Currently, the biggest possible irony has engulfed Obama's Presidency. President Obama won his party's nomination and the general election by promising change. His election is proof positive that our nation has changed; we have a Black President. We have overcome much, but not all, of our nation's racism. All of this must be warmly welcomed. But there is a problem. Our country, including our President, lovingly embraces a kissing cousin of racism. Our country, including our President, passionately holds on to nationalism American Style; we hold on to American Exceptionalism.
American Exceptionalism says to the world that we will take our own behavior for granted while we take exception with the actions of others. That is, we could judge, condemn, and attack any nation that imitates our actions. We have given ourselves, and special friends, permission to break international law while we punish others for doing the same.
But why would our maintaining American Exceptionalism be ironic during Obama's Presidency? It is because our nationalism, American Exceptionalism, is based on notions of superiority and entitlement. Thus, nationalism is an equivalent to racism except that what grants one group privilege over another is national identity rather than skin color. This is why Bobby Seale, cofounder of the Black Panthers, opposed nationalism. So, we could say that what "separate but equal"- was to Blacks in the South, American Exceptionalism is to the world. And most of what those who fought, for our country under the flag and for American glory, fought to maintain our superiority.
Both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans believe in American Exceptionalism. President Obama has, in a couple of ways, promoted American Exceptionalism. He has both stated that he believes in American Exceptionalism and denied the criminality of America's past incursions.
There are two general defenses for our American Exceptionalism; there is an amoral defense and a moral defense. The amoral defense simply states that we cannot afford to act morally in a dog eat dog world. Apologists who use this defense say that our country must choose between conquering and being conquered. Thus, no moral standards apply to our foreign policies and the use of our military. Reality dictates that we cannot afford to be moral because the moment we let our guard down, what we have is put at risk.
The moral defense for American Exceptionalism is, in one sense, not that different from the amoral one. The difference is in the ends. Those who defend American Exceptionalism because of morals believe that America is on a grand mission. That mission is that we are protecting not just ourselves but the world from evil. After World War II, the evil we fought, and defeated was Communism. Today, the world's enemy consists of terrorist extremists terrorists who do not support American Exceptionalism. Therefore, they reason, our actions, even when they break international law, are justified. In addition, they also claim that since our actions are not as bad as those of our enemies, our actions become neither criminal nor immoral because we are fighting against greater evils. Unfortunately, this makes what our enemies do the minimal standard of evil.
It would be easy to show why American Exceptionalism is ultimately self-destructive without even addressing the moral issues involved. Chalmers Johnson, for example, tells of our fate if we insist on maintaining our American Empire in his book "Sorrows Of Empire." He states that our future will consist of unending war, a weakening of our Constitutional rights, an increase in governmental lying, and bankruptcy. In short, Johnson makes a strong argument that the overhead needed to maintain our world rule puts our society at risk.
Another objection to the amoral defense of American Exceptionalism is to note that if anything we do in a dog-eat-dog world cannot be considered immoral, the same go for our enemies. For example, if our attacks on Iraq, both military and economic, were not immoral, then how could we consider the 9-11 attacks to be immoral? After all, we killed far more Iraqis, in the hundreds of thousands, than Al-Qaeda killed Americans in the 9-11 attacks, approximately 3,000. But who in their right mind would think that the 9-11 attacks were not immoral? So how can we deny the immorality of far more damaging American actions if we condemn the actions of our enemies?
But what must also be addressed is why moral concerns regarding American Exceptionalism are important. Apologists for our Exceptionalism would like us to think that morality is like manners, they are only necessary when all others are exercising them. They reason that in a dog-eat-dog world, moral obligations not only offers no practical benefits, they put one at risk.
But there are several problems. The first problem is that we should look at whom we are imitating. As already alluded to, the first group we are imitating when practicing American Exceptionalism are racists. Again, the similarities are almost too obvious with one group feeling superior to others because of national identity while the other feels superior because of skin color. In addition, the conquer or be conquered mentality was also seen in White racists from the old South who thought that they had to dominate Blacks in order to preserve the White culture. But racists are not the only ones we imitate; the defenses given at the Nuremberg Trials show that we are also imitating the Nazis. Ben Ferencz, a former Nuremberg prosecutor, reported that the Nazis defended their atrocities in Eastern Europe by claiming that they were conquering and killing because they feared being conquered by a Bolshevik invasion (See Ohlendorf's Defense).
The second problem is that conquering tempts the conquered to either strike back, which produces a cycle of abuse, or take out their frustrations on others, which produces a chain of abuse. European Jews, who immigrated to Israel during the 19th and 20th centuries, serve as an example here. European Jews had been harshly persecuted for centuries. Finally, these Jews gave up hope on being regarded as equal citizens in their countries and thus concluded that a Jewish country was the only place where they could find safety. Modern Zionism was born from such conflict and, as a result, we see them be brutally harsh in their treatment of the Palestinians. The Palestinians have responded with horrific terrorist attacks. In this we see both a chain and cycle of abuse.
The third problem is that the abuse needed to maintain domination is often imitated by others. Martin Luther King saw that when he would tell young men from northern cities not to solve their problems by resorting to violence. His audience would respond by citing our war in Vietnam as an example of our government using violence to solve its problems ( See King's Sermon Against The Vietnam War). It was Augustine, revered by both Protestant and Catholic leaders, who said that without justice, kingdoms become nothing more than robbers. In today's language, when a country attacks another country in violation of international law, it is conducting gang warfare.
Is it any surprise that the country that is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today"- (see the King link above) incarcerates more of its own people than any other country? We could also cite Al-Qaeda as an illustration of the last two problems. Its predecessor was the "freedom fighters"- we helped fund during Russia's war in Afghanistan. Chomsky noted, in 1982, that the cruelty of the Russian attacks against Afghanistan would contribute to the survivors' slaughter of others (See Noam Chomsky's "Language And Politics,"- pg 309). We saw one of their carnages on 9-11. Another contributing factor to the 9-11 attacks was our actions in the Middle East. Particularly cited were the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died because of the conjunction of first Persian Gulf War with the sanctions against Iraq that kept their infrastructure in a state of disrepair. In addition, our unbalance support of Israel, which has led to the deaths of many Palestinian civilians, was cited as a reason.
Perhaps, just perhaps, keeping to a moral code in the face of adversity and attacks does have practical benefits. At least we can say that there are harsh consequences that we can avoid. And perhaps, the most urgent problem that must be solved today is not the economy, but our practice of American Exceptionalism.