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The Illusions of Arrogance

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I missed this excellent essay when it first came out in the Boston Globe. In some ways there is an irony to the geographical origin of the piece, since New England spawned the "city on the hill" and the Emersonian mythos of American rugged individualism. A look around the country, though, will reveal that the idea of American exceptionalism is deeply rooted everywhere, fed to our children in whopping doses in public (and private) schools, paraded by civic groups and veterans associations, paid mete adoration by politicians of every conceivable stripe, and ground into the fabric of society by marketeers through television, movies, and national sports associations. It is embarrassing!

But, as Neal Gabler clearly writes, it is a lot more than just embarrassing. It is dangerous for us and for the rest of the world. You just don't hear the Danes or the Dutch or the French, Norse, Portuguese, or almost any other nation of peoples strutting their national myths across the planet like we do, nor do you see them arrogantly declaring themselves the savior or the model for all to emulate. There is something sick in our polyglot society.

Some historians point out the fact that leaders of our country were afraid a new nation made up of peoples from all over the planet could not possibly survive because of the wide variances in cultures brought into the American "melting pot." Their anxieties may have seemed quite vivid in the great days of European immigration that brought fiercely contesting peoples into this country. Their solution, to raise the bar, to declare that America was an exception among nations, was to preclude the idea that old-country animosities could work to destroy the "united" states. In effect they said that until you began to mouth the platitudes of American exceptionalism you were not truly American. It was a stroke of genius, but also a fatal mistake.

It is clear by now, after Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and now Afghanistan that we are simply mortal, error-prone like all human beings, but in love with our toys and our myths to the exclusion of evidence and rationality. It has been said for decades that this will be our unraveling--our destruction. We will see if Obama has the courage to stand up to this huge malignant mythology and reverse our course in Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been almost no preparation of our culture for the necessary change of attitude, so I guess we should be prepared for the worst.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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