October 20, 2012

The NYT inadequately criticizes American exceptionalism

It's nice that the Old Gray Lady ran an op-ed mentioning it, even mentioning how, although it's more prevalent among the right/GOP than the "left"/Democrats, it is indeed bipartisan. It's also nice that they mentioned the statistics, often cited by Democrats as well as those further left, undercutting the idea that America is exceptional in many ways.

It's even nice that Scott Shane explained a bit about its background and how problematic it is:
“People in this country want the president to be a cheerleader, an optimist, the herald of better times ahead,” says Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. “It’s almost built into our DNA.”
This national characteristic, often labeled American exceptionalism, may inspire some people and politicians to perform heroically, rising to the level of our self-image. But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed. Problems that cannot be candidly described and vigorously debated are unlikely to be addressed seriously. In a country where citizens think of themselves as practical problem-solvers and realists, this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature of the democratic process.
However, I think Shane still doesn’t go quite far enough.

First, he doesn’t viscerally depict the fetid stench of what is honestly a species not of bullshit, but of the fouler-smelling human excrement.

Second, he could note that American exceptionalism arose from the American Revolution plus the Constitutional Convention, not just John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” Puritanism but that white America’s treatment of Native Americans plus Britain’s freeing of slaves had already put paid to American exceptionalism by the 1830s. (And that the treatment of Native Americans had Northern as well as Southern roots.

Shane then says this, near the end:
Of course, the reason talking directly about serious American problems is risky is that most voters don’t like it.
Which was preceded by this:
In a country where citizens think of themselves as practical problem-solvers and realists, this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature of the democratic process.
But again, no further examination of either one.

So actually, to someone not so “embedded” from the mainstream media into the bipartisan establishment, this isn’t surprising at all. Rather, it’s quite expected. Again, from both Tweedledee and Tweedledum voters. I’d be more surprised, actually, if Americans wanted to be honest about where we stood in the world.

Beyond that, there’s further reality that has escaped Scott Shane.

Reality? The Dunning-Kruger effect, the social scientific term for Garrison Keillor’s comment that everyone in Lake Wobegon is above average, is at play.

All Americans think they know better, even when they don’t. Again, this runs deepest among conservatives, but many Democrats/liberals exhibit it, too, at least among the “laity.” If I picked an average, white-collar, college-grad self-identified liberal off the streets, he or she probably wouldn’t know bupkis about the Trail of Tears or the Long Walk, would overestimate foreign aid spending (though by less than conservatives) and probably think America is generally better, by international measuring sticks, than it actually is, though less so than conservatives would, and less reflexively.

But, try to re-educate that person, especially if they’re entrenched in American majoritarian social structures, and you wouldn’t do a whole hell of a lot better than with a tea partier from Kansas.

What was it the old cartoon character Pogo once said? Ahh, yes: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” American exceptionalism has developed as an incestuous relationship between a public that is largely a mix of self-righteous and self-delusional and a ruling class invested in keeping the public self-delusional, while milking the self-righteousness.

And, it’s fair to point the finger at the American populace beyond this, too. And at people who are smarter and more internationalized than the average American, too.

I think above all of American businessmen, many of whom assume that the American way of doing business, grounded in the twin cults of worship of the CEO and worship of extroversion, is the only way to really do business right. And, of course, that’s not true, including and starting with the humongous income gap that this American style is used to justify.

Or American think-tankers assuming that America’s version of capitalism is better than the more social-democratic variety of much of continental Europe, and not asking “developing nations” for their opinion. Or, how many Americans of the political establishment look down their noses at parliamentary government systems. Of course, that may be because they’re afraid it will someday finally be desired here.

Shane also falls short in failing to look at the role of luck in American exceptionalism. That includes the luck of Euro-Americans stumbling upon arguably the most fertile of the continents, overall, and one blessed with much more natural resources than Europe. Add in the ability to kill off 90 percent of the natives via transmission of European diseases, more natural resources than Central or South America and better climate than Canada, and it was a piece of baklava, to riff on Max Klinger in a MASH episode.

Of course, to do a more serious riffing, taking off on Ann Richards’ comment about George H.W. Bush: “(White) America was born with a silver spoon in its mouth,” or to riff on Barry Switzer, not Ann Richards, that “(America) was born on third base and thinks it hit a triple.”

This second column partially dovetails with it, but is too kind to Obama, who really, when push comes to shove, believes in a kinder, gentler American exceptionalism in foreign policy. (Actually, on foreign policy, I suspect many a Green-type does, too, to be honest.)

Specifically, even as it’s been announced that the US is in talks to keep 25,000 troops in Afghanistan, David E. Sanger claims that Obama is “out of the occupation business.”

Yeah, right.

And, of course, THERE is where the real problem with modern American exceptionalism lies — the mainstream media’s attachment to the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that supports it abroad.

Of course, the human excrement will get spread deeply Monday night by both Tweedledee/Goody Two-Shoes/Mitt Romney and Tweedledum/Dear Leader/Barack Obama.

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