Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Lethal Hubris of American Exceptionalism

The first time I became skeptical about the American doctrine of Exceptionalism was in planning a new course on The Mass Society for the University of Pennsylvania in 1958. That American Civilization seminar attempted to assess the impact of mass production and mass communication on the American character. It was in the midst of a deepening recession and Fairfax Cone, a leading advertising mogul at the time, tried to whistle in the deepening economic dark by assuring his New York Times readers that America was still The All Time Hit on Humanities Hit Parade. It seemed like an especially fatuous observation, but it started me thinking.

I had learned in my colonial American literature courses that the Congregationalist divines in Massachusetts Bay had actually argued that God's covenant with them had kept the New World empty so that they could be a City on the Hill, setting a good theological example for the corrupt Old World. (Tell that to the Indians, I huffed, with characteristic graduate student scorn.) It was that seed of American Exceptionalism that morphed over the ensuing decades into Manifest Destiny, Lincoln's last, best hope of Mankind, and finally into its current form, The American Dream. (It stunned me to learn that this ideal originated during the Great Depression, another whistling in the dark scenario if there ever was one!) And it also interested me to observe that the American politicians obsession with the New began shortly after Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the Great American Frontier closed. TR's The New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's The New Freedom, FDR's the New Deal, and of course John Kennedy's the New Frontier. Why this obsessive trait of trying to ignore our accumulating history by attempting to reaffirm the tabula rasa freshness of that City on the Hill.

My theory builds on the hypothesis that the American character has been deeply split from the very beginning of our experiment in egalitarian democracy. How could it be otherwise? Jefferson's Declaration of Independence said one thing, our effective genocide of the native Indians and our complicity in Negro slavery affirmed something quite antithetical. Americans from the start believed they were in Eden, but they acted as if they inhabited Eldorado. Our Superego said one thing, our Id the opposite. We are only gradually and partly integrating those conflicts in a secure Ego. That split also accounts for our almost manic depressive swings from HyperIdealism (say, The Peace Corps) to unabashed greed (as symbolized by the Enron Era).

I also explain our Violent Past and Present from a similar lack of integration. Our penchant for the death penalty is surely related to our suppressed fears that our long exploited underclasses would wreak compensatory vengeance on us if only they could. The heat lightning prefiguring such paybacks we saw in the Watts and Rodney King riots. The gap between what we say we stand for and the way we mostly behave has to be occasionally closed by outbreaks of violence. It is pathetic how slowly even a minority (professional historians) have discovered such outrages as the Tulsa obliteration of a black neighborhood after World War I. It wasn't until last year that I happened to pass through Duluth, MN when their first black mayor was memorializing a similar eruption. Black soldiers had fought for America, and they wanted equality. They were crushed, even in Farmer/Labor Minnesota. Sometimes, when I compare how much more Europeans are sensitive and aware of their national histories than Americans it seems that the real American Exceptionalism is blindness to our own heritage, warts and all.

9/11 has only exacerbated this national fault. I was appalled on a recent visit to my home town Philadelphia to see that the public buses all kept flashing GOD BLESS AMERICA on the sign that tells you where the bus is going. And there was a great controversy over the discovery of slave quarters on George Washington's property, where the new Constitution Center was being constructed. After a loud squabble, the National Park Service agreed to include that embarrassing detail about the Father of Our Country's experience where he lived as our first President. To be sure, 9/11 with one cruel stroke obliterated the illusion that we were exceptionally secure between two protective oceans. (Saner heads had long observed how undefended we were by economic migration along our southern frontier.)

A major lesson of 9/11 has yet to sink in: the creative destructiveness of our global capitalism makes us exceptionally vulnerable to the passions of other people our benign imperialism is uprooting.(And those people also include untold American blue collars whose jobs have slipped first into Mexico, and now into the coolie labor Far East.)

The opening months of the Bush administration revealed how the ideology of American Exceptionalism played out, clad in faux Texas cowboy gear. No to Kyoto, to nuclear testing, to banning landmines, to creating an international criminal court,to paying UN dues. During his UN speech, President Bush presumed he was ingratiating himself with his international infra-peers by rejoining UNESCO. He was actually drawing attention to the neanderthalic impulse that motivated the US to abandon an organization we should have wrestled to improve from the inside.

