Jim Turpin : The Myth of ‘American Exceptionalism’

Image from The America Issue. Inset image below from Reuters and The American.

Let me count the ways: 
The myth of ‘American Exceptionalism’

By Jim Turpin | The Rag Blog | July 6, 2012

“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one” — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

[Jim Turpin discusses the issues raised in this article with Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and streamed live on the web. Listen to the podcast of Dreyer’s interview with Jim Turpin here.]

Though this early 19th century French political thinker extolled the Puritanical virtues and individualism of the newly born American government, there is no way he could have seen this being co-opted two centuries later as fervent nationalism by unscrupulous politicians of both political parties.

This belief in a “Puritan Americana” as qualitatively superior to the rest of the world, is frequently projected by many American politicians, including Ronald Reagan.

In his January 11, 1989 farewell speech he weaves his image of Americ

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.

This “shining city” reference is straight from John Winthrop’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630), on the voyage to the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop’s thesis is preparation of his Puritan brethren for a society based on charity and decent human behavior in a harsh and new environment.

Winthrop states:

There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor, as they did in the Apostles’ times. There is a time also when Christians (though they give not all yet) must give beyond their ability, as they of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8).

Reagan mentions none of this, and his administration was not known for charity to the needy, from the Savings & Loan debacle to the total lack of response to the AIDs crisis of the 1980’s.

But was Reagan right? Are we exceptional as a people and country? I would answer “yes” and here is how the United States should be considered “exceptional”:

  • Massive U.S. military spending along with waging war and troop presence around the world
  • Record levels of U.S. poverty, hunger and unemployment compared to other countries
  • Increased power of the U.S. “national security state” that has gutted democratic principles
  • Record profits by U.S. corporations with no returns to the American people

Massive U.S. military spending and worldwide troop presence

The United States remains the number one country in the world on military expenditure.

In 2010, the U.S. spent $698 billion dollars on its military, as much as the top 15 other countries combined (including China, the U.K., France, and Russia) or 43% of the total world share of military spending. Though the U.S accounts for about 5% of the world’s population, we now account for almost 50% of the military spending.

The United States has military presence in over 150 countries around the world including such countries as Japan, Germany, and South Korea, from wars and conflicts that were concluded over 60 years ago.

Our very presence is an imperial footprint that both is symbolic for the occupied and has real life and death consequences for civilians.

In December of 2011, the President after almost nine years of occupation and unilateral war, finally withdrew all combat troops from Iraq and left a huge force of corporate mercenaries behind as proxy military.

What he did not mention to the American people was the massive economic toll that both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have inflicted upon the American taxpayer.

According to the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University, Cost of War (2011), the costs of these two conflicts since 2001 are in the trillions.

Estimates for total dollars spent or projected to be spent ranges from $3.2 to 4.0 trillion and include:

  • $1.31 trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
  • $652.4 billion on additional “base funds” (overage for defense projects)
  • $185.4 billion on interest from borrowing monies from foreign countries
  • $74.2 billion in “foreign assistance” to the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • $400 billion on “homeland security” since initiating the “War on Terror”
  • $32 billion for more than a million veterans on medical and disability benefits
  • $1 trillion projected costs to veterans for medical/disability in the next 40 years. Does spending on war create jobs and if so how many?

Per the Cost of War report:

Wars in general stimulate demand for various outputs such as aircraft, ammunition, and uniforms.

Approximately 8.3 jobs are created by every $1 million in military spending… In fact, public funds would have created more jobs in the past decade if they had been invested in such industries or sectors as home weatherization, construction, healthcare, or education.

A million dollars of spending would create 15.5 jobs in public education, 14.3 jobs in healthcare, 12 jobs in home weatherization, or about the same number of jobs in various renewable energy technologies. A million dollars spent on construction (residential and non-residential structures) creates 11.1 direct and indirect jobs.

Record levels of U.S. poverty, hunger, and unemployment

The U.S Census Bureau reported in September 2011 that:

The nation’s official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 — the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate. There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 — the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

Additionally, 20.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty. This means their family’s cash income is less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four.

