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Mike Lofgren | American Exceptionalism: Alibi of a Nation

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Whenever a public figure bloviates about American Exceptionalism and the country’s purported heavenly mission, one is reminded of the quip attributed to Bismarck: that divine providence looks after drunkards, fools and the United States of America. Accordingly, one is always on the lookout for anyone willing to debunk America’s collective personality cult. It was therefore with hopeful expectation that I perused Patrick Smith’s Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. This hope was not fulfilled. While the author makes many valid points, the book suffers from an incomplete understanding of history, and, more irritatingly, with a prose style as leaden and sententious as the architecture of Washington, D.C.’s World War II Memorial, which he describes as a metaphor for American myth-making about the past (the relevant excerpt is online here).

What is American Exceptionalism, anyway? It is the notion that Americans are somehow special because a deity saw fit to entrust us with his work on Earth; accordingly we are exempt from the usual operations of history and the rise and fall of nations (1). Smith makes heavy weather about where this syndrome comes from and what it would take to cure it with his overwrought pondering on the Freudian upwelling of the national id, the search for what he calls a usable past, and the alleged necessity for a revolution in spirit. But a usable past is simply one that is factually accurate, and it is there that we find less ethereal and more substantive causes for our national behavioral tics. There is no spirit of an age but that which has been laid upon a foundation of available resources, modes of production, and material interests.

What is often claimed to be the result of heavenly dispensation we actually owe, at the time of European settlement, to being one of the last lightly populated continent-sized territories on Earth with a temperate climate, millions of acres of arable land, and abundant resources. The native population was sparse and not technologically advanced (i.e., lacking firearms), and suffered the usual fate of indigenous peoples. Everything was in limitless supply except labor, and if one was not a chattel slave or indentured servant, America was probably an easier place to scratch a living than most of the heavily settled parts of the globe – details the Exceptionalism crowd tends to gloss over.

There is no doubt an element of satire in H.L. Mencken’s claim that America was the last refuge of the incompetent who could not make a go of it in their own countries, but America undoubtedly held more promise, at least for free white labor, than starving in a ditch in Ireland or living a 13th century existence as a peasant in Galicia. It is a natural quirk of human psychology that large numbers of Americans would begin to attribute their good fortune not to geographical accident, historical contingency, or a bit of luck, but to divine guidance – just as John D. Rockefeller Sr., the first dollar billionaire, credited his windfall not to his own sharp business practices but to the inscrutable will of the Almighty.

Smith sees a fatal turning point in the 1890s, when America grasped the glittering sword of imperialism and displaced the Spanish as the overlords of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. But the fate of the Filipino insurrectos was already foreshadowed by a thousand massacres of natives defending their home territory; those massacres merely took place on the North American continent, and began long before the United States was even a nation. Polk’s Manifest Destiny and the annexation of a million square miles of Mexican territory was the prologue to Henry Luce’s American Century. There was no turning point, just an evolution of well-established tendencies nurtured in the soil of relative continental invulnerability.

No less important than abundant resources was the fact that the United States was and is protected by two vast oceanic moats from the Eurasian landmass. This situation does not confer invulnerability, as the burning of the White House in 1814 brought home; but that incident, as well as later misfortunes like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, was a mere inconvenience compared to having the geography of Poland or Belgium. This relative immunity from direct attack results in a feeling of invulnerability, even impunity (2). Piling up corpses in faraway places as part of a divine plan to spread democracy is more agreeable to contemplate when there is no prospect of immediate and severe retaliation (or blowback, to use CIA jargon). This sentiment also accounts for the exaggerated reactions of uncomprehending shock and indignation when there is an occasional successful terrorist attack on U.S. territory – notwithstanding the greater probability that an American will be killed by slipping and falling in his bathtub than from terrorism. The angry feeling of wounded innocence from such rare attacks also triggers the childish Exceptionalist belief that Americans can only be hated for their virtue.

This combination of relative impunity from wars of its own making and a priggish high-mindedness about its motives is practically the playbook of how empires have operated. The British Empire is the best recent example of this phenomenon – indeed it is partially thanks to the machinations of Britons like Mark Sykes and Arthur Balfour that the modern Middle East (whose imperial “burden” the United States inherited from Britain) is in its present appalling condition. At the British Empire’s height, its apologists were as high-minded about humanitarian intervention as the present-day editorial board of the New Republic is about barging into Syria. These eminent Victorians threw themselves into worthy causes such as suppression of the slave trade (never mind Britain’s enthusiastic and profitable involvement in it during the 17th and 18th centuries) or the practice of suttee in India. These actions may have gone some distance in compensating for the Boer War, the Amritsar Massacre, or the Black and Tans, but it is hard to argue, as celebrity-historian Niall Ferguson insists on doing, that the empire amounted to a philanthropic enterprise. George Bernard Shaw, whose native Ireland had plenty of experience with Britain’s civilizing mission, expressed a more acerbic view:

There is nothing so bad or good that you will not find an Englishman doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles.

