Tuesday, April 3, 2007

American Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism (cf. "exceptionalism") has been historically referred to as the perception that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, or distinctive political and religious institutions. The difference is typically expressed as some categorical superiority, to which is usually attached some rationalisation or explanation that may vary greatly depending on the historical period and the political context. As Ross (1991) has argued, there are three generic varieties of American exceptionalism:

1. supernaturalist explanations which emphasize the causal potency of God in selecting America as a "city on a hill" for the rest of the world to admire and emulate,
2. genetic interpretations which emphasize racial traits, ethnicity, or gender, and
3. environmental explanations such as geography, climate, availability of natural resources, social structure, and type of political economy.

American Exceptionalism

It's now difficult for me to think of U.S. foreign policy without the dissonance between the history I was spoon fed in public schools and the history I investigated for myself after my own break with that story line during Vietnam and the sudden questions I faced. I grew up with that exceptionalism uncontended and assumed, I'm very aware of that now.

It may take a fairly major shock to shift a mind set if everyone you grow up with assumes that story line we are told -- as reified relentlessly through various symbolic and daily rituals, in stories told as "news" and so forth -- is simply the story of the way the world is, and we are unquestionably the "best" of that world, even if we do slaughter people in their teepees, take their land because they aren't using it anyway, and so on. And we are going to take that "best" of our world and "share" it with everyone else, even if it takes a little force in the process, well, the "Puritan Ethics" imply a little pain might go along with what's good for you and therefore everyone else. What you may think of as "democracy" is associated with that sense of exceptionalism, and nothing that you do, including the treatment you may receive in a brutal institution like the military, or the conformity that's required of you in your formative schooling years, sitting in rows day after day, dutifully listening to a voice of authority, followed by the institutionalized behavior most have in a work environment, none of that may be enough to bring about a question of, "just what the heck is democracy here?"

That brings up a point I like to keep in mind for myself: if one is going to write a history, one has to work somehow with a storyline, or at least one must find one in all the data one chooses to assemble and report. That data must be kept coherent enough that the reader can find the story or the reader will leave it simply because it appears as nothing but a confused assemblage, or like the works of a Salvadore Dali where the persistence of memory transcends time and events. Somehow that line has to seem rational and more or less unbroken, or this very real problem of cognitive dissonance will emerge. "Exceptionalism" is a description of the the transcendent story line that brings all the breaks in the history line back together. The implications of it may be fraught with an arrogance and a violence that I, for one, find almost unspeakable (but that's me, now, after many years of stepping back and seeing where this whole American project keeps going, over and over) but it seems to prevail through thick and thin, election drama after election drama.

Propaganda can be seen to work because it can solve those many variations that if examined closely can raise a story line problem for a questioning mind. By providing allusions to the group embraced story line -- which can also be seen from a cross cultural perspective as a kind of mythology -- that "mythology" underlying the story line holds the group together despite the troublesome reporting of instances that contradict it here and there in the news. Best to keep the foreign news across the ocean, or over the borders. Let your own myth makers tell you the story. Belittle those who don't tell it right.

The invention of terms like "collateral damage" help to mediate a sense of horror at the bodies strewn among the rubble when a people are liberated from the demonic dictator through the intervention of the self legitimized gods of the planet in an act of shock and awe.

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