An Exceptional Delusion


I watched the president’s state of the union speech last night, and couldn’t help but cringe at the heaping portion of American exceptionalism. Why has it been so impossible to get Americans to face up to reality and do something about it? Why is it politically untenable to say that we are anything other than the best, the smartest, the bravest, etc? Like a mother spoiling an only child, our political leaders fawn over us, stunting our prospects. It is rather like social promotion in schools, being passed along to a higher grade and told we are good, rather than holding ourselves to any standard or (heaven forbid) actually challenging us to change our bad study habits and become better. Take but one example (of many) from the President’s speech (referring to the military):

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.

Really? Do you read the news? Do you honestly believe that people around the world welcome the military of the US with open arms? Do you honestly believe that every military action we take makes us safer? How can you even peddle this fiction with a straight face? Why are we so emotionally needy and intellectually bankrupt as to accept this fairly tale? I expect this jingoistic bullshit from nativist Republicans, but I would like better from a Democratic president I voted for.

How about telling Americans the truth: that we have greatness in us, just like all people do, but to achieve that greatness we need to look at ourselves honestly. We need to look at our problems honestly. And instead of puffing ourselves up with empty and false flattery, we should use our resources to make our society better for everyone. I was glad the president mentioned income inequality and that it was central to his speech. But I wish he had been a little more honest about our shortcomings and stopped glorifying our worst impulses.


  1. David says:

    You could’ve found a better example for your thesis than him praising the troops – it is not simply “political” to tell people serving our armed forces that they have done a good job of protecting America and promoting our interests… The flaw in discussing our armed forces, if there was one, is in not saying that our politicians sent them abroad to fight an unnecessary war (Iraq) that angered much of the world and was initiated on false premises — but that decision was not the troops, and I would consider it wrong for the president to criticize the troops who served (and in saying this, I’m not referring, and clearly the President was not referring, to the rogue soldiers who did harm our image and interests abroad). I take your point about the jingoism and politically motivated exceptionalism stuff, but not so much from this example. Besides, I do think the world respects the US under Pres. Obama and Hillary Clinton than it did under Bush.

  2. Stephen says:

    As I mentioned, that was only one example. Consider this:

    “The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe.”

    or this:

    “From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back.

    Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

  3. Stephen says:

    and btw, my point does not focus on the troops, if you were reading carefully. It focuses on the need to call them heroes and say that they have made us safer (highly doubtful) and more respected (demonstrably false) through our dubious military actions.

  4. David says:

    I get — and largely agree with you — about the American exceptionalism-political point. I just thought the example you cited wasn’t the evidence of it. I agree that our Presidents are forced to do this (some, like Bush, out of complete ignorance, and Obama does it b/c the GOP already claim Obama is an American defeatest whenever he acknowledges reality). But I do disagree with you to the extent you think America’s standing and reputation abroad haven’t improved over the past serveral years under Obama — Bush clearly represented the lowest point in modern history (and rightly so). Do we still give lip service to certain values to which we fail to adhere and earn scorn for that – yep, but our standing abroad is better today than it was 4 years ago.

  5. Stephen says:

    I think our standing improved considerably at the start of Obama’s administration, but through his actions has deteriorated a lot since. From not standing up to Israel, to not closing Guantanamo (or Bagram for that matter), to drone attacks, to not only a continuation of the Bush extra-constitutional security overreach but a frightening deepening of it (think assassination of American citizens, indefinite detentions, etc), it has been a steady deflating of the initial burst of hope from abroad. I spent 2.5 months last year outside the country, and I can tell you it isn’t all roses. That said, even all that is beside my main point, which is about our emotional need to put ourselves beyond reproach and see ourselves as totally wonderful heroes, rescuing the world from.. whatever. We would be better served by looking at ourselves and our problems honestly, and trying to build a (very possible) future of good works and good will.