Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Psychology of American Exceptionalism

I don’t usually like to think about how my status as a white male citizen of the First World entitles me to privileges enjoyed by a relatively small portion of the human race. At other times, though, I seem to revel in torturing myself with that knowledge. Consciously, that’s my way of punishing myself for my failure to do enough to help those who live on the other/wrong side of the tracks. Unconsciously, I think I’m punishing myself for more personal sins. What those might be, I’m not sure. As I continue to make peace with my parents, though, my penchant for masochism seems to be receding, which leads me to believe that was the source of my unconscious guilt.

But the truth is that nothing about us or what we’ve done has earned us a spot at the top of the human food chain. We just happened to be born in the right place in the world, at the right time in history, to the right parents (in the right socioeconomic class). Geographically, historically and sociologically speaking, we won the lottery. We could just as easily have been born in a remote village of the Congo in the midst of a civil war to HIV-infected parents, condemned to a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Luck alone saved us from that fate.

From this knowledge springs the guilt of the privileged. If our station was bestowed on us by happenstance, then the poor must also be blameless for their lot. No one (with a shred of empathy) would blame a poor child for being poor, but many would blame a poor adult. The Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man (or woman) pulling themselves up by their bootstraps still has a powerful hold on the American imagination. But recent history casts doubt on its contemporary relevance. The social mobility of our society now lags behind most other post-industrial countries. 

It’s bad enough that, for the most part, our system keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, but what’s even worse is the extent to which their poverty subsidizes our affluence. While fossil fuels and technological innovation helped create the massive middle class of the 20th century, the U.S. economy is still heavily dependent on cheap human labor at home and abroad. Millions toil in sweatshops and fields across the globe for slave wages to provide us cheap food, clothes and other consumer goods. 

On some level all we bourgeoisie seem to be aware that behind our good fortune there lies a monstrous crime. Confronting this psychologically, however, is a tall order, and one that most people avoid as much as possible. The mainstream media and culture work hard to keep us from thinking about such unpleasant realities. The Powers That Be don’t want us to think about it, because then we might be inclined to change the system that put them in charge.

Most Americans obey this tacit command. On those occasions when our minds do wander into that minefield, our deliberations tend to be brief and lazy, accepting any path that will get us back to safe ground with our peace of mind intact. As a result, our theories on the subject are nebulous and poorly reasoned. We may pick up strands of mainstream beliefs, but we’re unlikely to act on them. Action would require faith, and we aren’t willing to subject our beliefs to the scrutiny that would justify that level of commitment. The default position seems to be: Somebody has to be on top; it might as well be us. The point of this limited contemplation is not to understand the phenomenon; it’s to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the misfortune of others.

Some Americans on the Right side of the political spectrum give the matter serious thought, but most of their conclusions are just more concerted efforts at evading guilt. The more overtly Christian regions of the Right wing are pervaded by the belief that we’ve been chosen by God to receive these gifts of wealth, freedom and power. By His economic and geopolitical Grace, God wishes us to police the world in the name of Truth, Justice and the American Way. 

Other explanations of American exceptionalism are subtler and not explicitly dependent on a self-serving interpretation of the Bible. They say our primacy has been secured by our industriousness, virtue and/or democracy, and we must maintain these values to preserve the heritage handed down to us by previous generations of Americans. The fact that these arguments carry significant political weight is a sobering comment on our educational system.

Of course, American exceptionalism is the ideological backbone of the mainstream media, so it’s no surprise that so many Americans have adopted this world-view. It also tends to be employed by people who are worried about dropping in socioeconomic status. Nowadays, that describes most of us. This status anxiety is projected as concern for the stability of America’s position in the world. We identify with the slumping superpower and believe that, if our homeland can be restored to its former glory, then so can we.

Others are looking for an institution to fill in for authority figures from our childhood who were either absent or inadequate, e.g. parents, teachers or clergy. As our families and other social support networks fray, more people become candidates for this coping device. Rather than face the world alone, we pledge uncritical allegiance to someone or something else in a desperate bid to keep from ever feeling insecure again. 

Many of us choose to trade our reliance on ineffectual or unavailable elders for strident nationalism, a.k.a. patriotism. Thus the fatherland becomes a surrogate parent whose actions and motives can never be questioned. Our sense of security has already been seriously damaged, and exposing the motherland’s flaws would shred our last safety net. Therefore, the homeland must be defended from all attacks, martial or rhetorical, no matter how minor or valid.

But the fact remains that America did not become a superpower through the goodness of its works or because we’re God’s favorite country. Our dominance was achieved through a combination of slaughtering Native Americans, enslaving Blacks and using our generous fossil fuel deposits to build a military capable of extorting wealth from most of the world. As members of the American middle class, we’ve benefited greatly from this arrangement. Only by acknowledging our complicity in this system can we begin to reclaim our humanity.


NowhereMan said...

Another great essay. I think that you give ordinary Americans far too much credit though. To the extent that they ever consider American Exceptionalism at all, I think they just accept it as a preordained fact and natural birthright. Might makes right, divine providence, and all that baloney. Generations of decidedly Americanized religious dogma will do that to you.

All of which is further reinforced by the current sports - especially football - hysteria. The whole gladiators marching valiantly into combat meme, with, as you've noted, heroic vets back from the actual wars, standing idly by on display on the sidelines shtick is so over-the-top gratuitously patronizing that you'd think any three year old could see right through it. And yet, the American viewing public laps it all up like mother's milk. It's all just pretty damn amazing when you stop to think about it.

Mickey Foley said...

Thanks for the props! I believe Americans are more introspective than you think, but that could just be my pollyanna-ish side.

I think sports are primarily an escape from reality, although it's no surprise that the violence on the field bears some resemblance to the violence of our foreign policy. The terror inflicted by our imperialism is sublimated in civic discourse and reappears as "smashmouth" sports. It's also the most popular way our culture legitimizes violence.