Robert Jensen : ‘Greatest Nation’ Rhetoric Comes Roaring Back

The burden of being exceptional. Captain America graphic from Statue Marvels.

American exceptionalism:
‘Greatest nation’ rhetoric roars back

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / January 4, 2011

My greatness as a writer is simply a fact.

You don’t agree? Well, then obviously you are churlish or malevolent.

If I were serious about such a claim of superiority, now would be the time to stop reading — on the reasonable assumption that I’m a dull-witted bore with no capacity for critical self-reflection. What applies to individual declarations is also true of nations, yet in the United States such statements about our greatness are common.

Rich Lowry of the National Review closed out 2010 with a particularly bombastic piece reasserting U.S. greatness. Though Lowry is a conservative, his argument is conventional: The United States has brought prosperity to the world, protecting all that is decent against evil. Yes, we’ve had to muscle others out of the way on occasion, but that was necessary to bring order and liberty. Yes, we’ve made some mistakes along the way, but those are all safely in the past and, besides, they have to understood in context.

His conclusion: “Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion.” (“Yes, the Greatest Country Ever.”)

This expression of American exceptionalism is unexceptional in U.S. political history, but it roared back stronger than ever in 2010, especially in the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement. As it becomes harder to ignore the United States’ decline as an economic power — which will limit the capacity for imperial marauding around the world — the inclination of most mainstream politicians to assert our greatness will intensify.

Those of us with radical or progressive politics need to challenge these kinds of slogans when we talk with friends, family, and co-workers. In my 2004 book Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, I offered common-sense responses in plain language, and as we get ready for a more right-wing Congress and the political discussions that lie ahead, I thought it would be helpful to revisit some of those points.

With the permission of publisher City Lights Books, I have posted online two chapters from that book — one that deconstructs “the greatest nation” rhetoric and another that challenges the concept of patriotism.

It is neither churlish nor malevolent to want to honestly assess the accomplishments and failures of one’s country. Rather, it is the obligation of every citizen.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009) and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Robert Jensen can be reached at]


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8 Responses to Robert Jensen : ‘Greatest Nation’ Rhetoric Comes Roaring Back

  1. This is a good post.

    The prevalence of American exceptionalism language is a measure of how much stress our society faces at a given time.

    At present we face a multiplicity of crises: a shrinking middle class, a fragile financial system, deep unemployment rooted in a structurally weak economy, and the threat that whites will not always call all the shots. When all these

  2. Anonymous says:

    And the World Health Organization says we are number 37 down the list when our “health care” is compared to the rest of the world. Go figure.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Reminds me of Nixon’s “I don’t want to hear what’s wrong with America, I want to hear what’s right”, figuratively and literally. We should acknowledge the inherent racism that is part of this rightist recrudescence. Let’s hope it’s a last gasp rather than a new hegemony.

  4. They’ve shat in their mess kits now. Ours too.
    If their path and their code is so great, why do they spend twice as much on Military Spending, to take the wealth of other nations and force them to participate in Capitalism? Isn’t the “free” market supposed to be self-sustaining according to Adam Smith? “Free”ly subsidized with Other People’s Blood in publicly funded wars of conquest and pillage. Rome had that kind of “freedom”.

    Now, when they were supposedly in complete unchallenged control, they saw fit to murder Americans who opposed them. A gesture of how powerful they feel?

    Or how pathetic, weak and frightened they really are…
    Join the TeaHad, kill Americans who oppose the Mighty “conservative” Movement!
    TeaBags should consider this though, the ones their leaders wired up to commit actual murders, Adkisson in Tennessee, von Brunn at the Holocaust Museum, the Minutemen who murdered Raul and Brisenia Flores, now Jared Lee Loughner, urged them on with delusions of being the next Crispus Attucks or at least Horst Wessel, as soon as the airborne fecal material violently contacted the rotary atmospheric circulation device, they were dumped harder and faster than yesterdays chili-dog. Called Lone Wolf, Lunatic, and now, according to a TeaParty founder

    “The hard left is going to try and silence the Tea Party movement by blaming us for this,” Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips wrote. “The left is coming and will hit us hard on this. We need to push back harder with the simple truth. The shooter was a liberal lunatic. Emphasis on both words.”

    Yep, Mr Phillips and Ms Palin will tell them to Kill Liberals, all day every day, all their spokesfreaks telling the Wannabee Horst Wessels “All you have to do when talking to a liberal is frighten them into compliance, or kill them if necessary”. Constantly. Relentlessly.

    Then when they pull the trigger, they’re “Liberal Lunatics, emphasis on both words”.
    It’s said you can’t con a con, can’t kid a kidder, can’t bullshit a bullshitter,… but you sure can fool a fool. All day every day. They need to take heed and take a lesson from how their comrades are being treated by their own leaders.

  5. I am sure most recognize that Brother Jonah is a bit bombastic in his rherotic. There are heated exchanges that get a little testy.
    A line was crossed here suggesting that conservatives were cheering on the murder of Rep Giffords.. Suggesting that conservatives were behind other recent deaths. I am not in favor of cencorship in any form. But if there is any form of journalistic inegrity here, someone should point out that Brother Jonah’s rant was out of line.

  6. Brother Jonah says:

    Since the TeaBags have made threats against the Specific Congresswoman…
    and they’ve done so to try to force Congress to back down on a plan that at least started as a reversal of the “conservative” steady denial of Healt Care to Americans, which, by the way, killed far more Americans than the 5 who died in Tucson…
    You know, when they tell people who are both disabled and poor that we have no right to life, and then take very important steps to make sure we die, that’s murder. and plenty of them.
    The “conservatives” did it to my wife and, literally, countless others. Martha’s death certificate said “complications of Multiple Sclerosis” but the real cause was the systematic denial of health care.

    The TeaBags have every right to whine and snivel when they’re implicated in the murder of two people who were their specific targets, Judge Roll and Congresswoman Giffords.
    They started the sniveling and strident whining as soon as the first news reports hit the air, in fact.

    Just, you know, they don’t have any reason.
    I’m from Texas, many of the readers of The Rag are IN Texas, perhaps an old Texas saying would be appropriate.

    “if you don’t want the name, don’t play the game”.

    They don’t like the notion of being accused by those of us who are targeted for death when two of the persons they publicly and very loudly threatened with death, not merely once but repeatedly.

    They have every right to protest.

  7. richard jehn says:

    I’m with Brother Jonah on this one – the evidence is clear that Sarah Palin’s (and others’) words, repeated over and over, did have something to do with what occurred in Tucson. The Tea Party deserves blame for this.

  8. It easy to tell that Johah is the rag blogs crazy uncle. I expected a little more intellectual honesty from Richard. Perhaps he has spent too much time abroad as of late.

    The only evidence presented so far is that Jonah is exactly the vitriolic voice he and Richard are complaining about.

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