We believe – deeply – in a nation of “self-made men,” and that we will continue to grow and progress toward fulfillment of our dreams.
But what are those dreams? Aren’t they equal part nightmare? Historian Seymour Lipset reveals a characteristically liberal naiveté: “America has been a universalistic culture, slavery and the black situation apart.” Indeed. Human bondage, institutionalized discrimination, mass murder of the natives and “free” land created the economic foundations for the very senses of optimism, moralism and idealism that, to Lipset, distinguish America from other countries.
Howard Zinn provides balance: “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.” Without the protracted, unresolved – and unmourned – crimes of genocide and slavery there would be no affluence, no optimism and no innocence in America. And no privilege.
Whoever uses statistics to argue about America is lost in a dream. Since most polls question likely voters, they ignore most poor people, most minorities and anyone younger than twenty-five. But this confusion provides us with a metaphor for one of the mythic factors in exceptionalism: “white thinking.”
The sense of privilege is so deeply engrained, so invisible that few whites notice or question it; this is why it has mythic power. Politicians and pundits take the perspective of the white male, speaking of “African-Americans,” or “Asian-Americans,” but never “European-Americans.” Their language reveals exactly who is a member of the polis and who isn’t. This inconsequential example points, however, to the significant.
Privilege (invisible to whites, perfectly obvious to people of color) is the psychological advantage of having views that define the norm for everyone else. It allows one to view oneself as an individual. It allows liberals to claim that they don’t think of themselves as any color at all. Activist Tim Wise writes, “To even say that our group status is irrelevant…is to suggest that one has enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the world that way (or rather, believing that one has.)”
Privilege allows working-class whites to deny that privilege itself does not exist. It allows them to vote against their interests in favor of non-economic advantages. It allows them, even when dirt-poor, to cleave to an identity of white, male, Christian and heterosexual – as moral and clean – rather than as members of a socio-economic class. It allows them membership in the polis, even if they can’t afford to live within its walls.
White privilege allows one to not have to think about race every day. It is freedom to not be viewed as violent or hyper-sexual, not be racially profiled, not worry about being viewed with suspicion when buying a home, or not be denied a job interview. It is the freedom to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others with the same skin color, and thus to regularly disprove negative stereotypes.
The invisible ocean of privilege lies at the core of both capitalism and innocence. Despite the grinding tensions of modern life, it allows whites – including recent immigrants – to have both a sense of place in the social hierarchy and to believe in upward mobility for their children. They can know who they are partially because, as un-hyphenated Americans, they are not the Other.
Old World nations, for all their limitations on freedom, have known who they are because they have inhabited their land forever. But Americans, in the rush to define ourselves in terms of the Other have always cleansed the polis through the violent rejection of the impure. Without our characteristically Paranoid Imagination, we would not endure periodic inquisitions and tribunals running from the Salem witch craze through the Red Scare of 1919 through McCarthyism and the post-9-11 anxieties that keep conservatives in power.
America is the world’s most religious, patriotic – and materialistic – society. If we add that it is also the most racist, violent, punitive and aggressive of nations, we have the ingredients that require a myth of exceptional innocence. I offer the following statistics and comparisons not out of gratuitous America-bashing, but to put the yawning gap between myth and reality into a helpful perspective. Some point toward our profound, media-nourished ignorance; others reflect the fundamental themes that really do distinguish America from other societies.
Lipset’s innocent fascination with the bright side allows him to avoid the fact that America is the most violent society in history. Most of the realities that actually make America unique stem from the foundational facts of conquest and racism.
Our frontier mythology, individualism and inflated fear of the Other have prevented the gun-control measures common in almost all countries. Americans own 250 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms, approximately 1.7 guns per adult. Forty percent own guns. Our adult murder rate is seven times higher and our teen murder rate twelve times higher than in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and Germany. These nations together have 20 million teenagers; in 1990 a total of 300 were murdered. That same year, of America’s 17 million teens, 3,000 were murdered, while thirty of Japan’s ten million teens were murdered, a rate one-fiftieth of ours.
Annually, 15,000 Americans are murdered, 18,000 commit suicide and 1,500 die accidentally by guns. Twenty-four percent of us believe that it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want. Forty-two percent strongly agree that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice,” compared with just eleven percent of Europeans.
