The Rise and Fall of American Exceptionalism
A few months ago, Vladimir Putin wrote an Oped in the New York Times questioning America’s claim to exceptionalism. In fact, he was saying out loud what leaders all over the world were increasingly muttering under their breath. One of the reasons why the Russian President could permit himself to retaliate for a century of Russia bashing by the West is his relationship with Europe, gain-ed not by sending tanks across the continent (which is in fact a peninsula of Eurasia), but through close economic ties built up after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Europe is an exercise in Other toleration among a hundred different peoples in a relatively small area. While seeing itself as superior to other nations and civilizations, it is acutely aware of being part of the wider world, whose center of gravity is moving toward the BRICS countries led by Russia and China.
In a fundamental difference, America’s notion of Otherness has always implied rejection. The Pilgrim’s leader, John Winthrop told them that ‘the eyes of the world’ would be upon Christ’s ‘city on a hill’, hence their behavior must be above reproach — or ‘exceptional.’ They saw toleration as a moral failing and exiled individual religious dissidents from their colonies. The subsequent overthrow of British sovereignty signaled an enduring suspicion of both government and foreigners: in 1798, the first of several legislative acts codified that exceptional American trait with the four Aliens and Seditions Acts targeting Americans suspected of sympathy for a foreign power. For almost three hundred years, two oceans kept the United States isolated from the give and take between neighbors on other continents. America remained alone and proud of it, interacting with other nations only to ensure that they served our needs, bought our products and agreed with our definition of freedom.
As I outlined in my 1989 book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde, published in France with a grant from the Centre National du Livre, there is a fundamental difference be-tween American and European definitions of democracy stemming from their diverging views of freedom. The American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Human Rights lay down the same legal protections, but the young nation’s pursuit of happiness left mutual responsibility out in the cold, in contrast to the Jacobin proclamation of ‘liberty, equality, fraternity.’
That motto swept across the globe and eventually led much of Europe and the Third World to build welfare states. In America, however suspicion of both government and foreigners endured: the notion of equal opportunity spawned by the natural wealth available to all foreclosed any notion of community responsibility for individual well-being. As government became a tool of capital, the drive to the West fostered entrepreneurship, while the less daring became ‘wage earners.’ The progressive movement that came into its own with the fight against slavery was a victim of that trajectory. In 1917, Congress renewed its drive against all things foreign with another Sedition Act, and in 1918 it passed the Espionage and Aliens Act, which contradicted the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that:
Whenever any Form of Government be-comes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The media’s loss of independence contributed powerfully to this development. The New York Times’ nineteenth century definition of purpose was beyond reproach:
We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good;—and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform. We do not believe that everything in Society is either exactly right or exactly wrong;—what is good we desire to preserve and improve;—what is evil, to exterminate, or reform.
However, as advertising chipped away at lofty ideals, journalists were tamed to serve corporate needs. In the nineteen thirties, President Roosevelt was a member of the upper class, but like Lenin, Mao and later the Castro brothers, he knew that robber capitalism was leaving too many people out in the cold. The corporate-owned press obediently conflated his New Deal with socialism, and socialism with ‘foreign,’ strengthening right-wing resistance to progressive ideas.
In 1938, that resistance led Congress to create the infamous House un-American Activities Committee, unleashing what became known as a ‘witch hunt’ against suspected Communists, with Senator McCarthy doing likewise in the Senate. The ideological crime of leftists was enhanced by the conviction that they were ‘beholden to a foreign power.’ Uncritically reported by the media, terrifying machinations lead to hundreds of ruined careers and several suicides. Sixty years later, legislation that deprives children of illegal immigrants born in the United States of citizenship, flouting centuries of Roman law known as jus sol, descends directly from the fear of Others and in particular foreigners that has held sway since the days of the Pilgrims. (Openly murderous organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, formed after the Civil War endure to this day, inspiring skinheads and Neo-Nazis.)
Information about the wider world has virtually disappeared from the media, and criticisms of that lack continue to be answered with finality that ‘the American public is not interested in foreign affairs.’ The rest of the world knows that fascism unabashedly serves the few, while socialism is at least intended to serve the many, but America’s lapdog press deliberately confounds these two ideologies and condemns a religion that requires a daily act of charity.
The legal sidelining of our two hundred year old egalitarian constitution, amended only twenty-seven times, began with a 19th century Supreme Court clerk’s stroke of the pen that granted corporations the advantages of personhood. Money and perks have always been used to make government responsive to certain interests, but in no other country has this practice been codified. American enemies of solidarity recently shut down the government for two weeks in their efforts to kill Obamacare, as a world universally committed to free healthcare looked on in astonishment, and religious conflicts exacerbated by a lack of equity spread across the globe.
The paranoia that defines the United States could have faded during the rebellious sixties, but the flamboyant raiments of the counter-culture’s political message only succeeded in fanning the flames until it was ‘born again’ under the neo-conservatives. Finally, we got Wall Street Wizards who divided us into consumers and debtors, as they bankrolled the plundering of the world’s wealth. In contrast to the rest of the world, America relies on volunteers for services that should be met by society as a whole, while right wing propaganda fosters a lazy attitude among government employees, reinforcing the impression that it is wasteful. We are only ‘citizens’ when we vote, and if needed services are not profitable, ‘we’ don’t get them, because they cost ‘tax-payers’ too much. The media blackout has been carried to such an extreme that Americans are oblivious to the fact that the world is marching on without them.
Watch Putin’s English language channel (RT.com) for a few days and you will realize that capitalist Russia, far from throwing the solidarity baby out with the Communist bath water, sees itself as a social democracy (albeit with a less developed civil society than Western models), convinced that the community must protect its individual members from want (to use Franklin Roosevelt’s famous but long forgotten phrase). In a supreme irony, it is Russia that now defends the principles enshrined by Washington in the United Nations Charter. They are modeled on revolutionary France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which specifies that:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circum-stances beyond his control.
RT systematically takes the side of the Third World against the IMF’s ‘structural adjustments’. President Putin simultaneously promotes family values and encourages modernization and in the federation’s Islamic republics while condemning mindless consumption. Putting past squabbles aside, Russia has joined with China in a formidable opposition to America’s agenda of globalization powered by a me-society.
In contrast, although individualism reigns supreme, the notion of each person’s intrinsic worth, based on his conscience, which I call internal authority, is ignored in the land of the free. Not only have we eliminated the individual’s say in how her money is spent, we have accepted the idea that we cannot afford solidarity to ourselves. Enchanted by cinematography, which makes the most unlikely fantasies seem real, and distracted by so-called reality TV, Americans have abandoned most of their internal authority to the daily spin intended to save them from the big bad world of solidarity.
It took two aggressive wars for whistleblowers such as Jullian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to appear. However, in a sign of the times, while Vietnam war resisters found refuge in Canada, today their safe-havens are Moscow and Berlin, both capitals of former enemies. Calling these heroes traitors, refusing to recognize that no country has achieved a fair distribution of wealth without government involvement, the United States continues to issue orders from its imaginary City Upon a Hill. But the world is no longer listening: while recognizing capitalism’s claim to creativity, most of its inhabitants want an end to state violence, meaningful steps to save the planet from global warming and broad-based solidarity. The leaders seen as most committed to this agenda will win their backing.