I went in search of anything the United States was number 1 in that it shouldn’t be ashamed of, and came up empty. But I did find that the United States is number 1 in believing it is number 1. So, that’s something.
In my book, Curing Exceptionalism, I wrote:
“From John Winthrop before the fact to Tocqueville and on through John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, up to and including Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and most voices on U.S. television news today, as well as that neighbor or friend who’s never left the United States but assures us it is “the greatest country on earth,” a consensus has evolved and solidified around the idea of U.S. exceptionalism. It is the point of agreement between those who would “make America great again” and those who declare it to be “already great.” It’s an idea that has grown more strident and a bit defensive at the same time. But it’s a “belief” in the sense of a religious belief, not an ordinary belief strictly connected to any disagreement with the facts….
“For many people in the United States it is commonplace to describe this country as uniquely free, democratic, and capitalist; as the best place to live on earth; and as the one nation indispensable to upholding the rule of law. A careful examination, as we have seen, finds the United States to be indeed unique in a remarkable number of ways, but not always in the ways imagined. In fact, the assumptions and motivations of exceptionalism turn out to be no more factual or benign than those of racism or sexism or other forms of bigotry.
“In 2018, millions of Americans believed God had chosen Trump for the presidency.[i] They were squarely in the nonpartisan tradition of exceptionalist thinking. “[T]here can be little question that the hand of providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him,” wrote Seymour Martin Lipset in 1995 with an apparently straight face and no hint at whose hand was responsible for, say, Zachary Taylor, William McKinley, or Richard Nixon. Lipset was a past president of both the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association and had been elected to the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He had taught at Harvard and Stanford. And in his well-received book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, from which the above quote is taken, he informed us that America was indeed exceptional, and that the “hand of providence” made it so.[ii]”
The United States is number 1 in military spending, wars, bases, and various sorts of weaponry, as well as in selling weaponry to the rest of the world. And it’s number 1 in associating militarism with general greatness. Dick Cheney’s and Liz Cheney’s 2015 book, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, finds the United States to be very, very exceptional, but exclusively in the area of war. Their book includes no mention of health, education, intellectual advancement, art, culture, technology, environmental protection, or quality of life — only the idea of “freedom,” which the authors, as is fairly typical, never define in any way. They only tell us that others do not have freedom, and that it is protected by wars — the same wars that restrict rights to speak, to assemble, to report, to have a fair trial, to not be searched without a warrant, and to not be tortured or killed. These are all rights that the same book advocates violating.[iii]
Needless to say, I checked all the surveys and studies on freedom, by every definition — studies done by U.S. institutions, including the U.S. government, and studies done all over the world — and nobody, right, left or center, ranks the United States as number 1 in freedom.
Why does it matter? Well, patriotic exceptionalism damages those who practice it, as well as those who have to live and die on the same planet with them:
“What we’re dealing with is not just valuing the United States, but also devaluing the rest of the world — and not just as observers, but as people who believe they have the right, if not the duty, to impose their will on the rest of the world. Exceptionalism is an attitude that tends to include arrogance, ignorance, and aggression, and these tend to do a great deal of damage.
“In recent polling on possible future wars, a majority in the United States is willing to support an air attack, even a nuclear attack, on a foreign country, such as Iran or North Korea, that kills 100,000 civilians if it is an alternative to a ground attack that could kill 20,000 Americans.[iv] In fact, the U.S. public has largely sat by for the past 17 years of wars in which the nations attacked have suffered tens and hundreds of times more deaths than the U.S. military.[v] Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that it is fine to kill non-Americans with U.S. drones, but illegal to kill U.S. citizens.[vi] Keith Payne, a drafter of the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, back in 1980, parroting Dr. Strangelove, defined success to allow up to 20 million dead Americans as the price for killing a much higher number of non-Americans.[vii] The U.S. government has placed compensation for an Iraqi life at no more than $15,000, but the value of a U.S. life at no less than $5 million.[viii]
“When people ask how President Harry Truman could have used nuclear weapons that killed so many Japanese people unless he actually believed he was saving at least some significant number of U.S. lives, they are assuming that Truman placed some positive value on the life of a Japanese person. Truman was the same man who had earlier remarked, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”[ix] U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously remarked that the deaths of a half million Iraqi children was “worth it,” without really being pressed to explain what the “it” was.[x] During the war on Vietnam, the U.S. military bragged on a weekly basis about how many people it killed. In recent wars, it has avoided mentioning that topic. But in neither case does it weigh the non-U.S. lives taken against whatever the supposed good is that’s being attempted, as it might do if it believed those lives had any value.
