In the late 19th Century, there was a Frenchman (who may or may not have actually lived) named Nicolas Chauvin, a zealous nationalist who believed everything French was superior, merely by virtue of it being French. From his name, was derived the word chauvinism. When I hear conservative talkers and Fox News anchors drone on about “American Exceptionalism,” it makes me cringe. They are the modern-day Nicolas Chauvins, only they aren’t French, they’re Americans. And as was Chauvin, they’re wrong. Dead wrong.
A few months ago, I met with some friends over dinner at an extremely busy restaurant. The place is always packed, with a line of people lined up outside, waiting to get in. In my party of 9, was a couple from Wales, here visiting friends and touring the states from coast to coast. After we finished our dinner, we all walked outside to say our goodbyes, where I spotted a man sitting in a concrete divider in the middle of the street. He only had one leg. Laying beside him was a pair of crutches, and he was muttering to himself incoherently. He was obviously mentally troubled, and the people milling about in front of the restaurant completely ignored this derelict of a human being wasting away before them, as if he were part of the landscape.
And indeed, he was. For me personally, this was mortifying. As for my friends visiting from Wales, it was embarrassing enough to me that they witnessed it, but to have them also see how unremarkable it seemed to the passersby, the shame of it all seared into my brain. I’ve been to Europe several times, and with the exception of the more third-world ex-communist bloc countries, you rarely see beggars anymore, and you never witness a disabled person discarded like a piece of trash. If someone in France, England or Germany has problems as horrendous as this guy apparently did, they’re generally scooped up by social services, and given the appropriate help. This guy could have keeled over and died there that night, and nobody would have known about it until the vultures started circling.
So when I hear this term; American Exceptionalism, being bandied about by the right-wing (and in truth, by some on the left who are too cowardly to refute it and call it what it is: patriotism on steroids), it boils my blood. In truth, the term is a thinly disguised euphemism for American superiority. This is all part of the flotsam and jetsam leftover from the 2000 election, and the hubris that emerged from the neocons after 9/11. That period when “Freedom Fries” replaced French fries, when restauranteurs all across the country were pouring Bordeaux wines into gutters, to protest that nation’s refusal to participate in our little Iraqi adventure, and as a way of poking our collective finger in the eyes of all the other countries who doubted America’s military and political hegemony.
The truth is, American superiority is 100% pure, 24 karat bullshit.
Is America exceptional in many ways? Absolutely. Our national parks, our beautiful coastlines, our rivers, our mountains, the Bill of Rights… I could go on for hours. But could anybody say that our national parks are more beautiful than those of say, Canada? Our coastlines are more beautiful than those of Brazil, Italy or Turkey? Our mountains are more beautiful than the Swiss Alps or the Andes? The Bill of Rights is superior to the Magna Carta? No. Every nation on the planet can in some small way claim to be exceptional. Even the most poverty-stricken nations of the third world have at least one or two unique bragging rights, and NONE of them suggest superiority over all others. Only Americans do that. We just love to remind everyone that we have the most powerful armed forces and the biggest arsenal ever known to man. Yet in all our boasting, we’re quick to skirt such stories such as how our military was misused by its civilian leadership to invade and utterly destroy a nation of 25 million people who posed no threat to us. And, in all our “superiority,” we brush aside as unimportant, the fact that we allow disabled, mentally disturbed citizens to rot in the gutters of otherwise pristine cities.
A truly enlightened nation would have very different priorities. The feeding of our poor and infirm should be at the top of that list. Healthcare for citizens lying in the street, should come before tax breaks for billionaires and subsidies for oil companies. Universally available and affordable education for our children shouldn’t come at the expense of a fleet of stealth aircraft that will (hopefully) never be used. And, perhaps unique amongst us, any truly exceptional nation would NEVER have adopted an electoral process that relies so heavily on electronic voting machines provided by partisan corporate interests!
The fact is, this country now has the highest healthcare costs, the highest infant mortality rate, the worst gender inequality, the highest murder rate and the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation on the planet. Exceptional, indeed. Where do these defenders of American superiority stand on that?
At one time or another, many empires, monarchies and nations have laid claim as the most powerful on Earth. Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and probably a half-dozen others whose names are lost to history. And the one thing they all had in common, is that not a single one of them could ever conceive of a time when they weren’t the most powerful, or they didn’t have the biggest armies, or their armadas didn’t rule the Seven Seas. Yet, their power did indeed wane, as will ours. I would argue that the process has already begun, but the folks on the wacky right who measure America’s strength via military prowess, aren’t looking at the big picture. They’re only looking at who has the most muscle, while ignoring — or indeed, causing — our withering backbone.
No nation can survive with an undereducated populace, or with a two-class system; the haves and the have nots… or by spending nearly 60% of its discretionary budget on military hardware. As surely as Rome fell, so too will we one day. And for those who yammer on about American Exceptionalism, in this case, I would tend to agree; we’re exceptional amongst the nations today due to our path of self-annihilation. And I find it ironic beyond words that the right mistakes such obvious weaknesses as strengths.
I love this country, warts and all. But when these faux patriots boast of our power and pressure our politicians to co-opt their talking points, it shames me to have to acknowledge them as compatriots. Is America great? Yes, it is. Are we exceptional? Yes we are, in many ways — as is Guatemala, Bhutan, Gabon, Peru and Laos. But are we superior to any other country on the planet, by any sense of the word? No. And it’s high time we call out this American Exceptionalism meme for what it is; a pompous, overbearing display of nationalistic arrogance, bordering on fascism. American Exceptionalism as defined by the right is a bald-faced lie.