Tuesday, June 28, 2011

American Exceptionalism

My Country ‘Tis of Thee
Sweet Land of Liberty
Land where the food is fried
And where the poor have cried
When those in war have died
Let us drink and sing
And have our I-phones ring
As we remember days
When monarchies blazed
Feudalism was the thing
And all hailed the king

I have forgotten exactly which event I was recently watching on TV, although it was probably a sporting event, but I became annoyed as some female performer sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” I do not know exactly when this song first raised my dander, but I was in my teens. The song has no place in our republic, no matter what the words say. The music is a note-for-note copy of Britain’s “God Save the King/Queen.” Whatever words we add or delete, it subtly promotes the principle of personal sovereignty in our republic where the best defining difference of America is that we have no personal sovereign. We have no king or queen. We need no musical vestige of kings and queens. We are exceptional in that regard. We swear no personal oath of loyalty; our oath is only to support and defend the constitution.

I have chosen to deal with “American Exceptionalism” mainly because it has been so badly distorted. Even neocons have used the concept to justify the most oppressive and undemocratic behaviors of government. Loosely linked to “Manifest Destiny,” it excuses wars of choice as a divine right. It pardons military expansionism as an expression of “exceptionalism.” Neocons saw this as justification enough to invade Iraq. One major reason that our nation was formed was specifically to be unburdened of royal wars where the nobility used the people to build up personal wealth and power. Fealty to the king, a personal sovereign, was paramount in that setting. Subjects literally owed their lives to the king and by his whim might die. License to kill is not in the original concept of American exceptionalism by Alexis de Tocqueville who described it in the 1700s. Crowds screaming “We’re Number One” do not promote our exceptionalism. Nor is it enhanced by blithe and ignorant statements that indicate that if it is American, whether healthcare, automobiles or restaurants, it is better than any other in the world. By most objective measures, we are high in the grand ordering of nations, but we are not first in everything and that is not how we are exceptional. We are exceptional in that we are fortunate to live in a nation where social class is an outcome and not a birthright. Most recently, that aspect is being strained and we have fallen to 20th in the world in social mobility. American social mobility is largely determined by personal economic success. While wages for most Americans have declined over the past decade, income for senior executives has increased dramatically and the middleclass has shrunk. The mechanism for mobility is still there, but weakened by shipping jobs overseas and a new emphasis on corporations as people instead of the more traditional American support of individual rights and freedoms of real breathing people. That diminishes another value: Fair Play. If fair play can be re-incorporated into our workplace, the economics might follow. Until then, individuals, unlike major corporations will not be bailed out.

Our brief but rich history is branded by a stark line of demarcation between our ideals of a “shining city on a hill,” and our use of raw power to get our way in the world. While both elements have been present from the beginning, we must not fool ourselves into believing that because we have high ideals that having them is, in itself, a balance for sometimes despicable behavior. The balance can only come if we systematically review our history with clear eyes. Only then will our efforts to right our wrongs succeed by promoting truth rather than revising our history. Even the plucky Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony moved quickly from accepting food from Native Americans to avoid starvation to a bloody massacre of the Pequots within months. And no, Paul Revere did not, some 150 years later warn the British by ringing bells and telling them not to take our guns. I mention Sarah Palin’s hysterical account of history only to remind the reader that revisionism can take many forms, but regardless of the precise revision or the motivation, we must begin with the facts if we are ever going to make the changes and adjustments we need as a nation. Revisions retard progress. Whitewash needs removal before we can fix our imperfections.

Let me sample times when we have not lived up to our ideals: Beginning with the callous disregard of Native Americans, then Slavery and the Civil War itself, we departed from our ideals as we did more recently through 1942 Executive Order 9066 that sent Japanese and Italian Americans to concentration camps that we called “relocation camps,” while we confiscated their real estate and personal property. We departed from our ideals by launching an unprovoked attack on Iraq; then Abu Ghraib and the cover-up. Most recently, we have attacked labor unions and torn their right to represent labor from their hands and denied them the same economic and political rights that corporations enjoy. This has caused us to depart from our ideals of fair play and has resulted in scapegoating instead of problem solving. It is threatening the very essence of who we are when dignity and basic needs like food and healthcare become economic weapons of political warfare. Thirty percent of our children are below the poverty line and are underfed and under educated. The religious freedom we cherish has sometimes become a club or litmus test against non-believers or practitioners of different faiths. Mormons were shunned and harassed and yet later, they themselves conducted the Mountain Meadows massacre. A nation founded upon a model melting pot has sometimes blamed immigrants for economic ills. Even today, Georgia has instituted draconian measures so severe that migrant workers are fearful to work in Georgia and attempts to get field hands from parolees have failed despite unemployment rates exceeding 25% for those on probation from jail.

Is America “Exceptional?” Yes, but with egregious examples of failing to live up to our ideals. We are a nation with both high ideals and high energy and our strength comes from both. Lofty ideals with no desire to achieve them would be meaningless, or worse. Reckless application of energy without ideals is tyranny and chaos. Only we can change the outcome. We need no benevolent king. We need to seek out the truth so that we can pursue our ideals and eliminate the fear that divides us. It is that fear that becomes “weaponized” to make enemies of Mexicans or gays or Muslims or whatever the next target will be. Responsible high profile people like John McCain who essentially accused Mexican migrants of starting the horrific wildfires in Arizona add to the problem. Revision of history or willful distortion of current events strips us of our exceptionalism and makes us ordinary indeed. Even worse, it makes us look the wrong way to solve a problem. Allow me to put this into another context. Let’s say that your car is getting poor mileage and that you take it to be fixed claiming that somebody was stealing fuel from your tank because you are suspicious of your new neighbor. The quick solution would be to install a locking gas-cap, but what if the real problem was fouled spark plugs. The gas-cap might give you temporary comfort, but your mileage would not improve. Or you build a wall on your southern border, but you still can’t get US labor to take your low paying jobs no matter how much you blame immigrants for taking jobs that nobody else wants. Successful problem solving requires an accurate definition of the problem. If you alter history, you may feel better, but you still will not solve the problem.

Maybe we should consider the notion promoted in the 1960s to challenge authority; the media and politicians who use hatred and our human weaknesses for expedient gains. Let us use our energy to both pursue our ideals and to change our future by knowing and understanding our history. We are not feudal vassals of some distant king. We are free and can exercise that freedom on our own to pursue truth and truly become exceptional. Fear stirs emotions, but solves no problems. Ignorance of history may provide fairy tales to tell our children of the honor and glory of our ideals, but it whitewashes the problems that need to be solved. Knowledge and hard work can solve problems and help us reach our ideals. I recently received an email from a friend that purported to be a shameful account of presidential behavior. I quickly referred to “Fact-Check.” It was a despicable fraud as are so many including the recent viral video of Janice Hahn. Be free and skeptical.

George Giacoppe
25 June 2011

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