Sunday, February 26, 2012

American exceptionalism

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. 
Proverbs 16:18

There is absolutely NOTHING that is more destructive to USA or causes more people around the world to hate us than the attitude "We're #1—and everyone else is just dying to be like us."  This notion would cause a world of hurt even if it were true but it is especially devastating when it is not.

But these days it is pretty easy to find people who are desperate to believe in our universal #1 status.  In fact, the less evidence that it is true, the more people want to cling to it.  To judge from the candidates in the Republican debates, a belief in the unquestioned superiority of USA is a necessary prerequisite to becoming President.

In my mind, the biggest flaw in #1 thinking is that is pretty much prevents future progress.  Why get better if you are already the best?  Why learn from others when they are just trying to imitate us? Of course, there are other problems that come from such hubris as Mr. Sato points out in this gem from the Japan Times.

Aggression born of American 'exceptionalism'
By HIROAKI SATO   Jan. 30, 2012

NEW YORK — I thought American exceptionalism was debunked and dying. I was wrong.

Most recently, American exceptionalism jumped to the political fore at the start of this century. It did so with a swagger, ironically, because of the 9/11 attacks. In his speech that night, President George W. Bush put forward the United States as "the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world."

That assertion was a bit odd in the circumstances, but no matter. He condemned those who carried out the attacks as "evil" and told the world that America, being goodness incarnate, would bring those responsible to justice, making "no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

As Bush pushed his intent to attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with those "evil" acts, some advised that the U.S. assume the role that Britain played from the 19th to the early 20th century. The U.S. is powerful and enlightened enough, the argument went, to relegate those benighted, ne'er-do-well Middle Eastern countries back into colonial status and rule them as lord and master.

Even a plan was cooked up to send schoolteachers to Iraq after its "liberation." The story appeared in The Education Week — a periodical that constantly reports on the problems American education faces.

Behind all that lay the age-old belief that America is a country like no other. That high self-regard faltered as the Iraq War, like the war against Afghanistan that had started earlier, did. Then came the bursting of the financial bubble. The argument that American exceptionalism is a "myth" came to the fore.

Three years ago Godfrey Hodgson published the book The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale Univ. Press). The most cogent case against "the myth" I've read of late is Stephen M. Walt's article with the same title (Foreign Policy, November 2011). In it the Harvard professor dissects it from five angles to show it is fantasy based on ignorance and self-aggrandizement.

First, Walt points to the notion that "there is something exceptional about American exceptionalism." There simply isn't. Powers of any international standing at one time or another entertained similar ideas to justify their "missions."

Walt doesn't cite Japan among his examples, but Japan once projected itself as "the leading race" among the Asian nations. That self-appointed role included what may be called belligerent eschatology. Japan's exceptional mission required the country, some prominent men argued, to fight the U.S. even if that meant Japan's annihilation.

Walt's second point of rebuttal is the belief that the U.S. "behaves better than other nations." He cites expansionism and the accompanying slaughters. He doesn't mention it, but it was none other than Fortune magazine that plainly stated, in 1935, that the U.S. was second only to Great Britain in the total size of territories it had seized by then. more

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