I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion regarding Barack Obama, our political future, and change. Below is my opening statement except for a couple of modifications.
In the movie "Mississippi Burning," the two lead FBI agents were talking about the hatred and bigotry they saw as they investigated the 1964 murder of 3 civil rights activists. Willem Defoe, playing a young idealistic agent who had come to the FBI from the Justice Department, asked where did the hatred come from? In response, Gene Hackman, playing an ex-Mississippi sheriff, told a story of his father, a poor farmer, who had killed the donkey of a neighboring Black farmer. The Black farmer responded by abandoning his farm. In explaining why he had killed the donkey, his father replied by asking if one is not better than a Black man, then who can one be better than?" Needless to say, "Black man" was not the term his father used.
When one's significance was gained by trying to demonstrate that one's own group was better than Blacks in the old South, we called it racism. When the citizens of a nation find significance in believing their country to be superior to other nations, it is called nationalism. Nationalism American Style is called American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism tells the world that we will take our own behavior for granted while we take exception with the actions of others.
Apologists for Exceptionalism say that it can be a force for good when used to spread liberty. Such was the claim by the British when defending their empire. Here, we might want to consider Thomas Jefferson's critique of the British Empire.
"We believe no more in Boneparte's fighting merely for the liberty of the seas, than in Great Britain's fighting for the liberties of mankind. The object is the same, to draw to themselves the power, the wealth, and the resources of other nations."
With regards to American Exceptionalism, we should note the writings of Marine Corp Major General Smedley Butler who, in 1932, wrote that the military actions he had participated in places like Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic were really done for the benefit of American corporations and banks. But it was not just Smedley Butler's experiences that testify to the true nature of American Exceptionalism. We helped overthrow the democratic governments of Iran in 1953, Gautamala in 1954, Greece in 1967, and Chile in 1973 and replaced them with dictators. The beneficiaries of these actions were often American corporations. To this list we should add our brutal attacks on Southeast Asia during the 60's and 70's and on Central America during the 80's, our war and crippling sanctions that assaulted the civilian infrastructure of Iraq causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children during the 90's, and our 2003 invasion of Iraq which violated the Nuremberg Principles.
Notably, exceptionalism is not just a mainstay of our foreign policies; we see a different kind of it at home. Here, the concerns of corporations, banks and a parasitic investor class reign supreme in the halls of our government. To this group, the bottom line is often the only line and self-interest the only interest. As they teach us that we too can embrace these values because Capitalism is a system that provides everyone with a chance to succeed, they have survived because, for decades, our government has supported them through proxies such as the Pentagon with its resource-demanding missions and large budgets. Thus the recent bailouts are nothing more than our government coming out of the closet with its support of business. While conservatives have been crying wolf, or socialism to be more precise, when hearing Barack Obama's promise to "spread the wealth," we should note that we have already been experiencing a redistribution of wealth. Since the mid 1970's, we have been witnessing a consolidation of wealth by those who pay for the campaigns of our elected officials. In essence, our government takes care of its main campaign contributors while we are left to depend on these same contributors for help and even survival. Such is not a democracy; at best, we have a democracy once removed.
Barack Obama promised to bring change to America. But change from what? If Obama is only seeking to bring change from what we suffered through during that past 8 years, then he has promised to change the façade rather than to renovate the building. For it isn't just the policies of George Bush alone which have put us into our condition of vulnerability and suffering; it is decades of an American Exceptionalism practiced abroad and a financial paternalism embraced at home. If Barack is to bring real change, he will not only have to be different from George W. Bush, he will have to be different from Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, and John F. Kennedy to name a few.
Like many Americans, I hope that Barack will bring real change to America. But I am afraid that the initial indicators are not promising. His leading campaign contributors came from Wall Street. His bailout package still favors business over people. He has even repeatedly said that he believes in American Exceptionalism.
Is change coming to America? If change depends more on the American people acting out to demand it, then the answer is it's possible. But if change depends more on Barack and his associates, it seems that the answer is no.