Our disdain for authority and love of guns results in the highest crime rate in the developed world. Many perceive organized crime to be an alternative mode of accessing the American Dream. Sociologist Daniel Bell writes that we see crime as a “natural by-product of American culture… one of the queer ladders of social mobility…”
Fear of crime and the need for scapegoats result in over two million Americans in jail, more than in any other country except China, with five times the population. With five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has twenty-two percent of the world’s prisoners – and over a million lawyers, far more both in sheer numbers and per capita (twice as many as Britain, in second place than the rest of the world.
We have far higher rates of divorce and single parent families. But our teen pregnancy rate – twice that of any European nation – leads to questions of religion. American teenagers’ expressive individualism leads them to have early intercourse. But often their greater religiosity – and restricted access to sex education – undermines rational approach to birth control.
Despite the creed of separation of church and state, increasing numbers insist on the old strict legislation of morality. Between 45 and 60 percent believe in the literal, seven-day creation story, and twenty-five percent want it required teaching in public schools. Forty percent believe the world will end with the battle of Armageddon. Sixty-eight percent (including fifty-five percent of those with post-graduate degrees) believe in the Devil.
While abortion and gay rights are non-issues in almost all European countries, puritan prejudices continue to seep into our attitudes toward the body. Although we engage in more premarital sex than the British, we are far more likely to condemn promiscuity. Twenty-five percent of American men condemn premarital sex as “always wrong” – more than three times that of the British.
And yet, despite such emotionally laden issues, both civic participation and civic awareness continue to decline. Americans vote in lower percentages than in any other democracy. One hundred million eligible voters stayed home in November of 2016. Of those ineligible to vote, 4.7 million – a third of them Black men – are disenfranchised by felony convictions.
America has slipped from first to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 49th in literacy. Surveys regularly indicate just how dumbed-down we are: sixty percent, for example, know that Superman came from the planet Krypton, while thirty-seven percent know that Mercury is the planet closest to our sun. Similarly, seventy-four percent know all three Stooges, while forty-two percent can name the three branches of the U.S. government.
Millions of citizens completely misunderstand common political labels. Nearly fifty percent believe or are not sure that conservatives support gun control and affirmative action, and nineteen percent think that conservatives oppose cutting taxes. Seventy percent cannot name their senators or their congressman.
In 2000, twelve million Americans thought that Bush was a liberal.
Studies indicate that social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has decreased significantly. But in a 2003 poll on the Bush tax plan, fifty-six percent of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it. The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 nineteen percent of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another nineteen percent thought that they already were. Similarly, fifty percent think that most families have to pay the estate tax (only two percent do), and two-thirds think that they will one day have to pay it.
Our ignorance is both the cause and the result of our unique voting system. The Founding Fathers devised both our two-tiered legislature and the Electoral College fearing (pick one) “mob rule” or “genuine democracy.”
The Electoral College prevents millions from having their voice heard in national elections. Three times, a presidential candidate has won 500,000 more votes than his opponent, only to lose the election. Since each state has two senators, a senatorial vote in lightly populated Wyoming is equivalent to four votes in California. Senators from the twenty-six smallest states (representing eighteen percent of the population) hold a majority in the Senate.
Still, though most citizens are ignorant of these statistics, they are not stupid: majorities regularly favor dismantling the Electoral College. But the system, designed to limit democratic participation, has succeeded. As fewer people believe that their votes matter, they lose interest in keeping track of events, and ignorance becomes reality. The contradiction becomes monumental when we periodically bond together to “bring democracy” elsewhere.
A vicious cycle develops: low turnout by the poor results in government that is far more conservative than the population; and politicians reaffirm their apathy by courting the middle class. Indeed, in many subtle ways the very process of voting in America is designed to restrict participation. We vote on a weekday, when many people have to leave work to wait in long lines in mid-Autumn weather.
“Americanism” is a mix of contradictory images: competitive individualism balanced by paranoid conformism; an ideology of equality with a subtext of racial exclusion; and official church-state separation negated by the legislation of morality.