Poverty can be defined and measured many different ways, which makes global comparison difficult, and can be based on GDP per capita, “poverty lines” based on gross salary, “purchasing parity power” and other measures.

The Economist recently detailed the measurement differences:

Poverty means different things in different countries. In Europe, the poor are those whose income falls below 60% of the median. Britain uses three measures: one relative, one absolute and a broader indicator of material deprivation, such as whether a child can celebrate his birthday. The concept of poverty becomes even more slippery when attempting international comparisons. The United Nations’ “human-development index” assesses countries across a range of indicators, such as schooling and life expectancy.

Using the United Nations’ “human-development index” (HDI) in the U.N.’s Human Development Report 2011, the United States ranks 4th behind Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands. This compares more favorably to the countries we recently have occupied (Iraq at 132 and Afghanistan at 172).

Though the United States HDI rating appears positive, the fact that over 46 million Americans live in poverty doesn’t help those struggling daily to survive in our country.

With poverty, inevitably comes hunger, and in one of the richest countries in the world, the United States has appalling hunger statistics. The governmental term for hunger is “food insecurity” and “very low food security” and the USDA in 2010 published remarkable hunger statistics including:

  • In 2010, 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 32.6 million adults and 16.2 million children.
  • In 2010, 14.5 percent of households (17.2 million households) were food insecure.
  • In 2010, 5.4 percent of households (6.4 million households) experienced very low food security.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nine states exhibited statistically significant higher household food insecurity rates than the U.S. national average 2008-2010:

Texas ranks second worst after Mississippi…

  • United States      14.6%
  • Mississippi         19.4%
  • Texas                   18.8%
  • Arkansas             18.6%
  • Alabama              17.3%
  • Georgia               16.9%
  • Ohio                    16.4%
  • Florida                16.1%
  • California           15.9%
  • North Carolina   15.7%

Along with hunger comes the availability of fresh and healthy foods to the citizens of the United States, especially to low income families struggling to feed their families. A new USDA website “Food Desert Locator” indicates 10% of American families live in a “food desert”. A “food desert” is defined as any census area where at least 20% of inhabitants are below the poverty line and 33% live more than a mile from a supermarket. This means you are both poor and have little or no access to fresh and healthy food.

Unemployment remains a staggering statistic in the post 2008 recession and economic collapse for the citizens of the United States.

The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics report from May 4, 2012 details:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (7.5 percent), adult women (7.4 percent), teenagers (24.9 percent), whites (7.4 percent), and Hispanics (10.3 percent) showed little or no change in April, while the rate for blacks (13.0 percent) declined over the month…The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) was little changed at 5.1 million in April. These individuals made up 41.3 percent of the unemployed.

Bottom line from this report is, long term unemployment (for 27 weeks or more) for everyone is common and especially bad if you are Black (13.0%) or Hispanic (10.3%)… sadly, even returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have a 9.0% unemployment rate for men and 9.9% rate for women. Welcome home veterans…

Rise of the U.S. national security state

As I have seen written on many protest banners lately, “Orwell’s 1984 was meant to be a warning, not an instruction manual.”

The United States since 9/11 has created a massive bureaucratic and basically unaccountable national security apparatus that not only is costing billions of dollars, but has unfettered access to information about the American public, that even 10 years ago would have seemed unimaginable. It has grown exponentially in the last 10 years and seems almost unstoppable.

The rise of this security apparatus seems to benefit one American institution: corporations.

The Washington Post in 2010, spent two years researching this topic in a series of articles called “Top Secret America,” including an attempt at listing corporations based on type of work, which shows hundreds of companies being paid billions of dollars for this clandestine work. There remains no one source that can firmly account how much is spent annually in this area.

Some of this report’s findings include:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings — about 17 million square feet of space.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
  • Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

Beyond the enormous cost of these entrenched institutions, what is the effect to the constitutional principles of this country? Have we as a nation given over the rights expressed so eloquently in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, so that we can be “safe”?

