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The Problem With American Exceptionalism
The reaction on Wednesday morning’s cable programs to an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin were way out of line. One Hispanic U.S. Senator even said that Putin almost made him vomit. This kind of response is a problem, and while I am no fan of Putin, I agree with him that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation …”
The Putin responded to President Barack Obama’s speech on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged gassing of his citizens. In his address, Obama said Americans would respond to the tragedy because “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
Those of us who do not favor either Putin’s or Obama’s world view of history question Obama’s proposition that Americans are more compassionate and care more about human rights than others. The truth be told, I believe that most progressive people do not agree with the notion that Americans are somehow special, and many may even find the Obama statement provocative.
In viewing the overreaction to Putin, I recall that similar reactions to Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s statement before she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearings. Sotomayor said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Many white Americans were offended, and the Greek Chorus went berserk.
It is hard for me to understand why some Americans are offended by the notion that they are not special, that they are better than others. Does this mean Americans have historically been more compassionate than other nationalities? Does it mean that Americans have been less violent than other nationalities?
Are American egos so fragile that they cannot be questioned? The reactions seem ludicrous to “wise Mexicans” who understand that one of the lynchpins to understanding U.S.-Mexican or Latin American relations is the American belief in Manifest Destiny.
At least from my experiences, I have found American exceptionalism or feelings of being special to be at the root of our problems both internationally and domestically. Many people equate American feelings of exceptionalism with racial superiority, and the notion that Americans as a people are specially blessed by god. This distortion of reality affects our relations with other nations who mock Americans for their historical amnesia toward their wars of aggression.
For example, how many Americans remembered that 9/11 was the fortieth anniversary of the CIA funded and directed overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende? How many remember that the U.S. has conducted over 56 military incursions into Mexico and Latin America?
No doubt that these feelings of exceptionalism affect everyday relations inside the United States, between the races and social classes. The whiter that a person is, the more money that he has, the more exceptional he feels.
Feelings of exceptionalism fashion what Americans accept as the truth. It does not dawn on many Americans that their truth may not be accepted by others as in the case of Putin. Does this make them right?
Turning to topics closer to home: How do our experiences shape how we study knowledge? Does it test whether our beliefs are justified? This is important because it affects how we perceive society.
Sotomayor advanced the proposition that her experiences as a Latina, living in the Bronx housing projects gave her an insight to the problems of the poor that an upper class white male was not likely to have. Sotomayor was not attacking white males, but merely talking about how she could contribute to an understanding of people of her background.
I feel that my experiences as an activist have given me certain insights that other scholars don’t have. I am not claiming to be exceptional just to be more knowledgeable when it comes to certain topics.
For example, before I got involved in the struggle against Arizona’s SB 1070 and HB 2281, I knew relatively little about the Koch Brothers and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). Seeing the effects of their actions up front added another dimension to Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado’s No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda.
The book is about how the super-rich are shifting the costs of social production to the poor and the middle-class in order to increase their profits. Learning about the Koch Brothers, and seeing how they have arrogantly bought elected local, state, and federal officials as well as members of the Supreme Court brought it all home, and raised the gnawing question of why?
Reviewing my life, I asked, why did Governor Ronald Reagan destroy California’s mental health system? It began the assault on higher education that has resulted in shifting the costs of social production to the poor and the middle-class.
I am sure that St, Ronald like “anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-public education and anti-immigrant” Charles and David Koch consider(ed) themselves good people – even exceptional people. However, in the case of the Koch brothers, it was not their exceptional intelligence but inheritance and an oil industry that is highly subsidized and under taxed that has allowed them to rape the subsoil of the nation.
What concerns me is that feelings of exceptionalism are not allowing the American people to develop a methodology that enables them to be “wiser.” How do we insure the validity of what we know? The lack of a world vision makes the working and middle-classes extremely vulnerable to exceptional people that are just plain greedy.
The threat is more serious than most realize. I consider my circle of friends more informed than the average American. However, I was shocked that many of them did not know about the latest threat of the Koch’s exceptionalism that threatens to destroy theirs and their family’s economic security.
The Kochs along with hedge-fund billionaires are waging war on California pensions for state and municipal workers. Although the average 2010 CEO’s compensation at a S&P 500 company was more than $11 million annually, these exceptional human beings have chosen to target the retirement security of firefighters, teachers, school employees, peace officers and other public servants.
The tactic is the same as in Arizona: spread fear and lies, and slash and burn. They have not gone after the pensions of double and triple dipping retired generals, the Congress or public officials who cash in after a short service, but are targeting people who have worked most of their lives paying into a system in hopes of living a modest life in retirement.
It is tragic because the Kochs and their gaggle of billionaires are getting tax deductions for making society more unequal. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in a profile of Kochs details how the brothers are “waging war against Obama,” adding “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”
I don’t want to sound like an alarmist but we are in trouble. Without a doubt these disciples of American exceptionalism will float an initiative in California, and will so confuse the truth that many Californians will vote for the initiative without considering the consequences.
I am certain that my friends will wake up at the last minute and fight back. After all they picketed Walmart and Whole Foods and marched for immigrant rights. But let’s face it; it may be too late just as in the case of the escalating tuition at public universities that has killed educational opportunity for many students.
If we truly want to become an exceptional people let’s fight back and defend the defenseless and boycott the economic imperialists within our society. Only if we promote the common good of everyone can we hope to be exceptional. Only if we don’t consider ourselves better than others will we be exceptional human-beings.
RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.