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American Exceptionalism

A Disease of Conceit

By Ron Jacobs
July 21, 2004

  The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground
The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground by Ron Jacobs

Any person who is honestly opposed to the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has got to wonder why the movement that developed against the US war on Iraq before the March 2003 invasion has faltered so badly and now seems to be caught up in the movement to electorally defeat George Bush, even though that means supporting John Kerry-a politician who not only supported the invasion and occupation, but talks openly about widening the war to include the NATO countries and tens of thousands more US troops. One could place the blame on the failure of the movement's politics, always more liberal than anti-imperialist. Or, one could place the blame on the leadership. In both cases, one would find some basis for their argument.

When it comes to the bottom line, though, the underlying cause for the US antiwar movement's current stasis is that most of its adherents believe in one of this country's basic tenets-a tenet that is ultimately religious in nature. For lack of a more descriptive phrase, we'll call this phenomenon American exceptionalism. On a basic political level, this phenomenon is the belief that, for some reason (America's system of democracy, or maybe its economic superiority), the United States system is not subject to the same contradictions and influences as those of the rest of the world. This belief in American superiority finds its foundation in some of our culture's basic religious and cultural constructs. It's there in the first settlers' belief that they were conducting a special errand into the wilderness to construct a city on a hill in the name of their heavenly father and every single president and wannabe always implores this same heavenly father to "bless America" at the end of every one of his speeches. This is no accident.

It is this belief that gave the Pilgrims their heavenly go-ahead to murder Pequot women and children and it was this belief that gave General Custer his approval to kill as many Sioux as he could. It made the mass murder of Korean and Vietnamese civilians acceptable to the soldiers at No Gun Ri and My Lai and exonerated the officers who tried to hide those and many other war crimes from the world. It gives George Bush the only rationale he needs to continue his crusade against the part of the world that stands in the way of the more mercenary men and women behind his throne as they pursue their project for a new American century. And, most importantly for us, it informs a goodly number of decent Americans in their tentative opposition to those men and women. Consequently, while they may oppose George Bush's approach to Washington's war on the world, they do not necessarily disagree with its goals.

Therefore, they find themselves making the argument that somehow some way; the United States must repair what it has so ruthlessly destroyed in Iraq. If our friends in the movement did not believe in America's essential goodness, its exception to the rules that govern power and the desire for power, than how could they believe that the very same agents that destroyed the country of Iraq would be able to repair it? Indeed, why would such a good country have destroyed another in the first place? These questions raise two of the most obvious contradictions governing the major part of the US antiwar forces. In fact, the antiwar movement is only one of the many places in the US cultural and political arena where such exceptionalism occurs.

It can be found in the struggle for equal rights for women, gays and lesbians; and it can be found in the struggle against racism. It is present in the mindset that refuses to support the right to armed struggle by oppressed peoples and it is present in the mindset that perceives other cultures less advanced than that which we have in the United States. . It's even present in the approach progressives take towards our national elections-it's as if our electoral system is beyond reproach, fair beyond criticism and impossible to taint. Because of this misconception, we allow our government to force its version of democracy on people around the world. Then, when these folks either reject our high-minded attempts to enlighten them or, even worse, actually use the electoral processes foisted upon them to elect someone who they want but who opposes US designs, the progressives find themselves as offended by this slight as the neocons.

How to change the movement to a movement that is capable of continuing its pursuit of justice once its right flank is co-opted by the system? At the risk of sounding redundant, study the world, not just the US. Develop an understanding of how capital works and forget the idea that capital ever has good intentions. Capitalism is an economic and political system that has no morals. It is not immoral, nor is it moral. It is amoral. In order to survive, it must expand, either by moving its operations into new regions or by taking over other capitalist ventures and their markets. Usually, the most successful capitalists employ both means. In recent history, the most successful capitalists have been mostly American. The fact that the US spends more money on weaponry and war is directly related to that phenomenon.

America is not a better country than any other. Its citizens and residents are as venal and as great as any others in any other part of the world. The only thing that sets us apart is our wealth. The only reason we have that wealth is because we stole it. God didn't give it to us, nor did any greater American intelligence or know-how. Robbery is what our foreign policy is based on, just like our racial policies. It's not the policies that need to change, but the foundation upon which those policies flourish. Until US activists accept this and give up their conscious and unconscious acceptance of the myth of American exceptionalism, any movement against war, racism, and other ills of our world is bound to fail. Not because it doesn't have the right motivation, but because it doesn't have a radical enough conception of itself and the world it exists in.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Originally published at counterpunch.org