Harry Targ : Revisiting ‘American Exceptionalism’

Beacon to the world? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Was Putin right?
Revisiting ‘American exceptionalism’

A better future and the survival of the human race require us to realize, as Paul Robeson suggested, that what is precious about humanity is not our differences but our commonalities.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | September 17, 2013

Continued study and research into the origins of the folk music of various peoples in many parts of the world revealed that there is a world body — a universal body — of folk music based upon a universal pentatonic (five tone) scale. Interested as I am in the universality of (hu)mankind — in the fundamental relationship of all peoples to one another — this idea of a universal body of music intrigued me, and I pursed it along many fascinating paths. — Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1959.

America’s destiny required the U.S. “…to set the world its example of right and honor… We cannot retreat from any soil where providence has unfurled our banner. It is ours to save that soil, for liberty, and civilization… It is elemental… it is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.” — Senator Albert Beveridge, Indiana, Congressional Record, 56 Congress, I Session, pp.704-712, 1898.

President Vladimir Putin wrote in The New York Times, September 12, 2013, that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” This statement embedded in a generally reasonable statement about the instability of Syria brought an outcry from the liberal media elite and often-quoted academics.

For example a Bloomberg editorial refers to Putin’s “bizarre” “out-of date” analysis. Professor Fouad Ajami wrote that “Arab regimes of plunder and tyranny were both physically close to Russia” and the “lawless Kremlin model.”

Liberal commentators dwelled on the silly pictures of muscular Putin riding a horse without a shirt. Or they reminded viewers of Russia’s recent (and vile) homophobia. Or they referred to Putin’s pedigree as a KGB operative or as the ruler behind the throne manipulating the Russian electoral system in order to return to office after being replaced.

Even considering the source.
Image from
Huffington Post.

Although critics were probably correct to challenge his claim that the recent gassing of Syrian citizens was done only by rebels, he did admit that the Assad regime in fact does have such weapons. But both Democrats and Republicans expressed outrage that anyone could challenge the idea that the United States is the “exceptional” nation.

Let’s be clear. United States foreign policy over the last 150 years has been a reflection of many forces including economics, politics, militarism, and the desire to control territory. The most important idea used by each presidential administration to gain support from the citizenry for the pursuit of empire is the claim that America is “exceptional”.

Think about the view of “the city on the hill” articulated by Puritan ancestors who claimed that they were creating a social experiment that would inspire the world. Over 300 years later President Reagan again spoke of “the city on the hill.” Or one can recall public addresses of turn of the twentieth century luminaries such as former President Theodore Roosevelt who claimed that the white race from Europe and North America was civilizing the peoples of what we would now call the Global South. Or Indiana Senator Beveridge’s clear statement: “It is elemental… It is racial.”

From the proclamation of the new nation’s special purpose in Puritan America, to Ronald Reagan’s reiteration of the claim, to similar claims by virtually all politicians of all political affiliations, Americans hear over and over that we are different, special, and a shining example of public virtue that all other peoples should use as their guide to building a better society and polity.

However, looking at data on the United States role in the world, the United States was at war for 201 years from 1776 to 2011. Ten million indigenous people were exterminated as the “new” nation moved westward between the 17th and the 20th centuries and at least 10 million people were killed, mostly from developing countries between 1945 and 2010 in wars in which the United States had some role.

In addition, world affairs was transformed by the singular use of two atomic bombs; one dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, instantly killing 80,000 people and the other on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing another 70,000.

Comparing the image of exceptionalism with the domestic reality of American life suggests stark contrasts as well: continuous and growing gaps between rich and poor, inadequate nutrition and health care for significant portions of the population, massive domestic gun violence, and inadequate access to the best education that the society has the capacity to provide to all.

Of course, the United States was a slave society for over 200 years, formally racially segregated for another 100, and now incarcerates 15 percent of African-American men in their twenties.

The United States is not the only country that has a history of imperialism, exploitation, violence, and racism, but we must understand that our foreign policy and economic and political system are not exceptional and must be changed.

Finally, a better future and the survival of the human race require us to realize, as Paul Robeson suggested, that what is precious about humanity is not our differences but our commonalities. Exceptionalist thinking separates us. Sharing what we have in common as human beings, both our troubles and our talents, is the only basis for creating a peaceful and just world.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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