The Folly of “American Exceptionalism”
With all our guns, all our bombs, all our intelligence — are we actually any safer than the nations with essentially no security or national defense?
Did you ever stop and wonder why it’s so dangerous to be an American?
Think about it.
It’s not only dangerous to live and work abroad in many countries. It’s perhaps even more dangerous just to walk down the street in many parts of the United States.
What other first-world nation subjects most of its citizens to such everyday risks? What other nation has its embassies and consulates, presumably missions of goodwill, surrounded by U.S. Marines looking pretty much like armed camp, ostensibly for “protection?” [SEE FOOTNOTE BELOW] What other first-world nation has reduced many of its major cities to war zones, where violent crime and even murder has become a part of daily life?
The terrible irony of all this is that the United States spends the rest of the world into oblivion when it comes to national security and defense. With all our guns, all our bombs, all our intelligence — are we now really any safer than the nations with essentially no security or national defense? Where is it safer to live right now, America or Switzerland? What city would you feel safer in, Stockholm or Detroit? Where are you more likely to be shot, here or in Japan?
Let’s not kid ourselves. The world can be a very dangerous place. Many parts of the globe are far more dangerous than even the most crime-ridden American city. Syria and Afghanistan, just to name a few. But then, many other places in the world are a hell of a lot safer, too. I wonder. Might they be doing something right? If so, might we be doing something terribly wrong?
Nothing suggests these dangers are merely temporary. Some may insist that perhaps we’re just going through a difficult phase right now. Nonsense. If anything, being an American and living in parts of America is getting even more dangerous. Doormen patrolling in front of apartments. Gated communities. Screenings at entrances. Concrete barriers in front of the White House. The TSA. Big brother reading our emails. And so, why is it that citizens of other developed nations don’t have our problems to the degree we seem to suffer?
For one thing, virtually no other nation owns as many guns. Second, no other nation spends more in the name of national security than ours (with the possible exception of North Korea and Israel, at least per capita). Yes indeed, this is what a psychotic gun culture and nation leashed to the defense establishment does to a society.
So, perhaps we really are exceptional. Trouble is, I don’t think the defenders of “American exceptionalism” are refering to our defects and vulnerabilities as much as our virtues. But aside from the promise of democracy and the illusion of freedom and opportunity for all, having the most powerful killing machines is really what makes us exceptional from the rest of the world.
Last week, Russian President Valdimir Putin was correct when he openly questioned both the legitimacy and fallout of a foreign policy based on the notion of American exceptionalism. Although the predictable parade of right-wingers (and even some liberals) grandstanded in response, Putin certainly had a point. What’s exceptional about a nation with steadily declining statistical rankings in just about every metric which measures quality of life and health?
Of course, Putin was speaking more about America’s self-deputized role as the world’s policeman and the increasing instability this has created in several flashpoints. American neoconservatives — who remain just as influential now in Obama’s cabinet as in previous Republican administrations — have long been advocates what William Kristol once called “a benevolent global hegemony.” Based on decades of repeated foreign intervention, costing immeasurable national treasure and lives, shouldn’t we welcome his line of questioning? Are we really so insecure with ourselves and our position that we have to attack Putin for saying pretty much what the rest of the world believes about America?
Fact is, American exceptionalism is based on one thing — and that’s arrogance. We’re convinced that our nation and its people are superior to others. That’s a very dangerous attitude, held by some of the worst regimes in history. It’s the same mentality that sparked the Crusades. It’s the same mentality that once fostered colonialism. It’s the same mentality that justified slavery. It’s the same mentality that had a role in overthrowing the legitimate governments of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), the Dominican Republic (1961), and Chile (1973). It also tried and failed to overthrow Cuba and Nicaragua. Therefore we believe we not only have the right, but the obligation to intervene in the domestic affairs of other nations. Accordingly, we demand that other people conform to our ideals. If we don’t, then we seek to punish them.
What’s disturbing about all this is the poison that comes along with the laying down the blanket of the American picnic. Imposing free elections and guaranteeing protection for the persecuted are indeed noble virtues. Unfortunately, America’s indelible fingerprint around the world is more contaminating than we probably realize, whether it’s opening KFC franchises on every street corner, or looking for another television market to syndicate The Kardashians. At times, American culture isn’t just intrusive. It’s suffocating. If I were a shopkeeper living somewhere in the Middle East trying to raise kids, I’d be horrified too at the prospect of Miley Cyrus being a teen role model. Can you really blame them for being so afraid of us and having their culture threatened when they see what’s popular over here?
Just as Great Britain was the world’s superpower during the 19th Century, the United States enjoyed its golden age in the 20th Century. Now, here we are more than a decade into the 21st Century. It appears the next horizon of political and economic power is likely to be Asia, as well as other emerging markets. While America remains arguably the world’s leading innovator, the most glaring evidence of what the future will bring is increasingly evident, not here, but abroad. It’s modern enginnering marvels like man-made islands out in the sea that have become parts of cities in Dubai. It’s the world’s tallest skyscrapper, in Malaysia. It’s 300 mph bullet trains in Japan. It’s tunnels that connect England and France. It’s pushing back the sea and reclaiming land in The Netherlands. It’s building the world’s biggest particle accelerator in Switzerland. It’s the New Valley Project in Egypt. Indeed, while the rest of the world is spending it’s money and energy in infrastructure improvements, we’re still spending too much of our time hoarding guns and building bombs. Show me the last time we built a Hoover Dam, or a Golden Gate Bridge, or an Empire State Building.
No, I’m not a hater. I don’t hate America. I love America. This means, I want it to be a better place.
To me, instead of denying all the evidence which suggests America is starting to lag behind and isn’t nearly as great a nation as it should be, we should all be looking at ourselves in the mirror. We also might also want to take an unbiased look at what’s happening in the rest of the world and start taking notes. Believing we are “exceptional” doesn’t open our eyes. Rather, it blinds us to reality.
FOOTNOTE: The United States is the only nation in the world with its own armed military personnel guarding every diplomatic outpost. Not Russia. Not China. Not even Iran. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves what kinds of policies abroad warrant the necessity to turn our foreign missions into military installations?