America remains the indispensable nation…there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression. – Bill Clinton
I laughed to myself…”Here we go. I’m starting a war under false pretenses.” – Admiral James Stockdale, on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident
These innocent people are trapped in a history they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. – James Baldwin
It is another colossal mystery, if not an outright contradiction. For the American economic and military empire to justify a constant state of war, with military bases in 160 countries, it has to do two things. It must rely on certain subsets of the exceptionalism myth.
Michael Ignatieff calls them “exemptionalism” (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); “double standards” (criticizing “others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies, but ignoring what these organizations say of the United States”); and “legal isolationism” (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions). But such policies – absolutely the same under Democratic or Republican Presidents – rely, in turn, on both the belligerence and the ignorance of the public.
And it must rely on keeping its citizens – us – in a perpetual state of anxiety. If we were honest, we’d have to admit that our neurotic susceptibility to fear-mongering is a primary characteristic of American exceptionalism. Here are some others:
America is simultaneously 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. These are a small sample of statistics I collected in 2008 for Chapter Nine of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. Some point toward our profound, media-nourished ignorance; others reflect the fundamental themes that really do distinguish America from other societies.
Seymour Lipset’s innocent fascination with the bright side allows him to avoid the fact that America (with the sole exception, for a few years, of Nazi Germany) 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 11% of Europeans. In 2020 I hope that I don’t need to provide any statistics on the prevalence of police violence toward people of color, or of mass murders. But I will remind the reader that the vast majority of them are perpetrated by white men.
Our disdain for authority and love of guns contributes to the highest crime rate in the developed world. How we calculate the numbers, of course, reveals our prejudices toward “blue-collar” crime and the lack of political will to control “white-collar” crime, which is certainly far more influential. And there is a mythical component as well. Our fascination with TV and movie Mafioso indicates that many of us perceive organized crime to be an alternative mode of accessing the American Dream. Sociologist Daniel Bell writes that we see this kind of crime as a “natural by-product of American culture…one of the queer ladders of social mobility…”
But the fear of crime and the need for scapegoats results in over two million Americans in jail, more than in any other country except China, with five times the population. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 22% of the world’s prisoners. And the fact that few of our prisoners and ex-prisoners are allowed to vote is a major factor in the legalized voter suppression that keeps reactionaries in power in over two dozen states. For more on this, see my essay on the election of 2016, Trump: Madness, Machines, Migrations and Mythology.
Traditionally, the fear of crime has also been bound up with the fear of miscegenation, or the mixing of the tainted blood of Black people and other undesirables with that of the pure, Anglo-Saxon blood of Whites, who first began calling themselves “native Americans” as early as the 1830s. Well before that point, the nation that was truly exceptional in the sense of being composed primarily of immigrants and their descendants had already been struggling with both legal and de facto definitions of just who would be accepted as full citizens. And this has never ended. The topic is too vast for this essay, but you can read much more here:
The United States has 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. This in part reflects the fact that 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 any attempts at a rational approach to birth control.
Despite the creed of separation of church and state, the Republican base continues to insist on the old, strict legislation of morality. While abortion and gay rights are non-issues in almost all European countries, puritan prejudices continue to infect our attitudes toward the body. Although we engage in more premarital sex than the British, we are far more likely to condemn promiscuity. One out of every four American men condemn premarital sex as “always wrong” – more than three times that of the British.
Between 45% and 60% tell pollsters that they believe in the literal, seven-day creation story, and 25% 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 literal existence of the Devil.