Thursday, May 6, 2010

American Exceptionalism is a Lie, Con'd.

The nativist xenophobia of so many Americans -- particularly politicians using it to fan anti-whatever -- is pretty ironic considering we are largely a nation of foreigners.  Unless you are wholly or partially descended from one or more of the Native American tribes, your American ancestors originated elsewhere. And, whereas those emigrating ancestors may be forgiven a varying amount of bad feelings about the place they left, surely most of our families have been here long enough to have gotten over it by now.  So why the continued, persistent strain of disdain?

Nationalism, in moderate amounts, doesn't have to be all bad. Rooting for your country in the Olympics or at a World Cup match is to be expected.  Or nationalism might be a necessary evil in harnessing the collective will to fight a bigger evil like Hitler.  But, when it comes to enacting draconian laws like the new "immigration" law in Arizona, or scapegoating our fellow Muslim citizens because they are unlucky enough to share Muhammad as a common religious leader with some who have harmed us, we've gone too far.  We might understand it emotionally, but it's an emotion based in ignorance or fear and it's not rational.

And isn't reason one of the pillars upon which we've constructed our whole society...something we point to as a partial proof of our "exceptionalism"?

In school, American school children are fed a steady diet of "We" versus "They".


The "We", embodied in the guise of Bugs Bunny, represents the scrappy, wits-driven picture we like to have of ourselves -- the reluctant fighters who win the day against all odds.  And, perhaps when Bunker Hill Bunny came out in 1950, the American people, having survived a Civil War and decisively helped win two World Wars, could reasonably be allowed this romantic view.  Indeed, who wouldn't want to embrace such a positive image?

But what else was happening in the United States in 1950?  Jim Crow laws were alive and well in the South.  A still largely-segregated army was sent to South Korea.  Washington, D.C., schools, parks and recreational facilities were still segregated...and, speaking of the District of Columbia, can you say "taxation without representation"?  This is hardly a minor point considering we wouldn't have a United States were it not for this rallying cry.

Ok, so we had our problems.  Can't we still be exceptional?  No, we can't, or at least we shouldn't.  "American exceptionalism", as a concept, is still a fig leaf being used to cover the underlying hope that we're somehow better and, as such, do not have to care about or be in cooperation with the rest of the world.  The truth is:  we've become Yosemite Sam.  We're arrogant, swaggering and loud.  We sneer at the United Nations, something we helped create and still host.  We scoff at the idea that we should join 187 other nations by signing the Kyoto Protocol, pooh-poohing the very notion that there is such a thing as global warming.  We can barely reform our health care system without compromising to the point where our system pales in comparison to the rest of the industrialized world. We rush to bail out our banks after they led the global financial system in driving our economies off a cliff.

Perhaps this is exceptional, but not in the way so many politicians want us to think.  The We're-Still-Number-One crowd wants to assuage our fears that, as Americans, we don't have to worry about this stuff.  It's far easier to blame the garlicky French, or the snooty Brits, or the crazy Greeks...or, more alarmingly, blame our own citizens or those who seek to become citizens.  History is rife with this kind of scapegoating, and it's not pretty.

If "American exceptionalism" should mean anything, it should stand as an ideal that transcends nationhood -- not as a face-saving fait accompli applied as a balm to soothe an insecure society.