So much for the high-minded rationalizations of empire: They are the ideational superstructure of the enterprise. But to find the fundamental reasons why empires exist it is necessary to drill down into the bedrock of material interest: cui bono (who benefits)? The left-wing English historian A.J.P. Taylor, in a 1952 essay on economic imperialism in The New Statesman, criticized the Marxist “finance capital” model of imperialism that was fashionable before the First World War insofar as he could find no examples where the annexation of colonies actually gave the colonizing nation a net profit, and few examples where it even paid all the investors. That may be true, but there were select, influential classes of people who did benefit from colonialism just as they benefit still from American-style neocolonialism. Because empires become progressively more oligarchical in domestic politics, it is only natural that their wars economically favor the few against the many who foot the bill.

John Stewart Mill described the British Empire as an immense system of make-work for the younger sons of the English squirearchy who could not wangle a seat in Parliament or a sinecure with the Church of England. The empire gave them an avenue to lucrative and prestigious careers. It is not much different in contemporary America: What would the foreign policy experts in their sinecures at Washington think tanks and foundations do without an empire to justify? In the absence of pax americana, military generals would be less numerous and less likely to obtain second careers earning seven-figure incomes with contractors. At a less exalted level, how would the GS-15s at the Department of Homeland Security, the lieutenant colonels who trip over each other in the Pentagon’s corridors, or the innumerable contract employees in our vast and privatized intelligence establishment obtain a living were there not an empire to administer and a homeland to protect against natives unenthusiastic about being liberated? What would these people do otherwise – flip burgers? The position of these “middle managers” is analogous to that of the minor administrators and chiefs of police for the European colonial empires – careers well below those of high finance, but certainly better than they were likely to get tending shop in their home countries.

The janissaries of empire, be they the District Collector of Simla or the chief contracting representative of KBR in Afghanistan, know what they are fighting for: their jobs. The millions paying the bills do not. That is why they must be fed a steady diet of myth, whether it takes the form of the civilizing mission of the British and other contemporary empires or the current American sloganeering about humanitarian military intervention. American Exceptionalism is simply the cover story and alibi for the extraordinary levels of violence that the United States has been exporting for decades.

This historical and economic background makes one wonder why Smith chose to mention the Tea Party as an example of American Exceptionalism. The Tea Party is only a phenomenon of the last four years, and its emphasis, however misguided, is almost exclusively on domestic matters. The Tea Party did not invade Iraq or overthrow Qaddafi, nor has it been a leading advocate for intervention in Syria. In assessing the century-long, bipartisan history of American military intervention in foreign countries, the Tea Party does not even merit a footnote. It is all too easy to stereotype the resentful lunatics who make up the Tea Party as the villains in all our current political melodramas, while overlooking the fact that it is one of the objects of the Tea Party’s scorn, the Eastern Establishment, where the most avid proponents of American Exceptionalism are to be found.

For it is among the better sort with Ivy League degrees, people like Madeleine Albright or Hillary Clinton or Susan Rice or Samantha Power that the lust to remake the world with redemptive violence shines bright (Why so many women? The widespread belief that war results from male aggression may require revision). Beginning with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, liberals of this stripe have been consistent proponents of armed intervention, always with an alleged humanitarian pretense. While some of them retrospectively turned against the invasion of Iraq for reasons of partisanship or chameleon-like professional maneuvering, those who were obliged to cast a vote on where they stood at the time – like Hillary Clinton – have had a harder time fooling the public. The same applies, of course, to her male colleagues like John Kerry and Joe Biden. As the stakes increase in Syria, Susan Rice and Samantha Power are navigating towards positions of decisive influence; it is possible that the same Punch-and-Judy show that attended Iraq and Libya will be played out once more.

It is irrelevant whether they, or President Obama, or the Republicans who want to replace them in office in 2016 have assimilated American Exceptionalism as part of their mental makeup, or whether it is all a cynical pretense to gull the rubes. One must take a functionalist approach, since it is the deeds of the elites, not their motives, which are at issue. Smith’s opinions notwithstanding, American Exceptionalism is no collective neurosis or expression of American naiveté or hubris. It is the mask of command worn by the material interests who profit from the exercise.


1. American Exceptionalism does not always assume the United States is invulnerable; occasionally someone like Pat Robertson will ascribe 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina to the wrath of God, rather than, respectively, to a president who did not pay attention to his intelligence briefing, or to defective planning and workmanship by the Corps of Engineers.

2. The geographic isolation of the United States also means that it does not suffer the full negative consequences – such as foreign occupation, territorial dismemberment, monetary indemnities, or war crimes trials – for the wars it loses. This absence of retribution makes our governing classes nonchalant about war, since there is no noose around their necks. Despite all the Pavlovian ballyhoo about having the greatest military ever heard of, the US record since 1945 has not been stellar – Korea: a draw; Vietnam: a loss on points; Iraq I: an incomplete victory; Iraq II: a quagmire ending in withdrawal, having achieved the strengthening of Iran; Afghanistan: a quagmire with an impending withdrawal. One does concede that we soundly defeated Grenada and Panama.

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