American Exceptionalism

The concept has been prevalent across the mediasphere following President Obama’s recent speech justifying military action in Libya, in which Mr. Obama’s acceptance of a kind of American Exceptionalism was made abundantly clear. It’s a worldview I’ve taken issue with for more than one reason, but perhaps the most personal is my conflation of the idea with my criticism of faith.

Blind allegiance/adherence to a country seems as ludicrous as blind allegiance to a sports team. Indeed, in some ways celebrating and reveling in a sports team makes more sense: it is simple to compare how terrible the Niners have been to how good the loathed (in my head, I pronounce that “loathéd.” Just seems classier) Patriots have been. Those kinds of comparisons seem much harder for an individual to make when it comes to countries. Sure, it’s simple to compare the state of individual freedom and self-determinacy in China and the United States on a basic level, but any really meaningful comparison would require the kind of observation that only comes from having actually lived, in equivalent social contexts, in both countries. How many people with “USA #1” bumper stickers can truly claim to have those kinds of experiences?

It strikes me that the belief in American Exceptionalism is an equally uneducated belief, and I actually refuse to believe that any man (or woman, eventually) who is intelligent and educated enough to make it to the desk in the Oval Office truly believes it. If you have the kind of information a President would have access to, I can only imagine a belief in the “divine right,” so to speak, of American privilege would be shaken to its core. Just look at all the ways in which we have violated some of our supposedly “founding principles” in the past decade alone: are we really meant to believe this is only a recent phenomenon? Barack Obama’s justification for going to war in Libya was refreshing for its honesty: John Winthrop’s vision of a “city on a hill” has not truly been the motivation for US (or US states/cities/counties/whatever) domestic and international policy since the moment he finished speaking. Our interventions are always predicated on much more practical and cynical considerations.

The belief therefore that American is an Exceptional Entity, in my estimation, is as much a product of American’s adherence to the crutch that is faith. I believe the vast majority of Americans who are disproportionately proud of their country in all its successes and failures, victories and transgressions and faults do so not out of any real comparative experience or knowledge, but out of faith. Faith that it is thus, faith that it has always been, and faith that it always will be (though that the future is inevitably fragile unless we return to the values of earlier generations RIGHT NOW has been a crutch of American politics since the Articles of Confederation were signed). America is a country built on faith and blind certainty, and to hear President Obama use it in such a manner (let alone believe it himself) is worrisome to me. Are we any different in our faith that our way is RIGHT than the Zionist settlers of Israel are in their faith of a divine right to Jersusalem? Or the Palestinian faith in their divine right to the exact same territory? Or the jihadist belief in the decadence of Western culture? In matters of faith, there is no difference in the power or intensity of belief and certainty, and there is no persuading a wo/man who is already certain. As long as each of these groups, ourselves included, believe that we are and always will be RIGHT, conflict and war and pain will never cease.

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One Response to American Exceptionalism

  1. UT says:

    This post made me think about your first post about certainty. I’m guessing that you’d agree that faith and certainty are linked. Please allow me a brief digression, which I think does relate back to this topic. I’d contend that “your” (and I do mean the inclusive “you”) belief in uncertainty is a form of certainty. One who believes that there is no single way, lives their life based on that belief, certain that their view of life is the correct one. How is this, at its core, different than the person who lives their life based on the certainty of X, Y, or Z belief?

    You said that uncertainty is ultimately boring and leads to paralysis. I disagree. I don’t think that if one truly has a strong conviction, faith if you will, in uncertainty, that they are necessarily boring or paralyzed. “Boring” from one point of view, is thoughtful, open-minded, perceptive, even-handed, temperate, bridge-building, etc. from another. Uncertainty is paralyzing only if a person cannot make a decision. I think that everyone, both “certain” and “uncertain” people, have similar periods of decision and indecision. In our every day life, we all make decisions without being certain of the results of said decisions. True, these decisions tend to be minor, and not particularly life altering. But even if we look at major life decisions, I’m not so sure that “certain” people are any less indecisive than “uncertain” people. Isn’t an underlying idea of “It’s in God’s hands,” “I’ll pray for guidance/an answer,” “It’s God’s will,” etc. (to use religious examples of faith/certainty) that one is uncertain?

    I think everyone takes similar leaps of faith in life. The difference lies in where one puts their faith. As a simple, concrete example, I’ll pick creationism vs. evolution/the big bang. While I don’t deign to speak for either group, I think if one asks both “What was there before genesis/the big bang?” one gets essentially the same answer from both, i.e. “God was and always is” and “The universe was and always is” (or some physicist gobbledygook about expanding and collapsing universes). Neither can offer proof of their position, so believers of both are left to accept their premise on faith.

    My thesis is thus, uncertainty, agnosticism, atheism, etc are all forms of faith. I think what you call uncertainty, I’d say is strength of faith. Both religious and non-religious people struggle with the strength of their faith. Those that struggle less, appear to be (and probably are) more certain. The converse (or is it inverse? To this day I still can’t keep them straight…) is equally true.

    While I completely agree with you, that single minded faith (I avoid the term “blind faith” because one could argue that all faith is blind…) often results in conflict, war, pain, etc., I think the crux is exceptionalistic (Is this a real word?) faith, not faith itself. I don’t think faith is necessarily single minded. I’d argue that in fact, all major faiths in their pure forms, are broad minded and accepting. I can think of many examples of people of great faith, both historical and in my own life, who were the antithesis of “us vs. them.”

    I argue that faith is an essential element of every day life. From a broad world view, to every day minutiae, our faith shapes our lives. I contend that conflict, pain, harm, arises not from faith itself, but from the misapplication (paradoxically, often with good intentions to boot) of faith. I think that we’re all, every single on of us, are hypocrites in the sense that we none of us truly live up to the ideals in which we profess to believe.

    But, that’s OK. This is the human condition. We’re all flawed and it is precisely this struggle to live up to our ideals, be “God-like,” achieve nirvana, find harmony with life/nature, etc, that is what our human journey is all about.

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