(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
Back in 2006, in a series of posts titled Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us, I spoke of the dangers that are inherent when any group of people start thinking of themselves as possessed of some mystic virtue that makes them intrinsically better than other people. (See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)
Unfortunately, political leaders tend to feed that very evil. President Obama, like all presidents and other political leaders before him, repeats as a mantra and without proof that Americans have to be the best in everything. So when he talks to organized labor he will say that American workers are the best in the world, when he talks to soldiers he says that they are the best in the world, and when he speaks to business leaders he says that they are the best in the world. When he talks to high-tech leaders, he says that American inventiveness and ingenuity are unsurpassed. The only place where it is politically safe to criticize America is its educational system. It gets beaten up a lot, which is a little odd when all the things that Americans are supposedly the best at depend on the educational system for their success.
It is undeniable that America is a leader in many areas of technology and in productivity. Those are statements that have an empirical basis. The very fact that it has been able to provide such a high standard of living for most of its inhabitants is evidence of that. The problem is that this evidence is interpreted as meaning that Americans must possess some innate mystical quality that has produced this result. It is rarely pointed out that there usually are a whole host of contingent factors that contribute. Empires have risen and fallen, and during their heyday they too tended to think that they were special people possessed with of some special gift or blessed by god. But this attitude can lead to a dangerous sense of hubris and lack of self-awareness.
In the previous post, I discussed how following the massacre by American forces of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the editor of The New Republic Peter Beinart acknowledged that it was an awful act but still tried to make the case that Americans are uniquely superior to other people. But even this grudging acknowledgment that the US can on occasion act as barbarically as other people and are thus slightly less than perfect was too much for neoconservative William Kristol, the man who loves wars against Muslim countries, the bigger, the broader, the better. He responded to the Haditha atrocity as follows:
What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don’t need to “prove” we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this “proves” nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to “prove” that we are “different from the jihadists”. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.
Note that “Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to prove that we are different from the jihadists. The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.” Why is the idea offensive? Why don’t we have to prove that we are different? What makes us exempt from the requirements we routinely impose on others? Such a statement epitomizes American exceptionalism.
The neoconservatives are the last people who should preen themselves on their innate goodness, given their record of advocating truly horrible policies. Here is Glenn Greenwald writing about them in 2006 after their disgusting show of glee at the horror and destruction inflicted on Lebanon by Israel:
And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran — and before that, Iraq — knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for — and casually dismiss the importance of — the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye.
But Kristol is merely an extreme example of a more general mindset. However terrible the result, any assertion that America is uniquely possessed of incorruptible wholesome virtues and incapable of doing evil acts does not require proof. It is just a given.
I wrote earlier about how the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia reveals the double standard by which the American political establishment reacts to events and how the media reflexively adopts that point of view. In another post, I discussed how corrosive this myth of America’s Essential Goodness is. In an interesting study of individual psychology published under the title of Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? (Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 4, no. 1, May 2003, p. 1-44), Roy Baumeister and co-workers found that people who had high self-esteem in the absence of any concrete reasons for it were more dangerous than other people because they reacted with anger and violence at any perceived threat to their inflated self-image. What applies to individuals may also apply to nations so feel-good pandering to your audience is not benign. You are not just breeding a harmless conceit. Beliefs such as these, in the absence of any substantive basis, can actually lead to harmful acts.
Immanuel Wallerstein outlined why he thinks that because of this self-image of innate goodness, both parties will never have a decent foreign policy. The article was written in 2006 before the Congressional elections that gave the Democrats majorities in both houses. He said that while he would vote Democratic, he was unconvinced that a Democratic Congress would do better.
Indeed, one has to doubt that the Democrats collectively have a better foreign policy to offer. The primary problem of the leadership of the Democratic Party is that it believes, at least as much as the Republicans, that the United States is the center of the world, the font of wisdom, the great defender of world freedom — in short, a deeply virtuous nation in a dangerous world.
I think that events have shown that Wallerstein was prescient.
POST SCRIPT: Elliot Spitzer on The Colbert Report
The former governor of New York is one person who belongs in public office. It is incredible to me that someone with his talents should have risked it all for so little.
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