American Exceptionalism Cuts Both Ways

The ideas that the U.S is either uniquely virtuous or uniquely horrible are both fiction and mirrored images of the same delusion of grandeur.

By Roland T. Flakfizer

Photo by Arnaud Steckle

Most Americans in the last 100 years were inculcated by the fairy tale about the U.S. being the “empire of liberty,” a “shining city on a hill,” the “last best hope of Earth,” the “leader of the free world,” and the “indispensable nation ” or some other Reaganesque bullshit painting this country as a cut above all others. We were to see ourselves as a beacon to other nations despite clear evidence in front of us that demonstrated that we were members of a brutally unequal nation that engaged in barbarous acts throughout the globe. Such etudes are old familiar songs from human history: The imperialist British justified their atrocities by believing themselves to carry the ‘white man’s burden’, the colonialist French sought to civilize their subjects via ‘la mission civilisatrice’, and the Soviet Union believed they were leading the planet’s downtrodden toward a socialist utopia all the while inflicting cruelty every chance they had. 

The U.S. has taken the same moral self-congratulations to reconcile its treatment of people home and abroad. Repression, warfare, and cruel economic policy have all been done in the name of American Exceptionalism and that has had the result of magnifying American hypocrisy. Though once confined to the international victims of U.S. overreach, the recognition of American hypocrisy has become commonplace on the home front — and in true American style, the pendulum has swung all the fucking way in the other direction.

A new American Exceptionalism is coagulating. A mythos is forming that recognizes both historical and recent U.S. atrocities as unique among the nations. Precisely inverting the American Exceptionalism construct, this emergent narrative sees the entirety of U.S. history through a lens of American fuckerry. But there is nothing exceptional about either iteration of American Exceptionalism. Yes, Donald Trump is exceptionally garbage from an American perspective yet on the global stage he is part and parcel of a tide of strong men who tend towards authoritarianism. Hardly exceptional.

Hold up real quick: Let me get out in front of this next paragraph and let you know that this is not some shrugging off of U.S. atrocities. Fuck off if you take it that way. It is rather an examination of how our species top to bottom is capable of inflicting untold suffering and more often than not it is par for the course. 

The U.S. is not sui generis in its founding evils. Alas, the nature of nation-founding is horrific. The story of all nascent nationhood is replete with massacres and repression. That is what nationhood is, self-determination for one people in one land above others. And there are always others. From a 30,000 foot historical perspective, the American Revolution paled in comparison to horrors of other nations’ founding. Further down the road, the U.S. took an integral role in what is inarguably America’s greatest sin – the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery. Yet again, there is nothing exceptional about the U.S participation in this horror. Brazil received more than half of all slaves that were horrifically and forcibly brought across the Atlantic Ocean. Historical estimates of U.S. receipt of slaves range between 5-10% of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Shockingly disgusting but hardly unique among the nations. Fast forward to the horrors of the 20th century. The U.S.A. has made every effort to intervene, stoke conflict, or arm almost every nation on the planet yet the total death toll inflicted by the U.S. is a glimmer in the eye of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Again, don’t get me wrong, the U.S. is responsible for untold human misery. We dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We killed 1.5 million Iraqis. But we are not unique. It is not ‘exceptional.’ Our species is comprehensively barbaric and cruel. That is the real.

So what is the danger in a handful of radical activists perpetuating a myth that the U.S. is distinct above all other nations in its domestic and international repression and brutality? Carl Jung warned us “ People don’t have ideas, ideas have people.” The same trouble that the original American Exceptionalism got us into will be wrought by the new, mythic nefarious exceptionalism. The prior exceptionalism allowed us to brutalize marginalized groups at home and drop napalm from sky onto villages in Vietnam and Cambodia. The new exceptionalism is in danger of justifying anything to dismantle the preceding one. What a shit-show-feedback-loop.  When someone, foreign or domestic, believes they are fighting absolute evil, then the next conclusion is that they themself must be absolute good. Yet any glance at Syria today shows that with a dozen participation nation-states, not one of them amounts to ‘the good guys.’ The same danger awaits us at home. If a growing portion of our population believes with an essentialist perspective that the old system and country is made up of people who are only evil, then our polarized political environment has the potential to spiral out of control. The capacity to see your compatriots that you disagree with as representatives of suffering and atrocity enables us to do anything to them. History tells this story over and over. But let me guess, you are above it?  You are ‘exceptional.’

Bottom line: Yes, the U.S. was founded on bloodshed as was every other nation on Earth. So let’s just focus on getting everyone healthcare and ending endless wars. Then maybe we can re-litigate the past 6 centuries. Save the community college debates for after we can get our insulin.


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