And the insolence of the President sneering at a reporter who had the courtesy to address President Chirac with his fluent French only reminds us of his fumbling Spanish aimed at bamboozling his Hispanic Texas constituency. Exceptionally oblivious one might infer to a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, to cite a former president who was exceptionally open to what he could learn from the rest of mankind. (One day in Honolulu when I was interviewing the leading journalist of Kerala, India, he told me how Jefferson risked death by hiding some grains of a new variant of Italian rice in a hollow walking cane so he could improve agriculture in Virginia!) Now there's cultural exchange!

American Exceptionalism was once a relatively harmless delusion for an immature society; today it has become a lethal hubris that could do us in. We are not,of course, the only Exceptionalists in this world, only the most powerful, and possibly the most reckless and most dangerous because of our blindness to others. The Israeli-Palestinian standoff is based on the Jewish belief that they are God's Chosen People, and therefore have an uncontestable right to Judea and Samaria, and a God-given right to ignore the sanctions imposed by the same UN that gave them their country. And the Muslims are driven by equally exceptionalist assumptions about Allah and Mohammed. The World dearly needs a surcease from these Exceptionalist fantasies.

In 1961, when I was the first director of the American Studies Institute at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii, I said that it was the greatest American idea since the Declaration of Independence. American and Asian students mingling as they prepared careers for modernizing their diverse countries. It was a Declaration of Interdependence. An exceptionally far-sighted idea, somewhat diminished by my discovering that my number two had spent the last ten years in the CIA. (He was their mole!) But no matter, in the real world we must take the bitter with the sweet. Which really means rejoining the human race with our undeniably exceptional powers to change our common world for the better, if only we could descend from the High Horse of Exceptionalism. Even cowboys have to leave their saddles some of the time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr P. It was refreshing to read the thoughts of an American not blinded by the homegrown cultural rhetoric. The US homeland "hubris" is repugnant to many others besides the mideast and disaffected eastern european and asian republics. In Australia, we are chary of Pine Gap and other sovreign parts of Australia sequestered as part of US "forward defence" like other US bases, Guam, Polaris missile sites etc. Your comments about Albert Kahn were intriguing, especially as I was unaware of his european origins: its speaks volumes also about Ford's judgement about people's character & capacities!. Here in Melbourne , in suburban Geelong, is one of the oldest Ford car factories still operating on the site where founded (since circa 1929). Theere are many "industrial traditions' worthy of further study: not just the obvious commonwealth countries": UK,South Africa, India, NZ, Canada, Australia etc but also many so called "colonial Phase" structures like warehouses and "manufactories in New Guinea, throughout Asia, and Africa. Some were prefabricated, others locally produced: then as much again exists in Italy, Spain, and throughout South America. There seems to have been much greater "globalisation" of ideas even in the age of mass publication magazines and news papers from the 1890'2 onwards, (& far more frequent "sailings" by boat on more diverse routes than current "airbus tourism", and well before even the "liners on whom "airliners" were modelled. Perhaps there was more reading and curiosity,rather than "internet indifference". I still hope the folly of curiosity infects many as it does me: I think Germany's industrial engineering in the early mid 1920's marvellous, even if later driven by elements of nationalism.
The difficult European reconstruction after the ardours of WW1 are hard to ken. (My wife is Croatian ,and has family able to relate something of that period in the 1930's.)

Perhaps the great task for the US culturally and psychically speaking is to consider the "after the Fall of Rome" scenarios, that must eventually enter the American Psyche. This is a complexity that will really befoul the zionists and destabilise the Mid east, whenever occurring.
The west is remarkably well served by people like robert Fisk and william Dalyrymple, who have both a curiosity and yet sustained balance in making the complexities of that part of the world more accessible to readers especially in the "West".
I am reading ( as best as one can be obtained when reliant on translations!) several accounts of Irans attempts to reach "accommodation" with the West. That this sort of activity happens at all is testament to that reaching out by different societies despite, the confusing complexities of culture, frustrating politics and the uneven, distorting hand of economic fate.
An Australian observer (who can also be pilloried as witness to the failings of successive Australian governments to improve the lote of indigenes, and of many migrants and "migrant workers". Uur shabby treatment of the "boat people"is especially heinous, yet "we" learn eventually by it all. As a country with a "planned economy, and frightebning brutality and sense of isolation, Australians have contraywise developed an abiding outward-looking curiosity, not unlike their american "cousines".
Keep up the blog, you never know who's nerves you may spark!!