The Myth of American Exceptionalism

The horrific events at the DC Navy Yard on September 16 are still metastasizing within the shellshocked American psyche.

Faced with gratuitous images of a killer who should remain nameless – to be projected unceasingly across news media for weeks to come – the public will react as they should to yet another mass murder committed by a disgruntled and mentally disturbed public employee: with an apathetic quietism borne of a disturbing acclimatization to gun murder, violence and the prevailing myth of American exceptionalism.

For beneath the shimmering opulence of Capitol Hill and the White House lies a city where one in five lives below the poverty line and 19 per 100,000 people are victims of firearm homicide – a higher rate than in Brazil.

The paradox is an apt, albeit tragic representation of deep contradictions within US society – the inequity that at once promotes freedom of choice and inalienable rights, yet neglects those with mental illness and the poor while consenting to the proliferation of deadly weapons to citizens.

On this occasion, the tool was an AR-15 assault rifle, the same gun used by Adam Lanza to killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, 2012. The weapon, a sickening reminder of the cultural acceptability of machine guns, is highly accurate and easy to acquire. To many, a marker of consumer choice and exceptional freedom: the choice that allows one’s grievances to manifest in a merciless rampage against innocents.

It is a bizarre self-reflexivity.

With its military regarded as sacrosanct, its society as qualitatively “better” than the rest of the world, and its status quo left officially unchallenged by sanitized corporate media, the myth of American exceptionalism persists.

President Obama reminded the world last week that his nation is the kingdom of constitutional democracy. He trumpeted the phrase in a specious call for “international action” against the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Much of the press seemed to trot along in lockstep with imperialist gestures; in synchronicity with a state appearing to teeter on the verge of military action.

The late Joe Bageant might have called this phenomenon the American Hologram. In a 2007 column entitled “The Great American Mind Warp,” the author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus” wrote:

“The American media hologram forms our subconscious opinions immediately and without our rational participation. Particularly when it comes to generating terrorist outlaws. For example, despite what we were told and most of us believe, Timothy McVeigh was a patriot and was a more literate and intelligent person than most Americans; in truth, he more resembled Tom Paine than a terrorist. Chew on that one for a while … or read Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. Again, nothing significant is as presented by the American media. Watch television in countries with supposedly primitive media, and after a while you will be shocked at the technologically mediated and shape-shifted image of the world presented to Americans – how the hologram makes incongruous parts suddenly fit together and make sense in its own parallel universe.”

All should deplore the recent shooting in DC, of that there is no question. But many will come to begrudgingly forget the tragedy like the innumerable calamities which now predate it, or the rest of the crime, poverty and violence that exist in that city. Yet even provided with another traumatic setback, the notion of American exceptionalism will propagate the contorted reality that firearms keep people safer – that fire must be fought with more fire. Such lunacy will fortify champions of the Second Amendment, and the hope of progress will be buried along with the asphyxiated and abandoned corpse of gun reform.

Another day, another massacre in America.

To the mainstream corporate media, the event will be utilized – intentionally or not – to stoke the embers of fear still aflame throughout the country where there have been 31 mass shootings since Columbine in 1999. The demand for guns will spike as it did in the wake of Sandy Hook, and elementary students in Colorado will still participate in drills where an “active shooter” knocks at the door of the classroom.

American exceptionalism has become a culture of death.

And this says nothing of foreign conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone warfare in Somalia, or the encroaching surveillance state which now includes Section 1021 of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), allowing for the “indefinite detention of American citizens without due process at the discretion of the President.”

Indeed, the notion of an especial USlingers – and has many precedents – but is the myth eroding? Have the large proportion of Americans who support gun reform, as they do universal health care and other social services, begun to peel away the heavy lacquer of exceptionalism which ignores alternative voices in politics and scoffs at them on the news?

Will citizens react to this latest shooting in D.C., not with frightful armament, but unified mobilization against guns and a culture that causes them to proliferate?

Can the corporate media’s monopoly on thought be opposed by a journalistic Third Wave of progressive writers and thinkers – much like the ones you read on this very website – whose discourse serves to unwind American exceptionalism and listen to people’s actual concerns?

That something will change, Americans should have no doubt. And if the dubious inference of exceptionalism has any merit whatsoever, it is that human beings, not simply Americans, have the capacity to demand for themselves and others a better world. A culture not of death, but of life.