When I stopped by Eve’s house, she and her husband Elmo were glued to Egypt on the television, so the three of us watched. At one point, when the announcer and his sidekick went on at length about what an un-American autocrat Mubarak was, Eve couldn’t hold back her groan.
“Do you believe those lames?” she exclaimed. “Tell us the whole story. This didn’t start three weeks ago. Mubarak was our guy, for years and years, and they pass over that like it never happened. He was our torturer. When we renditioned people, we shipped them to Mubarak to hang by their thumbs. You’d think that’d be worth at least a mention. You lie down with goons, they’re your responsibility. Do any of these talking heads have a clue what we’ve been up to?”
“They don’t want to,” Elmo interjected, “or maybe they just aren’t capable of it.”
“And why do you think that is?” I asked.
Before Elmo could respond to my usual search for explanations, the tv broadcast went to commercial and a self proclaimed “redneck comedian” appeared to promote his upcoming series about the real America, the country he loves, the most special country in the world.
“That’s why!” Elmo barked at the tv in answer to my question. “Because we think we’re so damn special. We’re always the exception to the rule—so we don’t have to be held accountable for breaking it, even though we want everyone else to be. We’re convinced we can’t do any evil, so the possibility that we not only can but do never occurs to us.”
“The logic is simple,” Eve added with a resigned laugh, “The bad guys always wear black hats, but we always wear white ones, so it’s impossible for us to be bad guys even when we hang out with them.”
That distortion is an outgrowth of America’s rampant Exceptionalism. And while Americans are by no means the only people infected with it, we are among its foremost practitioners. At Exceptionalism’s core is the notion that our nation is, by definition, superior to all others in all possible accountings. Exceptionalism typically claims a special place for America in the eyes of God as well and on a daily basis functions as a kind of social narcissism, masquerading as patriotism, in which other peoples’ and nations’ experiences—particularly of us—are dismissed without hearing and instead, we ritualistically lionize ourselves for who we imagine we are.
Though widespread, this perspective is based on at least one monumental fallacy:
Exceptionalism assumes that identity trumps behavior, that who we are determines reality rather than what we do. In fact, the opposite is the case. We get what we do, not what we tell ourselves about what we do. If America’s actual behavior is less than exceptional, our belief in our exceptionality is functionally irrelevant and our Exceptionalism as often as not amounts to fooling ourselves. Torture is an obvious case in point. Whatever our characterization of it, torture is still the infliction of pain on the helpless and captive, no less so—or less repulsive—by virtue of being done by or at the behest of Americans. Killing people is another such case. Whatever our intentions or reasons for doing so, the victims are left dead as a consequence, and the identity or motives of the perpetrator are no more than window dressing on that reality. The fact of their lifelessness remains, whatever we call the process that brought them to it.
There are certainly times when America behaves exceptionally and deserves the accolade, but Exceptional has to be earned with behavior, over and over and over and over, not awarded for where we were born, as though it were our name. Nobody is Exceptional by definition and every day starts with a clean slate. Actions really do speak louder than words.
And believing otherwise generates at least four unhealthy consequences for our country:
Exceptionalism generates double standards. Indeed, Exceptionalism is the very definition of double standard. We judge ourselves one way and everyone else another. And, as a form of intercourse, the reliance on double standards figures prominently in everything from official corruption to sexual abuse to war crimes. They almost always generate negative outcomes, even when used by people who think of themselves as good. Incorporating double standards in our national ethos is a ticket for disaster.
Exceptionalism thwarts genuine reciprocity and cooperation. Equality is the precondition for both and our Exceptionalist attitude prevents us from being on the same elevation with anyone outside of our own national circle. Believing we are better than everyone else embeds disrespect in all our interactions, even when we’re polite about it, and effectively rules out most partnerships in favor of opportunistic and manipulative use relationships. In so doing we also model Exceptionalism for others to imitate, making meaningful discourse between peoples even more difficult than it already is.
Exceptionalism impairs our ability to know others. In operation, it allows for only a top down perspective, denying us all the multiplicity of angles that comprise genuine knowledge. We see this in our insularity. We don’t know much about the world because we don’t think there is anything much worth knowing about it. We are convinced we are already the best there is. This is why America habitually ends up invading countries that most of us cannot find on a map and about which we are overwhelmingly ignorant. And why we are regularly sorting out international situations in which our lead exclamation is “if only we’d known.”
Exceptionalism also impairs our ability to know ourselves. Our complexity and humanity are obscured by this veneer of self aggrandizement and social mythology. It is impossible to examine and correct our flaws or mistakes if our culture insists there can’t be any such things because we are, after all, Americans. We need authentic experiences of ourselves. Without them we can never appreciate our real value and worth and are instead stuck with a Fox News version of who we are that is both shallow and imaginary. Being real will be far more useful to us than being Exceptional ever was.