These features come together in one truly exceptional symbol: the cult of the flag, which we literally worship. We have Flag Day, Flag etiquette and a unique national anthem dedicated to it that we sing, curiously, at sporting events. Twenty-seven states require school children to salute it daily. But worship? Consider the Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is considered a living thing.” Indeed, religious minorities have refused to salute it specifically because they consider such action to be blasphemous. But dread of the Other creates religious fervor – and fearful politicians. All fifty state legislatures have urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to make defacing the flag a crime.
The myths of freedom and opportunity – two-thirds of us believe that success is within our control – meet the myth of the Puritan to form another exceptional characteristic. Since Puritans still perceive both morality and worldly success as evidence of their elect status, we are a nation in which the poor have no one to blame (and often to turn to) but themselves. By more than six to one, we believe that people who fail in life do so because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions.
We are exceptional among industrialized countries in failing to provide for pregnant and newly parenting workers; only two other countries do not mandate maternity leave. Reforms such as unemployment insurance came into effect here thirty to fifty years after most European countries had introduced them. They remain highly popular there; but as low-income constituencies shrink, both Republicans and Democrats have felt free to erode them.
The results: Nearly four million children live with parents who had no jobs in the previous year. The U.S. is 22nd in child poverty, 24th in life expectancy, 24th in income inequality, 26th in infant mortality, 37th in overall health performance and 54thin fairness of health care. Even so, America’s health care system is the costliest in the world. We spend over $5,200 per person on health care, more than double what twenty-nine other industrialized nations spent. This equals fifteen percent of our GDP, compared to Britain’s 7.7 percent. We account for fifty percent of the world’s drug budget, and we are 28thin environmental performance.
Americans consider themselves to be quite generous in helping poor nations. In fact, our Puritan judgment encompasses the whole world. We are 22nd in proportion of GDP devoted to foreign aid, and over half goes to client states in the Middle East. Indeed, nearly eighty percent of USAID contracts and grants go directly to American companies. Nearly seventy percent of Europeans want their governments to give more aid to poor nations, while nearly half of Americans claim that rich nations are already giving too much.
By choice (the Puritan’s addiction of workaholism) or by necessity (the “McJobbing” of the economy), we work unceasingly. In 2003, Americans worked 200 to 350 hours – five to nine weeks – longer per year than Europeans, as well as four weeks longer than they themselves had in 1969.Vacations average two weeks; in Europe they average five to six weeks. We spend forty percent less time with our children than we did in 1965. Europeans, who consistently choose more leisure over bigger paychecks, claim that they work to live, while Americans live to work. Even if we factor out economic issues, the Puritan residue remains. Just below the skin of consumer culture we judge ourselves by how hard we work, and relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.
One reason we work so hard is to afford the national status symbol, the car. We own far more than other countries, both in total and per capita. The average household now has more cars than drivers.Consequently, America leads the world in greenhouse emissions, both absolutely – a quarter of the world’s total – and per capita. We spend ten hours per week driving. We park those cars next to houses that average more than twice the size of European homes.
And assuming that conditions always improve, we also try our luck in massive numbers. Seventy percent of us engage in legal gambling, not counting the stock market. We now spend more money on gambling than on movies, videos, DVDs, music and books combined.
Despite the talk show rhetoric, Americans have always been taxed at far lower rates than the rest of the developed world. Even before the Reagan years, taxes amounted to thirty-one percent of GDP, while most European countries were well over forty percent.
There are at least two primary results of these disparities. We provide far fewer social services, and economic inequality is far higher than in any other developed nation. By 2000 one percent of us owned forty percent of the wealth. And that wealth is age-based. Excluding tiny enclaves like Switzerland, white American adults over age forty are the richest in the world.
Even so, America has the highest rate of children living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines; this is the result of fewer public resources spent on children than in any industrialized nation. Youths are by far our poorest age group. Mortality rates among children are also the highest, approaching Third World conditions. Yet even the wealth figures for the elderly reveal surprises. Most – some 35 million – are very well off. But twelve percent of them – again, the highest in the industrialized world – remain in poverty even after Social Security and Medicare.
