Tuesday, December 7, 2010

American Exceptionalism

While the topic of Wikileaks is already starting to feel stale (though God knows why it should beyond our insatiable appetite for new gossip), I wanted to drive home a point regarding American exceptionalism using Wikileaks as my hammer.

American exceptionalism is the evolved idea, cherished by many, that the United States is righteous in the realm of international affairs. That the US keeps the greatest good as its highest priority while conducting itself in the international arena. That our foreign policies are primarily aimed at helping the less fortunate and punishing the wicked. Or to put it in the mouth of one of its greatest proponents, "America is a certain kind of country, dedicated to the inherent and equal dignity of human lives. It is this ideal - rooted in faith and our founding - that gives purpose to our power. When we have a chance to do the right thing, we take it." This modern incarnation of our national hubris is sprung from combination of our earlier notions of exceptionalism (the first nation to be created based on an ideology) and our victorious emergence from the Cold War.

American exceptionalism has become an article of faith among a subset of the population that seemingly puts its head in the sand whenever evidence to the contrary arises. The well-documented corruption of Haliburton with regard to the Iraq War, the tacit and explicit support given to dictators and human rights violators across the globe, and the continued exploitation of Central and South American populations by government-backed MNC's all seem to be ignored by those that continue to trumpet America's purity. Given this history of willful ignorance, should we expect the diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks to silence America's righteous minority? Only one way to find out!

The diplomatic cables starkly highlight an American international presence that is totally amoral and refreshingly competent. Nowhere in the cables is there any sign of an American ideal 'dedicated to doing the right thing when the chance presents itself.' Nowhere does America appear to be a just monitor of international relations. Rather, American diplomats are fighting tooth and nail for American objectives that are wholly self-centered. America is no different in its diplomatic endeavors than any of the other countries with whom the cables describe our business. 

Ironically, it is in this common ground that part of Bush's above quote is validated: we are equal. Our human lives may not be dignified, particularly when we pull back the PR curtain to see exactly how we behave, but at least we are equal. This is the great hypocrisy of American exceptionalism that is undermining the very foundation its proponents tout so loudly. It implies that, because we value the equal dignity of human lives, America is unique and therefore superior. It is a self-defeating position whose hypocrisy is lost on those for whom it is an article of faith. If we could only accept our commonality with the other players in the international realm, we could avoid further foreign policy mistakes and even start to reclaim some of what has been taken from us since 9/11. 

American exceptionalism has been a cornerstone for justifying our biggest international blunders since the end of World War II and, despite the lessons offered by history, every generation provides a new batch of voters willing to empower those who use its rhetoric. It is surprising that proponents of American exceptionalism not only deny the ample evidence against it but also decry the few instances where American foreign policy seemed to truly be selfless. Our failed involvement in Somalia was used to villainize Clinton by the same people who supported the Gulf War on exceptionalist grounds. Our attempts to end the Serbian genocide were similarly altruistic but have largely been ignored by politicians attempting to list our righteous international affairs. 

But turning this phenomenon into a partisan lightning rod does little to save America from its effects. It is the idea of a superior, morally-just America we must abandon, regardless of our political affiliations. Though its function as a legitimizing rhetoric for wrong-headed foreign policy is dangerous, our self-perception as superior is far more damaging within American borders. Would we be so willing to accept deeper intrusions on our privacy and freedom were we not convinced of our special status? The very word 'exceptionalism' is illustrative. As we crawl further and further into the police-state that will be marked as the beginning of our civilization's decline, we console ourselves with exception. It can't happen to us, we say, as we shred our constitution. We're special. 

We're not special. We're not an exception. We're just another state in web of order dangling over the maw of anarchy. Our diplomats know this, our academics and leaders know this. It is time for the masses to accept this as well. Abandoning this vain misconception is the first step toward understanding the real threats to our way of life that come not from foreign terrorists but from ourselves. 

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