October 20, 2010
ON THE NEED TO RETHINK THE IDEA OF 'AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM'
Oates, Joyce Carol, In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews (New York: Ecco, 2010) (From the essay "The Myth of the 'American Idea': 2007": "How heartily sick the world has grown, in the first seven years of the twenty-first century, of the 'American idea'! Speak with any non-American, travel to any foreign country, the consensus is: the 'American idea' has become a cruel joke, a blustery and bellicose bodybuilder bulked up on steroids, consequently low on natural testosterone, deranged and myopic, dangerous. . . ." Id. at 351. "What is most questionable about the 'American idea'--indeed, most dangerous--is its very formulation: that there is a distinctly 'American idea' in contrast to Canadian, British, French, Chinese, Icelandic, Estonian or mere human 'ideas.' Our unexamined belief in American exceptionalism has allowed us to imagine ourselves above anything so constructive as international law. American exceptionalism makes our imperialism altruistic, our plundering of the world's resources a health exercise of capitalism and 'free trade.' From childhood we are indoctrinated with the propaganda that, as Americans, we are superior to other nations; our way of life, a mass-market 'democracy' manipulated by lobbyists, is superior to all other forms of government; no matter how frivolous and debased, our American culture is the supreme culture, as our language is the supreme language; our most blatantly imperialistic and cynical political goals are always idealistic, while the goals of other nations are transparently opportunistic. Perhaps the most pernicious of American ideas is the revered 'My country right or wrong' with its thinly veiled threat of punishment against those who hesitate to participate in a criminal patriotism. The myth of American exceptionalism begins with the revolt of the colonies against the British crown. [That is to say, the myth of American exceptionalism began with a very unpatriotic act--an act of war--against Great Britain.] In 1776, what a thrilling, exhilarating 'American idea'! But in the first decade of the twenty-first century, in a vastly altered world, and considering the higher degree of civilization embodied by Canada that waged no war against the British--that country's reluctance to rush into war, its disinclination to celebrate the violence of the frontier, and to display itself as exceptional--it might be a timely American idea to examine our very origins. Id. at 352-353. Of course, given the anti-historical, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing mindset of a majority of Americans, honestly reexamining our very origins is simply not on the table for discussion. Any nation so convinced that it has been anointed by god would see no need to question itself, its role in the world, its actions. Eventually the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will end. Whatever descriptions are placed on the endings of those two American wars, the one description that will be most inappropriate is 'American victory.' America, the American idea, and the notion of American exceptionalism will have loss. . . . And, that is even before the collapse of the American economy beginning in 2008 is taken into account. Americans will have a lot of reexamining to do.).