Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts…a thousand special causes…have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. – Alexis De Tocqueville
More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. – John F. Kennedy
All modern people have long internalized and taken for granted the 5,000-year-old heritage of patriarchy, as well as the 3,000-year-old literalized thinking of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We live in what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world.” It is not that we no longer have myths, but that we are generally unaware of them, they no longer serve us, and our ignorance of them makes us dangerous.
Within the wider concentric circles of those older myths, by adolescence almost all white Americans incorporate the myth of innocence. Our educational, religious and political institutions still teach the values of individualism, consumerism, mobility, racist exclusion and competition – and underneath, the deeper legacy of Puritanism – that define us as Americans. Above all, the media have replaced priests and storytellers in the ancient function of telling us who we are: a nation without a shadow, existing to enlighten and redeem the world – if necessarily, through violence.
Our essence, they tell us, is free enterprise. Entering the world as blank slates, with neither baggage nor purpose, we are free to make our own destiny, on our own merits. We assume that everyone should – and does – have equal access to the resources needed to become anything they want to be, and that one’s responsibilities to the broader community are limited to its defense.
And when sceptics confront us with statistics or stories that question these assumptions, it is our characteristic shock, followed by denial and forgetting, that is the proof of the power of myth.
Myths speak of beginnings, how the world came into existence. We take for granted that the gods (or in our story, the forefathers, the founding fathers) have left us the means to aid the process of freely competing with each other, including a free market of ideas, products and services. As a result, we believe that we live in an affluent society – the best in the world – that has resolved old racial problems, and that we were meant to do this. Again: our shocked response to regular evidence to the contrary shows how strongly our mythic narratives hold us.
The idea of American exceptionalism arises out of this contradictory tangle of ideals and realities.
Curiously, this collectivity of free and purposeless libertarians thinks of ourselves as a nation that is inherently different from other nations; that we are in fact superior to other nations; that we have a unique mission to transform the world, to spread opportunity and freedom everywhere.
However, anyone who has achieved some detachment from the myth can see that those rights and freedoms have rarely been available to most citizens. Indeed, Americans have won them only after decades of sacrifice; and many of them have been eroded in recent decades. But the fact remains that the myth of national purpose and innocence is so pervasive that even in those rare moments when the nation confronts bare reality, we quickly re-veil it. Recall the conservative refrain of the 1960’s: My country – right or wrong! Americans have developed a very old, unique and massive cognitive dissonance – if facts contradict the story, then it is the facts that must change.
Our academic and media intellectuals continually reframe information. This is not at all to take a conservative (more accurately, reactionary) position on the mainstream media as “fake news,” only to acknowledge how they set the terms of debate, frame all reporting in subtle but consistent ways, and rarely convey news or commentary that might be perceived as inconsistent with the main story. In other words, the “liberal establishment” has an essentially religious function, like the Inquisition: preventing, or at least marginalizing heresy. For more on this theme, please see these other essays of mine:
Americans really are unique in many ways, concluded historian Richard Hofstadter. Whereas other nations’ identities come from common ancestry, “It has been our fate…not to have ideologies, but to be one.” One cannot become un-English or un-French. “Being an American…” wrote Seymour Lipset, is “an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are (considered to be) un-American.”
It is an eternal mystery: the world’s most materialistic culture, where consumerism and “lifestyles” were invented, where the predatory imagination has reached its apogee – is also the most religious country in Christendom, exhibiting greater acceptance of literal belief and higher levels of church attendance than other industrialized countries. Ninety-four percent of Americans express “faith in God,” as compared with 70% of Britons. Only 2% of Americans are atheists, as opposed to 19% in France.