Lately, there doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without another viral video of some white American going ballistic in public. Even before an outright racist was put in the Oval Office, in the age of social media we have been allowed to see countless moments of racist intimidation and threats that, although common, were most often hidden from public view. But the latest spate of outbursts seems to be related to mask wearing in stores and other public spaces to stem the spread of Covid-19. One incident involved a man in a Costco store in Florida who screamed at an elderly woman who asked him to wear a mask. The man yelled: “I feel threatened! Back off! Threaten me again!” as he stepped toward the woman in a threatening manner. This moment of unhinged rage would be like every other if it were not one other glaring characteristic about the man. He was wearing a t-shirt that read: “Running the world since 1776.”
To most Americans there is nothing odd about this t-shirt. I lived most of my life in the States and I understand the mindset. American Exceptionalism is a noxious myth that permeates virtually every aspect of the culture. It is embedded in almost every speech given by politicians from either side of the aisle. There was Ronald Reagan, the man who supported rightwing death squads and genocidaires in Central America, who described the US as being “a shining city upon a hill.” And there was Hillary Clinton who said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that the US is “the indispensable nation.” This was in 2013 after the invasion of Iraq. After Libya. After scores of atrocities committed by the American military and intelligence establishment. She went on to say: “we are a force for progress, prosperity, and peace.” Orwellian doublespeak in real time.
Indeed, Americans are constantly told they “live in the greatest country on earth.” But even prior to the pandemic around 60% of the population was not in possession of a passport. Meaning, most Americans have never been to another country, not even to one neighboring them to the north or south. So how, then, did they know they were the greatest country on earth? The oft used argument is that it is because so many people are clamouring to “get in.” Yet few Americans bother to ask why there are so many immigrants from certain countries as opposed to others. No one dare suggest that decades of belligerent and ruthless American foreign policy against these nations, which has destabilized and made life a misery for millions, might have something to do with this phenomenon. And this indicates how toxically uninterested and myopic the American worldview is.
Most Americans do not see themselves as imperialists. Yet this t-shirt, worn as a testament to ones’ patriotism, is emblematic of this detestable truth. And it belies the murderous foreign policy of the US government which has overseen countless atrocities, from the carpet bombing of South Asian countries, the invasion and bombings of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and beyond, and state-run gulags like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And the way in which America has “run” the world has most often been to suppress democracy and support dictatorships and oppressive governments who favor the interests of corporate capital.
In addition to this, the fact that this man employed the commonly used excuse of feeling threatened, when in fact he was the one making the threats, underscores the contradictory nature of this culture. How many police officers, for instance, have used this same excuse when shooting unarmed Black people or people of color? How often has this excuse been used by politicians and policy makers when justifying yet another military foray against a nation in the Global South?
The American project has always been predicated on two conflicting narratives. One is the supremacist myth of Manifest Destiny, a divine right to ethnically cleanse the land of indigenous peoples and grant it to white European settlers. This myth was built on the slave economy and its violent dominance would inevitably extend well beyond the continent. The other is the myth of the perpetually threatened “white race.” Throughout American history this has influenced and informed every policy and action of the settler state. Not only are non-whites, as well as whites who are non-conforming, to be cast as inferior players on the world stage, they are also to be seen as an existential threat to white people and white culture. They must therefore be subdued, assimilated, and if all this fails, they must be eliminated.
The man in that Florida Costco was asked to wear a mask by several people before he had that public meltdown. And in video after video the same scenario is being played out. Some throwing items of food around supermarkets, others brandishing firearms. All of the videos feature white people exploding in rage for simply being asked to care about the welfare of the most vulnerable people in their society, or to think deeply about the privileged status they have enjoyed thanks to their skin pigment. It is no coincidence that people of color, Indigenous, Latinx, and Black people in the US are the most impacted and devastated by Covid-19. On the contrary, this sad reality aligns perfectly with the precepts of a supremacist culture. Trump has emboldened this sense of white fragility, but a global pandemic has torn the garments of its entrenched conceit to shreds.
The t-shirt the Florida man was wearing was one of the most honest things I have seen emanate from far right, imperialistic, white America. “Running the world since 1776.” Indeed, the American Empire has been running things for that long, and ruining them as well. It has saturated the planet with its noxious ideology of capitalist predation, exported its tactics of political repression to client regimes and “allies,” bullied and brutalized the people of any nation that dared dissent, committed countless atrocities, and has defended corporations and businesses which have polluted vital ecosystems and accelerated climate catastrophe. So it is refreshing, given the current state of the world, that at least one of its subjects would finally take responsibility for its horrendous crimes, abysmal leadership and disastrous legacy.