With a shrinking economy, miniscule taxes on corporations, Puritan condemnation of poverty and the maintenance of empire, it is little wonder that so few resources remain for the poor. The U.S. spends more money on armaments than the rest of the world combined. Nor that confidence in American institutions – government, religion and education – had been dropping every year since the early 1970’s, at least until 9/11/01.
Here we return to mythic questions. A large and occasionally threatening population of Others is absolutely crucial to the perpetuation of the myth of American innocence. As long as the internal Other threatens to take one’s job, as long as one believes in the necessity of constantly striving in unsatisfying work to attain the symbols that serve as substitutes for a genuine erotic life, one will work unceasingly.
Our compliant workforce is another aspect of American exceptionalism. Why, alone among developed nations, do we have no established political party that agitates for the rights of working and poor people?
Other capitalist nations perceived communism as straightforward antagonism to elite rule and responded accordingly. Only Americans, however, saw communists as so absolutely evil, so polluting of our essential innocence, that Congress created a Committee on Un-American Activities. Only in America has such fear, born in the Indian wars and the Salem witch trials, produced widespread consensus that any violations of human rights whatsoever are justified in suppressing the Other: “Better dead than red.” The memory of our eighty-year crusade against Communism is fading quickly from memory – except among those who recognize its mythic benefits in the War against Terrorism.
Systematic manufacture of consent – based on terror of pollution by outsiders – is the ultimate meaning of American exceptionalism. The U.S. is unique among empires in convincing its own victims that they share in its bounty – and to pay for its expenses. “How skillful,” writes Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!” Noam Chomsky writes, “The empire is like every other part of social policy: it’s a way for the poor to pay off the rich in their own society.”
He adds, “… any state has a primary enemy: it’s own population.” But in the U.S., an efficient system of control, a “brainwashing under freedom,” has flourished like nowhere else. It combines free speech and press with patriotic indoctrination and marginalization of alternative voices, leaving the impression that society is really open. The system distributes just enough wealth to limit dissent, while it isolates people from each other and turns them toward symbols that create loyalty.
The real function of the media, he says, is “to keep people from understanding the world.” By limiting debate to those who never challenge the assumptions of innocence and benevolence, it maintains the illusion that all share a common interest. When the boundaries of acceptable thought are clear, debate is not suppressed but permitted. But in this context, the loyal opposition legitimizes these unspoken limits by their very presence. The system exists precisely because of our traditional freedom of expression.
Chomsky quotes a public relations manual from the 1920’s, (aptly titled Propaganda): “The conscious… manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is a central feature of a democratic system.”
We can criticize the national state from this anarchist perspective not out of a particular ideology – a modern Pagan “believes nothing, but entertains possibilities” – but because it is closest to a tribal perspective. Mass society as we know it is barely three centuries old. For most of history we have lived in small communities in which individuals knew everyone else and experienced fulfilling relationships within a mythic and ritual framework. Human nature has never had time to adjust to the strife and alienation of modernity. And it is precisely this disconnect that advertising and political propaganda take advantage of.
Compared to Americans, many rural peasants are free in one respect: they have no myth of innocence. Their consent may be coerced, but the media have not manufactured it for them. They, far more than our educated classes, can see.
Where their history has not been completely destroyed, they can see that there has been essentially no difference in American policy for over 150 years. It is perfectly obvious to them that the U.S. controls their resources and markets, while protecting American companies from “market discipline.” They know that the only significant changes in First and Third World relationships have been in the resources themselves (first agricultural, then mineral), and in the nature of the overseers (first European, then American, then local tyrants who serve the corporations.) To them, “globalization” is merely the latest top-down phrase that rationalizes such practices.
Ultimately, what makes us exceptional is this mix of overt propaganda, subtle repression of free thought and a deep strain of purposeful ignorance. We want to believe the story.
Only in America has a historical collusion existed between national mythology and the facts of domination, between the greed of the elite and the naivety of the people, between fathers who kill their children instead of initiating them and youth who willingly give themselves up.
Our exceptionalism lies in the denial of our racist and imperial foundations and our white privilege. Cornel West writes, “No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history.” And because our storytellers regularly remind us of how generous, idealistic, moral, divinely inspired and innocent of all sin we are, we can deny the realities of race, environment, empire – and death.