“This is where exceptionalism looks like a form of bigotry. One type of person is much more valuable. The other 96 percent of humanity is just not worth very much. If people in the United States valued all human lives equally, or even remotely close to equally, discussions of foreign aid funded by the U.S. government would sound very different. The U.S. government budget devotes less than 1 percent to foreign aid (including weapons “aid”) but the U.S. public on average believes that 31 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid.[xi] Reducing this mythical generosity is extremely popular with the U.S. public.[xii] The U.S. public usually sees itself as enormously generous to the rest of the world, but often believes its imagined generosity to be unappreciated. Several years into the war on Iraq that began in 2003, a plurality in the United States believed, not only that Iraqis should be grateful, but that Iraqis were in fact grateful for a war that had scholars using the term “sociocide” to describe its impact on Iraqi society.[xiii]”
So, forgive me if I take a pass on Patriot Day this September 11th, and forgive me if I direct your pleas for “good” patriotism into a spam folder. I don’t want good racism, good sexism, or good patriotism. I want good humanism. It would make everyone in the United States and outside of it better off.
[i] Amy Sullivan, “Millions of Americans Believe God Made Trump President,” Politico, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/27/millions-of-americans-believe-god-made-trump-president-216537 (January 27, 2018).
[ii] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996).
[iii] Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America (Threshold Editions, 2015).
[iv] Christopher Preble, “How Americans Feel About Going to (Nuclear) War,” War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-americans-feel-about-going-to-nuclear-war (August 15, 2017).
[v] Nicolas J.S. Davies, “The Illusion of War Without Casualties,” Consortium News, https://consortiumnews.com/2018/03/09/the-illusion-of-war-without-casualties (March 9, 2018).
[vi] “Public Says It’s Illegal to Target Americans Abroad As Some Question CIA Drone Attacks,” AHHerald.com, http://www.ahherald.com/newsbrief-mainmenu-2/monmouth-county-news/14849-public-says-its-illegal-to-target-americans-abroad-as-some-question-cia-drone-attacks (February 7, 2013).
[vii] Marjorie Cohn, “Pentagon to Allow Nuclear Responses to Non-Nuclear Attacks,” Truthout, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/43460-pentagon-to-allow-nuclear-responses-to-non-nuclear-attacks (February 6, 2018).
[viii] While the U.S. has typically paid $0 to $5,000 dollars as compensation for an Iraqi life, (see http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article18576.htm) the State Department and Blackwater arrived at the figure of $15,000, (see http://scienceblogs.com/authority/2007/10/08/how-much-is-an-iraqi-life-wort). At the same time, the lowest government value for a U.S. life was $5 million assigned by the Food and Drug Administration, (see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/business/economy/17regulation.html?pagewanted=all).
[ix] “Harry S. Truman,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_S._Truman#cite_ref-84.
[x] “Madeleine Albright – The deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was worth it for Iraq’s non existent WMD’s,” Youtube.
[xi] Jon Greenberg, “Most people clueless on U.S. foreign aid spending,” Politifact, http://www.politifact.com/global-news/statements/2016/nov/09/john-kerry/yep-most-people-clueless-us-foreign-aid-spending (November 9, 2016).
[xii] Kevin Robillard, “Poll: Most only want foreign aid cuts,” Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/poll-most-only-want-foreign-aid-cuts-087948 (February 22, 2013).
[xiii] David Swanson, “Ever More Shocked, Never Yet Awed,” Let’s Try Democracy, http://davidswanson.org/iraq (March 18, 2013).
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States? What can we do about it? (2018) and War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Support David’s work.
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