Friday, March 31, 2017

Why Do So Many Americans Believe in Their Own Exceptionalism?

Recently, I had a small discussion with someone online who expressed dismay that so many Americans seemed to be returning to the bad old days of demonizing Russia and all things Russian.

This was a reminder that far too many Americans in general seem to feel so comfortable dismissing other countries and nationalities as a whole, relying on silly and outdated stereotypes. For example, many Americans (far too many to dismiss) assume that the French are arrogant and rude, while not realizing that dismissing a diverse country of well over sixty million with thousands of years of history is pretty rude and arrogant in and of itself. Many Americans also believe that the Polish are stupid, even though their education system is so successful right now, that many American officials are beginning to advocate it as the model that we should be following. There are countless such stereotypes, with drunken Irish, or greasy Italians, or lazy Mexicans, or that all Arabs are terrorists at heart. Increasingly, we are seeing the reemergence of the nasty, untrustworthy Russian bad guy, the unofficial mafia type, with one strongman (Putin, at the moment) being the brains behind everything. Again, that does not take into consideration the fact that it is a huge country in terms of both geographical size and overall population, and that it has a long and complicated history, having both invaded and been invaded numerous times. Sometimes, the stereotypes are not even negative, but betray an overly simplified and lazy interpretation of how things are, such as the belief that Canadians are always polite, come what may. The problem is that all of these stereotypes (and there are plenty more than the ones I just mentioned) can be used to buttress the impression that Americans have of themselves that they are unique and special and, yes, superior and exceptional. 

It is conditioned almost from birth. I learned the pledge of allegiance at an age when those of us reciting had no idea what many of the individuals words even meant, and so we had no concept of what the pledge implied. Yet, what we understood is that good young citizens do the pledge every morning before school, and stand up, take their hats off, and hold their hands to their heart while doing it.  You see the flag everywhere, from gas stations to car dealerships to government buildings (of course) and even in people's front and backyards. Increasingly, you see some form of it on people's clothing. And when you keep having it hammered into your head that this is the greatest and most powerful country in the world, that it is God's country, that we have earned something called the "American exception," and they hear people chanting "USA # 1," and when our leaders (regardless of party) end their addresses to the American people with "God Bless America," then you begin to understand how so many people here unquestioningly subscribe to it, and how for them, all that is relevant in the world basically ends at the American international border. It's not just the redneck element that seems to subscribe to this anymore, either, as increasingly, this mindset is prevalent among urban people who should know better, with their supposedly more sophisticated education and way of thinking. 

That, in turn, helps not only foster enthusiasm for the American war machine, and for our wars (which only grow unpopular when things start turning sour), but it also helps corporations and the politicians that they have in their pockets to sell Americans on notions that are detrimental to Americans themselves. Thus, they believe that any and all forms of something called socialism will inevitably lead to fascism/communism (as if those two things are one and the same). Once people believe that, then any form of single-payer, affordable, universal healthcare is basically out the window, even if we are the only remaining developed country that fails to provide it's own citizens with such a system. And it also becomes easier to dismiss other things that are seen as basic rights in other countries, including maternity leave, strong vacation time, better public transportation, and stronger environmental regulations. After all, it is not that surprising that those who deny climate change usually are suspicious that this is some kind of scam designed by non-Americans to slow down the American economy by hurting American businesses. It was inevitable, really, that we would get a Donald Trump telling us that he will put only America first, and who believes (or claims to believe) that climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese to hurt us economically.

This belief in their own superiority gives them, at least in their own mind, the right to be the exception when it comes to challenging what is accepted knowledge and/or wisdom literally everywhere else. After all, how do you explain the defense of many Republican congressman a few years ago, who prefaced their knee-jerk denial of climate change by clarifying that they themselves are not scientists? In other words, we should understand that they are not themselves scientists, before we can digest their refutal of the actual science behind climate change. It calls to mind Isaac Asimov's suggestion that Americans had collectively grown so bold in their anti-intellectualism, that they believed, as he suggested, that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." When you get morons with a big public profile, such as game show host Pat Sajak, suggesting that those who advocate action on climate change are “unpatriotic racists.” Here is what he tweeted in full:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

Sajak also expressed how he thought it was fun to poke a stick into the hornet's nest. Too bad he does not apparently think it is as much fun to do some research and know what the hell he is talking about. Or maybe we really should take him at his word, and dismiss some of the most brilliant scientific minds of our times, such as Stephen Hawking, because, you know, they must surely hate America, right? After all, if you are a climate change denier, then following that logic, you must literally believe that climate change is a host propogated by the world's scientists and/or by China, with the sole purpose of hurting the American economy.

Then, once you accept this belief, it is not too far of a step to believe Trump when he suggests that climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese, and indeed, as Sajak suggested, that only the most unpatriotic among us would actually believe in such nonsense. Or that a single-payer healthcare system actually covering everyone could actually work. Or that we should curtail our massive military expenditures, because Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex.

Indeed, these days, this exceptionalist bent takes the uninformed under their wings, and riles them up with what are tantamount to conspiracy theories. And I think this is what worries so many people about what is going on right now in the United States, and why there are comparisons to Germany in the days leading up to outright Nazi rule. Because paradoxically, the very belief held by so many Americans that the United States is always the exception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Americans increasingly believe (at least in their collective political expression) things that put them at odds with the rest of the world, such as that they are and of right ought to be recognized as the greatest country in the world, and that the rest of the world somehow owes them something. Or that climate change is a hoax. Or that socialized medicine - Gasp! - simply cannot work, and would be a first step towards some fascist takeover (which the election of Donald Trump actually probably is, in reality). Or that public education is actually good for the country, and should be promoted, rather than curtailed, or left to the elites with more money and more opportunities. Or that freedom means allowing the very wealthy and the corporations to shamelessly exploit everyone else in order to retain their privileged status, and that any efforts to curb these tendencies, and to promote more equitable distribution of our resources, is most unAmerican, and worthy of contempt. There are more such beliefs that actually do set Americans apart, and for all of the wrong reasons. And increasingly, those who subscribe to these viewpoints are intolerant of what they perceive as the unpatriotic behavior and thinking of those among us who think otherwise, and try to take a deeper understanding of the issues. This is why the climate in this country right now feels to volatile and dangerous.

Because it actually is.

16 Hilarious Reactions to Pat Sajak's Nutty Climate Change Tweet

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