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American Exceptionalism: A Convenient Myth for Empire

July 23, 2010


Throughout its brief but dramatic history, the United States has employed an arsenal of myths to create the impression, in the minds of its citizens and the world, that it is unique and superior among nations and peoples of the world. These myths played an important role in the early expansion of the United States from a republic of 13 colonies to the international Goliath that now straddles the world. It was the myth of “manifest destiny” that justified the extermination of Native American tribes under the idea that “God” had ordained that the United States conquer and cleanse the lands between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for the establishment of Western civilization. The “Monroe Doctrine” was another myth that justified U.S. expansion by proclaiming the Western Hemisphere (Latin America) the backyard of the United States. This policy lead to the seizure of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona from Mexico; the colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti; and the continued interference in the affairs of Latin American countries under the guise of protecting or importing “freedom.”

As the United States embarks on its present imperial ambitions, practically unrestrained by any international competitor or opponent, a new term cloaked in old myths is being promoted to justify the expansion of U.S. power we are witnessing. The concept of an “American Exceptionalism” has found its way into the national language and has been at the root of U.S. foreign policy for the past 30 years. It is hard to pinpoint the exact origin of this term, yet its concept has been around a very long time. Citizens of the United States have always been led to believe that their country, lifestyle and values were superior to the rest of the world. What is different now is the rest of the world is expected to believe and fall in line behind this nonsense. This is what “American Exceptionalism” is: the absurd belief that the United States is somehow a unique creation in all the years of recorded human history.

Some credit former President Ronald Reagan with crafting the term during a speech in which he compared America to a bright shining city on a hill, deliberately invoking a biblical comparison with the city of Jerusalem summoning souls in the last days. In Reagan’s mind, and those of much of the ruling class of the United States, the people of the world would flock to and emulate the U.S. political and economic model just as lost souls would flock to the bright shining city on a hill in the Bible. Describing the U.S. in biblical terms was an important part of crafting the myth because it added to the U.S.’s image as an exceptional model. What lost person living in a dark and underdeveloped country wouldn’t want to be saved by America? Reagan and his cronies envisioned themselves riding white horses into foreign lands delivering the ravished population from the evils of socialism and any other “ism” that didn’t elevate free market capitalism to the level of religion.

There is, however, a problem that proponents of American Exceptionalism cannot get around, and that is the rest of the world – fortunately – is not buying their nonsense. The people of the world recognize the United States for what it is: a mediocre society that wields a massive military. When the rest of the world looks at the United States, they see a nation that statistically ranks in the middle when compared to the standard of living in other Western countries in terms of health care, education, social services, personal income and civil and human rights. Incredibly, for all its talk about being the land of the free and leading the charge to bring freedom to other nations, the U.S. is not even ranked number one when it comes to the personal freedom its own citizens enjoy. The U.S. barely broke in the top 10 free countries of the world.

Unsurprisingly, the only number one rankings the U.S. enjoys – when compared to other Western nations (and all nations of the world) – is the amount of money it spends on its military, the amount of people it has imprisoned, and the rate of violence. Having failed to convert the rest of the world to the concept of American Exceptionalism, the United States has fallen back on the only exceptionalism it can count on – and that is its military might. In adopting the age-old imperial concept of “might is right” the U.S. itself has fallen in line, lock and step, behind the examples of imperial powers of the past, completely discrediting its claim to exceptionalism. The trajectory of the United States is nothing different than the rise of many other empires in the past, from city-states and republics to global or regional empires. What the United States is selling is the same snake oil the Romans, French, Great Britain and other imperial powers of the past sold to the conquered and colonized people of the world.

Tens of thousands (quite possibly hundreds of thousands) have been murdered at the beginning of the 21st century while being “liberated” by the United States. Coincidentally, these so-called liberated lands have become imperial outposts for the U.S. military, allowing the U.S. to maintain military bases in countries that occupy strategic positions both geographically and economically in the world. It would have been unthinkable, not to mention unattainable, for the U.S. to have bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Central Asia just ten years ago. However, the events of 9/11 provided an opening for the U.S. to impose itself in unwelcome regions through fictitious threats. Where the world saw tragedy on 9/11, the U.S. government saw an opportunity to pursue an aggressive foreign policy that would have the support of a significant portion of the U.S. public, interested in the age old quest for revenge.

If the 20th century was defined as the “American Century” due to the rapid rise of the United States to global superpower, it is almost certain that the 21st century will be defined by the demise of the United States as the world’s superpower. While there is no absolute scientific formula to its collapse, it is absolutely certain it will collapse and in its collapse, we will continue to witness the demise of the myth of “American Exceptionalism.” We will witness the continued erosion of civil liberties; the continued merger of corporations and government until the two become indistinguishable; increased military spending in an attempt to maintain a grip on the world’s resources and prop up an economy dependent on the military industrial complex; and the possible bankruptcy of the U.S. government which would reduce the U.S. standard of living to that of Argentina or Brazil. In short, the U.S. would be reduced to a banana republic with the remnants of a superpower military. This process could take decades, as did the collapse of the British Empire, or it could happen as swiftly as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This does not mean that as revolutionary activists we should just sit on our hands and await its collapse or naively believe that its collapse will usher in an era of socialism, humanism and tranquility. Quite to the contrary, its collapse will most likely be chaotic and consist of a series of violent convulsions as the empire sheds its remnants, willingly or unwillingly. It may be in our lifetime, or it may not be. What is certain is we have an obligation to continue to chop at the empire’s foundation by challenging its credibility and claim to possess the right to do with the world as it pleases. We have to continue to put forth alternative systems of government and solutions to the people. We have to continue to network and support other activists and movements challenging the U.S. empire around the world. We have to demonstrate that American Exceptionalism is nothing less than a concept employed to shackle the minds of the people in resource-rich regions of the world so the U.S. can seize their economies and resources, and it should be responded to in the same manner as if the U.S. military was invading their countries. If history has taught us anything, it is that the only response empire understands is resistance.

Robert Saleem Holbrook #BL-5140
175 Progress Dr.
Waynesburg, PA
15370 USA

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