It’s self-evident to me that people are pretty much the same all over the world. Some are good. Some are bad. Most are in between. Some cultures are sicker than others — and I wonder frequently about ours — but you can’t really say that one is better than the rest.
That’s right. “American exceptionalism” is pure fiction today, even if there might have been a bit of truth when Alexis de Tocqueville dreamed up the concept in the early 19th century. His idea — that America was somehow different and better than any other country ever before — led to the imperial idea of Manifest Destiny and gave generations of Americans the dangerous fairy tale that they were superior to everyone else. (It’s interesting to note that the phrase “American exceptionalism” was coined by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as a derisive term.)
This ingrained cultural arrogance has led to the U.S. government spending the last hundred years (and more) running around the world hypocritically telling other people how to run their affairs — and backing up the “advice” with guns. When Ron Paul recently tried to explain that to people in a Republican presidential debate, he was booed and Rick Santorum jumped in to offer the conventional wisdom:
“We are not being attacked, and we were not attacked, because of our actions. We were attacked … because we have a civilization that is antithetical to the civilization of the Jihadists. And they want to kill us because of who we are and what we stand for, and we stand for American exceptionalism, we stand for freedom and opportunity for everybody around the world.”
Paul corrected Santorum:
“As long as this country follows that idea, we’re going to be under a lot of danger. This idea that the whole Muslim world is responsible for this and they’re attacking us because we’re free and prosperous, that is just not true. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have been explicit, and they wrote and said that ‘we attacked America because you had bases on our holy land in Saudi Arabia, you do not give Palestinians a fair treatment, and you have been bombing…at the same time you have been bombing and killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for ten years….’”
It’s arrogance to pretend that U.S. government actions haven’t laid the groundwork for what has gone on in the last 10 years. When we see our country being attacked, the natural question is why it’s happening. The truth is exactly what Paul outlined. But there’s one thing that keeps neoconservatives from seeing this. They have an ingrained belief in American exceptionalism, so they invent the absurd fiction that the Muslims simply decided to hate us because “we stand for freedom and opportunity.”
The Americans who have died in terror attacks didn’t deserve it in any way. The people responsible for the attacks were the people who carried out those attacks. They bear direct responsibility, and they should. What they’ve done is evil. But they wouldn’t hate us if it weren’t for things that the government claiming to speak in our names has been doing to their people for decades. The majority in this country allowed the government to do things in their name which they didn’t understand — and they didn’t understand the enemies they were making by allowing it.
In a very different context, I quoted linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky earlier this week as saying, “Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” When Ron Paul tells the hard, cold facts about why many in the Muslim and Arab worlds hate us, he’s telling the truth, but the blind people who don’t know the facts think he sounds like an alien.
The arrogance of American exceptionalism is what keeps some people blinded to understanding the truth about history and about what’s going on today. It’s time to ditch this irrational and unreasonable idea. Many Americans are decent and honorable people, but that’s true of people from all other nations and cultures. Most people want to be left alone. It’s easier to understand that if we haven’t swallowed the lie that we’re better than everybody else.
I love the place where I live. It’s my home. It might not be home forever, but it’s been a nice place to live and grow up. But it’s not really any different from any other place on Earth. It’s a place with all sorts of people — good and bad, brilliant and stupid, kind-hearted and mean. We need to mind our own business and let other nations do the same — or we’re going to keep making enemies who will want to attack us in whatever way they can.
It’s time to retire the absurd notion of American exceptionalism. Let’s just be Americans, not people who teach children that we’re somehow elevated above everyone else.