I had a strange experience 1 August when my Ossie Frau Hildegard marched me to her favorite Baltic restaurant in Zempin, where she spent her youthful summers. I always feel imprisoned there—separated from my internet radio where I daily monitor National Public Radio and BBC world news, with a crippled computer and no TV with my Sunday ritual of Fareed Zacharia and his brilliant “Global Public Square” as well as “The State of the Union” and “Meet the Press”. Hungry for media, I scanned the restaurant’s choices.
My heart surged as I reacted to “Stern”’s cover: a rear view of a scruffy Uncle Sam, doublecrossing his fingers (for good luck, or to mock Europe?) and the title, “The False Friend: No Consideration, No Morals, Why America Betrays Freedom”. Suddenly I was back in a University classroom trying to persuade my students to purge themselves of the hubris that America was God’s special friend, giving a Good Example to the rest of the world. I explained to them that I had an multidisciplinary Ph.D. in “American Studies”.
It all began in 1936 when Harvard celebrated its tercentenary. American Lit was peculiar: in the seventeenth century it was theology (“Puritan ideology declared US sacred”), in the eighteenth, politics, and not honest to God “belle lettres” until the mid-nineteenth century of Emerson, Whitman, and Mark Twain. Until then we squirmed at the global sneer of “Who reads an American book etc.” The proper response was “No one who was serious”. Thus appeared in our intimidated defense the hubris that we were very special. Unique in the world! It has crippled our relations with the rest of the emerging global world, especially Europe.
Alas, this overcompensating hubris legitimized both the threatened extinction of the indigenous Indians (think sadly of Andrew Jackson, our first commoner President, and his cruel “Vale of Tears”) and the monstrous contradiction of millions of ex-African slaves in a “free” country. Alas even our great Thomas Jefferson had a black mistress. Only a hideous Civil War theoretically liberated the cotton plantation slaves.
But the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1976 was a “deal”: Federal troops no longer monitored “free” ex-slaves in the racist South. It wasn’t until JFK and LBJ that the “liberal” North freed those slaves. Compare this horrendous three centuries of Exceptionalist lies with the twelve years of Nazi-ism that the Germans have mostly purged themselves of. Even the racist Virginia-bred Princeton president who vowed to lead Americans into World War One to make the “world safe for democracy” jailed the great railroad union leader Eugene Victor Debs for ten years because he opposed war!
Confusion in the White House didn’t start with the brain damaged George W. Bush. Exceptionalism made US ipso facto a confused participant in the emerging global culture. FDR’s presidencies put us on the right track to world participation.
Ronald Reagan smilingly re-confused US. He was a B actor with a D- intellect and an A+ smile that had been a Hollywood union official that lefties harassed. He got even by killing the aviation monitoring union. He also advised industry leaders to attend a seminar in Mexico that started offshoring and within his presidency had destroyed the emerging middle class.
The obscene result was a 1% earning 500 times their instantly impoverished 99%workers. The Supreme Court ruled that these newly rich could spend as much as they wanted to-–to delay the greatly feared election when minorities would soon become the majority. Those millions persuaded former Members of Congress to become a lethal group that has destroyed our representative democracy. The paralysis of Congress is their dirty work.
Finally, the scandalous wreckage that gun violence has inflicted on a confused America has rational if evil motives. When blacks aren’t killing each other with guns, wealthy Americans see the National Rifle Association as a guarantee that the blacks won’t start a second Civil War. So you see, Europeans, the American experience of upward mobility is disappearing as we speak. Your task is to disabuse Americans of the hubris of Exceptionalism before it kills US.
P.S. John McCain and Lesley Graham’s recent joint lecture to the Egyptians on how difficult but essential it is to develop a democracy from scratch was an exemplary display of anti-Exceptionalism. I was pleasantly stunned by the South Carolina Senator’s confession that we didn’t let females vote nationally until the 1920’s, and that he never had a black schoolmate until the sixth grade—and that his state started that tragic first Civil War. Now if only those two GOP’s could begin to function so amiably back in D.C.
This essay is also published by Broad Street Review.