From the new laws that allow indefinite detention and assassination of American citizens without trial, to the use of electronic surveillance and “non-military” application of drones in the United States, many legal and constitutional scholars now fear the worst has come to pass.

Record profits by U.S. corporations

While worker’s wages and net wealth have dropped precipitously since 2008, calculations for 2010 show that corporate profits account for 14% of the total national income, the largest rise since 1942, “when the need for war materials filled the order books of companies at the same time the government imposed wage and price controls, holding down the costs companies had to pay.”

Bottom line, companies are making massive profits at a time when most Americans have lost huge portions of their net accrued wealth.

The Federal Reserve released its “Survey of Consumer Finances” report this last June 2012 and the report details that middle class American families lost a staggering 39% of their net worth — from $126,400 to $77,300 — putting them roughly on par with their worth in 1992… a 20-year loss of net worth that sent what remains of the “middle class” reeling. The majority of this impact was a result of the housing crisis and recession that began in 2008.

So if the middle class was sucker-punched by the economy, how have corporate CEOs fared during this time period? Have they tightened their belts like the rest of us? Well… no.

The head of a typical public company made $9.6 million in 2011, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using data from Equilar, an executive-pay research firm.

That was up more than 6 percent from the previous year, and marks the second year in a row of increases. The figure is also the highest since the AP began tracking executive compensation in 2006.

The typical American worker would have to labor for 244 years to make what the typical boss of a big public company makes in one. The median pay for U.S. workers was about $39,300 last year. That was up 1 percent from the year before, not enough to keep pace with inflation.

This obscene accumulation of wealth by a corporate plutocracy was one of the driving forces behind Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in September 2011, one of the most creative activist movements in decades.

In OWS’ “Principles of Solidarity,” they state: “We are daring to imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers greater possibility of equality.”

OWS, though belittled by both conservative and progressive pundits, put forth the following points of unity:

  • Engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy;
  • Exercising personal and collective responsibility;
  • Recognizing individuals’ inherent privilege and the influence it has on all interactions;
  • Empowering one another against all forms of oppression;
  • Redefining how labor is valued;
  • The sanctity of individual privacy;
  • The belief that education is human right; and
  • Making technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to freely access, create, modify, and distribute.

America is indeed exceptional on many levels. We remain a country envied around the globe for our ability to create, think, and believe we can be a better place for all people. Maybe we only now are beginning to see that war, nationalism, wealth, and power are not the tools to make this happen.

[Rag Blog contributor Jim Turpin is a native Austinite and member of CodePink Austin. He also volunteers for the GI coffeehouse Under the Hood Café at Ft. Hood in Killeen, Texas.]

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5 Responses to Jim Turpin : The Myth of ‘American Exceptionalism’

  1. Harry Targ says:

    This blog essay is excellent, drawing together economic interest, geopolitics, ideology, and the colosally negative consequences of a permasnent war economy on the 99 percent. I will be distributing it.

    Harry Targ

  2. Steve Russell says:

    American exceptionalism is not a myth; it is a weapon, and this post is a fine example of deploying that weapon in the service of progress.

    The "debunking" aspect reminds me of similar operations targeting the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence. The debunking is true enough, but we are exceptional in that that debunking contains power.

    The Soviet

  3. T.G. Fisher says:

    As a 40 year student of American history I often wonder how many Americans who snivel about our Puritan virtues have learned how we duped the Red aborigine into trusting us,tribe by tribe.Then back stabbed him, murdered him and his family, took his homeland at gun point, made promises we never
    intended to keep, and all the while thanking God for the opportunity to "Win the West" by

  4. Anonymous says:

    What you say is the sad truth. But how you say is worth rejoicing!
    Manifest destiny was/is a psychopathy that destroyed or at least severely diminished a significant group of valuable human cultures.
    God bless.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is a most excellent post and a great lesson! Thanks for cutting through the general confusion
    without overjudging. This kind of reporting allows
    for more informed choices and empowers we the people via a better understanding of what's at work.

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