployment (Lambert at Corrente), kill lists, fracking, Keystone XL, etc.?
Now to Greenwald:
Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and the US – the country with the world’s largest stockpile of that weapon and the only one in history to use it – led the condemnation … . Responding to unnamed commentators who apparently noted this contradiction, National Review’s Charles Cooke voiced these two assertions: (from two tweets sent by Cooke)
‘I never understand the moral equivalence on this. We can have nuclear weapons because we’re right. They can’t because they’re wrong.’
‘Why should we condemn North Korea’s test? Because they’re a totalitarian nightmare state and this is the greatest country in world history.’
Greenwald immediately follows those quotes with this:
Nobody can reasonably dispute that North Korea is governed by a monstrous regime and that it would be better if they lacked a nuclear weapons capability. … What interests me here is that … claim: that the US ‘is the greatest country in world history’, and therefore is entitled to do that which other countries are not.
I agree with Greenwald when he writes, “This declaration always genuinely fascinates me.” The U.S. isn’t just the current “greatest,” it’s the “greatest … in world history.” (emphasis added)
The very notion that this distinction could be objectively or even meaningfully measured is absurd. But the desire to believe it is so strong, the need to proclaim one’s own unprecedented superiority so compelling, that it’s hardly controversial to say it despite how nonsensical it is. The opposite is true: it has been vested with the status of orthodoxy.
What I’m always so curious about is the thought process behind this formulation.
He writes about the “sheer improbability that it (the “greatest” claim) is true,” and wonders if those expressing it
… search for more likely explanations for why they believe this? …
The ‘truths’ we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true … .
There are things, Greenwald writes, about which “Americans are justifiably proud,” but those same “virtues are found in equal if not, at this point, greater quantity in numerous other countries.”
What, I wonder, is this human need, this propensity, to claim “greatest ever” status, whether about a nation, a religion, an Elected or a sports team? American exceptionalism is simply the biggest current example, when it comes to nations, kingdoms, conquerors or whatever. Given how often this latest exceptionalism is tied not just to the U.S., but to the nation as “Christian,” and I have visions of that “Christian” God, or at least one of the archangels, leading a “USA! USA!” cheering section.
Back to Greenwald:
This belief in America’s unparalleled greatness has immense impact. It is not hyperbole to say that the sentiment expressed by Cooke is the overarching belief system of the US political and media class, the primary premise shaping political discourse.
Greenwald provides a recent example of this kind of thinking, when Cornel West named Nixon, Bush and Obama “war criminals,” and was quickly chastised.
The key point is what constitutes West’s transgression. His real crime is that he tacitly assumed that the US should be subjected to the same rules and constraints as all other nations in the world, that he rejected the notion that America has the right to do what others nations may not. And this is the premise – that there are any legal or moral constraints on the US’s right to use force in the world – that is the prime taboo thought in the circles of DC Seriousness.
About this time last year I wrote: “‘American Exceptionalism’ is a myth, like ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ They’re stories told by whoever is in power to (1) help keep them there and (2) help keep the masses compliant.”
And distracted, diverted and in very real ways, entertained. We are a nation with a lot of really great people. So are other nations. We are a nation with people who do good things. So are other nations. The U.S. has the power to have the biggest, loudest voice. That doesn’t make us the “greatest,” just the one with the most power / money. Why do we so often seem to insist on seeing ourselves as the “greatest, bestest nation the world has ever seen”? Who are we trying to convince, and to what end?
(American Exceptionalism graphic via Via OWS)