But the need to feel superior seems to be very strong, for
many people. Throughout history, writers have spoken of ways that
"man" is superior to all the other animals, or species. But
primatologist Frans de Waal has said, " humanity never
runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare
uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade." He has shown
that primates demonstrate caring, sharing, fairness and many kinds
of cognition that have been attributed to "only humans."
I asked him why people have the need to feel superior to
animals. He didn't really have an answer. After all, he studies
primates, not people. Of course, there's religion, which puts man
ahead of animals, claiming that only man is moral. But de Waal and
other researchers have clearly shown that, indeed, animals are also
moral, that it's built into the DNA, not just of primates but of
all mammals and even birds. Still there are probably hundreds of
millions if not billions who feel they are superior to animals,
more deserving of being treated specially.
Daniel Quinn wrote a best-selling novel, Ishmael, that
described leavers and takers. In my
interview with him earlier this year
, he described what they
" Leavers are people who leave the rule of the world in
the hands of the Gods, and takers who've taken the rule of the
world into their own hands."
Quinn points out that there have been religions, animistic
religions that took that "leaver" approach, but they have not fared
as well as religions that advocate that humans are superior, and
deserve to be the "superior" "takers." He told me, in our
I have this theory that there have been hundreds of
more religions than the ones we know about, and the ones that
survived are the ones that fit in with our cultural mythology: that
fit in with the vision of humanity as the most important thing in
the universe, that endorses the idea that humans are here to rule
the rest of the living community. The ones that didn't, for
example, Animism, which was the practically the universal religion
of Leaver Peoples, and still is, wherever they are still found,
does not support it [our cultural mythology], and so it is not one
of our religions. It's hardly known, but it doesn't say
anything about that. Animism is a religious world view rather
than a religion, a world view that sees the world as a sacred
place, and humans as belonging in a sacred place. This is not
an idea that fits with our civilization's, our culture's vision of
the world and humanity, and so it doesn't appear as a religion to
I asked Quinn, who also wrote a book, Beyond Civilization, "
Do you think there's a possibility that the next stage beyond
civilization could be a spiraling evolution up towards another
bottom up way of being?"
He replied, "It has to be. Hierarchy
is the disaster."
Hierarchy is all about superiority in different forms, about
power over, wealth, control. We live in a nation that celebrates
hierarchy, supposedly based on merit-- a meritocracy. But Chris
Hayes, in his book, Twilight of the Elites, and other writers and
thinkers, have torn that American claim to shreds It is an illusion
and a fraud.
Perhaps the selling job that has been done for capitalism and
consumerism has worked to get many Americans to have a greater need
than other nationals to feel superior to the people of the rest of
the world. I would agree with Putin that this is dangerous,
particularly for the ninety nine percenter Americans who have
bought into this view of America, tying it to their egos and
"There are big countries and small countries, rich and
poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding
their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too," he wrote. "We
are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we
must not forget that God created us equal."
I've come to believe that American exceptionalism is bad for
America. It creates a sense of privilege and a dangerous jingoism
that American politicians, TV pundits and some religious leaders,
in particular, seem to need to manifest.
Putin is far from a saint. But his words are wise and worth
heeding, almost spiritual in nature.
We have other models and examples to lead us, besides the
"leavers" idea that Daniel Quinn's book, Ishmael, which every
American should read, describes. For example, the Dali Lama
advises that we "practice warmheartedness," which, on reading his
writings, means to me, simply being compassionate to
others. Robert Fuller
former president of
Oberlin College and author of Somebodies and Nobodies:
Overcoming the Abuse of Rank, has
coined the term "rankism" and is a leader in the worldwide quest
for human dignity. He wrote about the problems, how people are
humiliated, bullied, describing these " as abuses of rank--more
precisely, the power attached to rank."
Perhaps we could set some new exceptional goals-- to be
humble, to be kind, to treat all living creatures as deserving to
live in a safe, ecologically healthy environment. There ARE visions
out there, of equality and justice.
The fact is, the world has radically shifted, over the past
two hundred some years from feudalism, monarchy and
authoritarianism to democracy. Democracy and regulations and rules
have been put into place not just to create fairness-- like Frans
de Waal and other researchers have shown "lowly" animals
demonstrate, but also to protect the majority of people in the
world from the predators-- the psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists
and paranoids who live to embrace hierarchy and rank, control over
We have progressed dramatically in the past two centuries. But
that progress has always been fought by the top down powers, the
"takers," as Quinn describes them, and in the worst cases, the
When it comes to Obama tapping that idea of American
exceptionalism to sell his goal of an attack on Syria, he is
drawing upon the darker side of America. Mythologists, symbologists
and poets explore the "shadow," which we all have. The energy for
American exceptionalism comes from America's "shadow." Wise,
evolved, mature people get to know their shadows, and learn to
manage them. America needs to do the same, starting with our
leaders, instead of pandering to our shadows.
Still, there are American exceptionalism realities that we
SHOULD face and talk about. There is American execeptionalism we
should do something about.