Christian nation mythologists pump themselves up with narratives of American exceptionalism and Christian domination. But sooner or later even their most devoted followers should begin to see that also depicting it as vulnerable to non-existent threats undermines the myth itself. – Sarah Posner
Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. – James Baldwin
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?
Why have so many unionized, blue-collar, white men supported such obvious criminals, fakes and warmongers as Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trumpus?
Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, when blacks and whites briefly united and nearly toppled the government of colonial Virginia, scholars still wonder – innocently – why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did, at least for a while, almost everywhere else.
Karl Marx believed that every society would eventually evolve out of old-world hierarchy into capitalism, and inevitably capitalism would yield to socialism. The more advanced a nation becomes in capitalism, the closer it must be to embracing socialism. But socialists were baffled by how the United States defied this rule. No nation was more capitalist, yet no nation showed less interest in becoming socialist.
Werner Sombart focused on material abundance: socialism, he complained, had foundered in America “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Leon Samson saw that the real enemy of socialism was exceptionalism itself, because Americans give “a solemn assent to a handful of final notions—democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically much as a socialist adheres to his socialism.” In other words, radical individualism had become an ideology that overwhelmed our natural inclination to cooperate with each other.
Actually, Marx and Sombart were wrong, writes Allen Guelzo:
There had been an American socialism; they were reluctant to recognize it as such because it came not in the form of a workers’ rebellion against capital but in the emergence of a plantation oligarchy in the slaveholding South. This “feudal socialism,” based on race, called into question all the premises of American exceptionalism, starting with the Declaration of Independence. Nor were slavery’s apologists shy about linking this oligarchy to European socialism, since, as George Fitzhugh asserted in 1854, “Slavery produces association of labor, and is one of the ends all Communists and Socialists desire.”
The institution of slavery became the model for a broader economic / financial system in which corporate welfare, or “socialism for the wealthy” would exist only because of taxes on the middle class and massive budget deficits.
Academics, however, rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Black Other, the elephant in the living room of their theories about exceptionalism. It is a simple fact that no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies.
Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day of his life that invite him to separate himself from the impure.
Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. From the Civil War, when tens of thousands of dirt-poor whites died for a system that offered them nothing economically, to the Tea Partiers supporting politicians who blatantly promise to destroy their social benefits, white Americans have often had nothing to call their own except their relative position in the American caste hierarchy. We can only conclude that for them, and only in America, privilege trumps the potential of class unity.
Throughout both the developed world and their colonial outposts, the elite classes and their servants perceived left-wing organizing as rational, even logical antagonism to their rule, and they responded accordingly. Only Americans, however, saw communists as so polluting of our essential innocence, so un-American, so absolutely, irrevocably evil that they would create a Committee on Un-American Activities. has such fear, born in the Indian wars, the Salem Witch trials and the slave patrols, produced a surprisingly widespread consensus that any violations of human rights whatsoever are justified in suppressing the Other. Only in America have people proclaimed that they would rather be “better dead than red.”
Thirty years ago, the memory of our eighty-year crusade against Communism was fading quickly from memory – except among those who recognized its mythic and political benefits. But that residue of fear and hatred never disappeared, and – under a Democratic President – it soon reappeared as a series of narratives that blame every national problem on “the Russians.”
How ironic: nineteenth-century thinkers occasionally referred to American exceptionalism; but the first national leader to use it (in 1929) was Joseph Stalin, as a critique of American communists who argued that their political climate was unique, making it an “exception” to certain elements of Marxist theory.
The 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 poor and working-class victims that they share in its bounty – and to pay for its expenses. “How skillful,” wrote 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.”
Chomsky adds, “… any state has a primary enemy: its 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 and influence to limit dissent, while it isolates people from each other and turns them toward symbols that create loyalty. The real function of the media 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 necessarily out of a particular ideology – Caroline Casey suggests “believes nothing but entertain possibilities” – but because it is closest to a tribal perspective. Mass society as we know it is barely four centuries old. For most of human 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 modern and post-modern society. And it is precisely this disconnect that advertising and political propaganda take advantage of.
Compared to Americans, many Third World peasants are free in one respect: they have no myth of innocence. Their consent may be coerced, but the media cannot manufacture 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 foreign policy for over 150 years. It is perfectly obvious to them that the U.S. controls their resources and manipulates their markets, while protecting American companies from “market discipline.” They know more than we could ever know that talk of “free markets” is just talk.
They know that the only significant changes in First and Third World relationships have been in the resources themselves (first agricultural, then mineral, then human), 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 to the factories and the killing fields.
Our exceptionalism lies in the denial of our racist and imperial foundations and our continuing 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.