Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Exceptionally Exceptional in its Exceptionalism?

Exceptionalism = The theory or belief that something, especially a nation, does not conform to a pattern or norm.(Free Dictionary).

Glenn Greenwald's piece in The UK's Guardian yesterday:
The premises and purposes of American exceptionalism ~ :That the US is objectively "the greatest country ever to exist", is as irrational as it is destructive, yet it maintains the status of orthodoxy, caused a few hackles to rise among the four long pages of commentary there. I didn't do a count but suspect that, on balance, more commenters were in agreement with Mr Greenwald's point of view than rabidly against it , but there were accusations of anti-Americanism slung around from an opposing faction.

I was happy to note that Mr Greenwald mentioned one of my American heroes, Prof. Cornel West:
Last week, the Princeton professor Cornel West denounced Presidents Nixon, Bush and Obama as "war criminals", saying that "they have killed innocent people in the name of the struggle for freedom, but they're suspending the law, very much like Wall Street criminals". West specifically cited Obama's covert drone wars and killing of innocent people, including children. What West was doing there was rather straightforward: applying the same legal and moral rules to US aggression has he applies to other countries and which the US applies to non-friendly, disobedient regimes.

In other words, West did exactly that which is most scorned and taboo in DC policy circles. And thus he had to be attacked, belittled and dismissed as irrelevant.
My own 2011 post on Prof. West is at Dr Cornel West Speaks Out.

As for the myth of American exceptionalism - is that a myth? I think it has always been more propaganda than anything else: salesmanship on a mega-scale, aimed both inward to its captive audience of citizens and outward to anyone on the rest of planet Earth who'd listen. Salesmen are to be avoided, people who accept their spiel without independent investigation into their products are, at best careless and asking for all they'll get; at worst wide open to a descent into bigotry and hypocrisy.
The bitter, of course, goes with the sweet. To be an American is, unquestionably, to be the noblest, grandest, the proudest mammal that ever hoofed the verdure of God's green footstool. Often, in the black abysm of the night, the thought that I am one awakens me with a blast of trumpets, and I am thrown into a cold sweat by contemplation of the fact. I shall cherish it on the scaffold; it will console me in Hell. But there is no perfection under Heaven, so even an American has his small blemishes, his scarcely discernible weaknesses, his minute traces of vice and depravity.
H.L. Mencken
In fact, all that happened, back in the day, is that the USA took over the baton of exceptionalism and title of "The Greatest" after Britain's empire disintegrated, and other European empires were doing, or had already done, the same. Britain, in its turn, had remembered lessons learned long ago, from its time as part of Rome's empire - and so it went, and so it will go.....who'll be next? China? India?

Commenter "riggbeck" aptly quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley adding that, "Empires come and go, and they all think they're exceptional. Shelley had it right".


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

While reading that poem this scene sprang to mind (from Planet of the Apes)~~


mike said...

Did you know that the term "American exceptionalism" was created by Stalin?

"In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn't interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this "heresy of American exceptionalism." And just like that, this expression was born." From http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/how-joseph-stalin-invented-american-exceptionalism/254534/

An excellent article regarding American decline:

♥ Sonny ♥ said...

thanks for always making your blog a place I can Learn.


Twilight said...

mike ~~ Well...the term does have dual roots, from Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid 19th century who described the US as "exceptional", and, as you point out, Stalin expanded on it in his own context.

Thanks for the link to Frank Rich's article - yes he makes some good points, but his constant "stroking" of President Obama irritated me no end! He's an establishment Democrat, obviously! There are a lot of 'em about.....and that is part of the problems we face these days.
Too much stroking not enough holding of feet to fire.

The factor not only the USA, but the world, faces now is climate change. Decline, when it kicks in, will be different from any other decline in human memory; America will no longer have any claim to being exceptional - except perhaps in their tardiness or obstinacy in not attempting to fully recognise, or try to limit, the dangers.

Twilight said...

Sonny ~~ I'm very glad you see it that way. :-) Thank you!

mike (again) said...

I think that the truer definition of American nationalism as the qualities that make this nation unique are valid...or were valid prior to the Patriot Act. American nationalism has been expanded in the past ten to fifteen years to define foreign policy, which I would call American elitism (or imperialism). This has been a concurrent phenomenon with corporate elitism, coincidentally.

I would call this foreign policy elitism (or imperialism) considering that America went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq with no valid reason, against the UN vote, did not follow Geneva Conventions, has performed militant operations in other countries in defiance of that nation's government, has continually defined rules post play, and America still occupies Afghanistan and Iraq.

Twilight said...

mike ~~ I agree, broadly, and think imperialism is the better description.

Exceptionalism is something else though, neither exactly nationalism nor imperialism.
As you say, there are unique factors in the way the USA came into being - but then there are unique factors in every country's births - births of most others fall back into the mists of time though.

I think what Glenn Greenwald and others criticise is the constant reference from those on high to how great and wonderful the USA is, "God bless the USA" at every turn, as though the rest of the world can go to hell......inward looking, self satisfied.

mike (again) said...

Well, I should probably leave well-enough alone! Self-centered, over-zealous patriotism is just that! You used American exceptionalism correctly in your commentary and I'm not trying to pick at a bone with you Twilight, so please don't take this offensively.

I don't prefer the use of exceptionalism, personally, because it implies the exceptional. I prefer the word nationalism, because it implies over-zealous patriotism.

This from online Webster's:

: the condition of being different from the norm; also : a theory expounding the exceptionalism especially of a nation or region

Definition of NATIONALISM
1: loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups
2: a nationalist movement or government

Twilight said...

mike ~~ I see what you mean. I suppose Glenn Greenwald was using the term exceptionalism rather than nationalism because it offers a wee bit extra nuance - that the nationalism felt by some in the US stems from a feeling of being even more exceptional than the norm (of nationalistic feelings of citizens in other nations.)

Journalists as experienced as GG will always have their reasons for using certain words, I guess.
Words are their business. ;-)