Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The dangerous myth of American exceptionalism.

Michael A. Babcock swims in the same fetid pond as Pat Might as well Kill ‘em Robertson. The StarTribune carries an op-ed piece by Babcock today (August 24th) that was originally penned for Newsday. According to the piece, Babcock is an associate professor of the humanities (humanities?) at Liberty University, Robertson’s little factory for making christo-fascist mannequins.

Babcock’s premise in a nutshell: the United States is so clearly right about, well, everything that we should just accept our greatness and duty to impose our will on everybody else:
Imperialism has received bad press for most of the last hundred years. We think of pith helmets when we hear the word, and tiger hunts, and pathetic little bands in remote Indian provinces playing "God Save the King." We think of a stiff upper lip that looks, over time, more like foolish bravado than noble resolve. We think of colonial hubris and the blind assertion of cultural superiority.

But ancient Rome -- always the brand name in empires -- is the better model. Rome demonstrated that empires can be about much more than blood sports, tiger hunts, rapacious oil companies and military adventures in far-off places. Empires can also stand for things that make the world a better place. Political stability, the rule of law, the virtues of political enfranchisement, the preservation of learning and the arts, and respect for other cultures and religions: These are some of the better legacies left to us by the Romans. They pulled this off -- with all their faults -- because they believed in that quaint concept we call destiny.

Americans, too, always have believed in a higher purpose. Almost 400 years ago, John Winthrop envisioned America as a shining "city upon a hill." Ronald Reagan echoed that language in speeches that resonated deeply with the American people. The liberal elites in Europe and America never understood the mythic power of Reagan's rhetoric -- just as they don't understand Bush's simple vocabulary today. That disconnect is easy to explain. If you believe that history is the product only of material forces -- and is never nudged onward by some transcendent will -- then all this talk about destiny will strike you as, well, a bit spooky.
Spot wonders how much political enfranchisement the Israelites and the peoples all the way to Britain got from the Romans. Yeah, Spotty does find it a little spooky, as does Howard Zinn:
Myths of American exceptionalism

Howard Zinn

The notion of American exceptionalism—that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary—is not new. It started as early as 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Governor John Winthrop uttered the words that centuries later would be quoted by Ronald Reagan. Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city upon a hill.” Reagan embellished a little, calling it a “shining city on a hill.”

The idea of a city on a hill is heartwarming. It suggests what George Bush has spoken of: that the United States is a beacon of liberty and democracy. People can look to us and learn from and emulate us.

In reality, we have never been just a city on a hill. A few years after Governor Winthrop uttered his famous words, the people in the city on a hill moved out to massacre the Pequot Indians. Here’s a description by William Bradford, an early settler, of Captain John Mason’s attack on a Pequot village.

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.
Wow! That was bracing. Zinn continues:
Expanding into another territory, occupying that territory, and dealing harshly with people who resist occupation has been a persistent fact of American history from the first settlements to the present day. And this was often accompanied from very early on with a particular form of American exceptionalism: the idea that American expansion is divinely ordained. On the eve of the war with Mexico in the middle of the 19th century, just after the United States annexed Texas, the editor and writer John O’Sullivan coined the famous phrase “manifest destiny.” He said it was “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” At the beginning of the 20th century, when the United States invaded the Philippines, President McKinley said that the decision to take the Philippines came to him one night when he got down on his knees and prayed, and God told him to take the Philippines.
Spotty says that when you talk to God, it’s called praying. When God actually talks back, it is probably just schizophrenia. Actually, it was Fox Mulder who said that, the great philosopher king from the X-Files. And George Bush believes that God talks directly to him. More from Zinn:
Invoking God has been a habit for American presidents throughout the nation’s history, but George W. Bush has made a specialty of it. For an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the reporter talked with Palestinian leaders who had met with Bush. One of them reported that Bush told him, “God told me to strike at al Qaeda. And I struck them. And then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did. And now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.” It’s hard to know if the quote is authentic, especially because it is so literate.
And this from Babcock:
Bush has embraced the transcendent view -- and the clear-cut vocabulary of war that goes with it. That certainty may creep out a lot of people, but that doesn't keep the president from declaring -- repeatedly and rightly -- that we represent a force for good in the world.
Spotty says make no mistake, what Babcock means by a force for good and a higher purpose is a certain brand of apocalyptic fundamentalist Christianity that is full of the foolish bravado, colonial hubris, and assertion of cultural superiority that Babcock makes fun of in the old British Empire.

Spotty really recommends that you read the entire Howard Zinn article. Zinn is an historian and the author of A People’s History of the United States, available at quality bookstores everywhere.


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