Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whither American Exceptionalism?

Is there room still in history for American exceptionalism? Or have we wandered to the end of the American rainbow only to find, rather than a pot of gold, an empty pot and bankrupt ideology?

This notion of American exceptionalism gained currency before our independence; it is at once a narrative and an ideology and it has served as the basis for the way we look at and, for better or for worse, how we treat the rest of the world.

Its power as a narrative lies in its re-telling throughout American history. The names and context change but the structural foundation remains the same – we are special – we possess special attributes and visions and capabilities and purpose. From the beginning of the American project these special attributes were said to be God given and infused with messianic features. We were the “city upon the hill”, a promised land, destined for an errand in sacred history; President John F. Kennedy said we would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty;” and more recently Secretary of State Madeline Albright said we were the “indispensable” nation.

It is without question a distinctly American conception of liberty, one in which the vision did not neatly correspond to the domestic realities, but one to which all Americans subscribe nonetheless. In the context of the greater Middle East, Michael Oren showed us how the story is told and re-told in our use of power, our professions of faith and our popular literature, art and motion pictures in his work “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present.”

Its power as an ideology is revealed by the way government and the vested interests have mobilized American exceptionalism to legalize, or at least to justify, our conduct vis a vis the world. We are special, our values and traditions are the best, and everybody else had best get with the program. At its best, Woodrow Wilson mobilized the ideology to fight famine and pursue world peace. At its worst, the current administration mobilized the ideology in pursuit of world war.

The current financial crisis fits squarely within the narrative and ideology of American exceptionalism. The story of the American economy is one of boom and bust, its structure is life, liberty and the pursuit of property; and the latest boom rose from the ashes of World War II when the US dollar became the world’s measure of value. If the government will just let the good times roll then, by the grace of God, the good times will roll; and man what a roll it’s been. But a bleak chorus has become hard to ignore. While the rich really are getting richer, the gap between the top and bottom is growing by exponentially increasing quantum leaps, and those left in the middle are being pushed toward the bottom faster than they can climb into the top.

The ideology of America’s nearly unrestrained capitalist system rewards creative work; and the larger the scale of the creative work the greater the reward. In the span of twenty years, a college drop out became the wealthiest man in world history right here in America. The scale of his invention is global; with a left click of the mouse the world comes to our desks and with another left click we can buy or sell anything we want anywhere in the world we choose. And now we have seen how the magic of creative financial instruments made gold from base materials, and with a click of the mouse the trick appears to have ensnared investors from every corner of the world. It is an ancient and seductive ideology as greed has been a human foible since the dawn of time. But what could be safer than an investment in America, especially one that is insured by the largest insurance company in the world, AIG? It is not mere coincidence that AIG stands for American International Group.

Marx predicted that the cycle of the booms and the busts would eventually cause the system to implode, but he was wrong; mankind’s creative impulse is stronger than the destruction it causes, and from the destruction wrought in the current financial crises new opportunities, new possibilities and new structures will arise. The larger question, it seems to me, is whether that which we have believed in for so long – America’s promise to lead the world to a brighter future – is a promise that anybody, anywhere wants to follow any longer.

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