"White Americans are probably the most dangerous people in the world…"
August 8, 2017 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Unlearning the myth of American innocence. "American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others. How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself?"
posted by standardasparagus (78 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
 
QFT:

It is different in the United States,” I once said, not entirely realising what I was saying until the words came out. I had never been called upon to explain this. “We are told it is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative the way you are doing just now, because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism. And the thing is, we will never question any of it because at the same time, all we are being told is how free-thinking we are, that we are free. So we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.”

“Wow,” a friend once replied. “How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it?”

posted by ryanshepard at 9:09 AM on August 8 [63 favorites]


It is not *that* quiet.
posted by n9 at 9:41 AM on August 8 [43 favorites]


Very well written, and something that resonates even with never-left-the-US me. I used to wonder at times if I was weird for not wanting to view geopolitics like a sporting event, watching others pointing to the scoreboard as if we weren't the fucking Yankees who outspent the rest of the league to get there, blind to our flaws and failures, and not really wanting to view living on this planet in "winning" and "losing" terms anyway.

But I would love to be a fly on the wall in a public school history class whose teacher dared to express that.
posted by delfin at 9:42 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]


It is not *that* quiet.

I'd say it's fairly deafening at this particular moment in time.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:44 AM on August 8 [6 favorites]


This is excellent.
As an American emissary in the wider world, writing about foreigners, governments, economies partaking in some larger system and scheme of things, I was an agent somehow. Emre lived in the American world as a foreigner, as someone less powerful, as someone for whom one newspaper article could mean war, or one misplaced opinion could mean an intervention by the International Monetary Fund. My attitude, my prejudice, my lack of generosity could be entirely false, inaccurate or damaging, but would be taken for truth by the newspapers and magazines I wrote for, thus shaping perceptions of Turkey for ever.

Years later, an American journalist told me he loved working for a major newspaper because the White House read it, because he could “influence policy”. Emre had told me how likely it was I would screw this up. He was saying to me: first, spy, do no harm.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:55 AM on August 8 [4 favorites]


this.
posted by infini at 10:14 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


speaking as a white american, i didn't think we are all that bad when i was young... then as i got older, and well, you'd be amazed at the things white male americans say to other white male americans under the assumption that they are of like minds

tl;dr: we really are the worst
posted by entropicamericana at 10:23 AM on August 8 [38 favorites]


This is a great essay.

I could not pin down the slow disenchantment of my patriotism as precisely as this writer has, but it's sad the way I keep getting surprised by America's crimes. It was not until this year, listening to Mike Duncan's "Revolutions" podcast, that I learned that the US invaded and occupied Haiti for nearly 20 years. ... how did I never learn this before?
posted by suelac at 10:42 AM on August 8 [6 favorites]


I have been on the outside of this circle for most of my life. When I was in the 3rd and 4th Grades, my family lived in Saudi Arabia (lots of oil and plane manufacturers from around the world had businesses there), and before I was 10, I had flown around the world, literally.

Coming back to the States, I had a much different perspective about, not only America, but the world. It is true that Americans have been viewed favorably for a long time (probably post-WW2), but I never got the exceptionalism, and have for my entire life been criticized or ostracized for being unpatriotic or, that dirty word, "Liberal."

Traveling to Mexico or the Caribbean, I constantly cringe when I see other Americans (usually middle-Americans, but not always) being boorish assholes. Imagine Drumpf supporters wearing WWE t-shirts in San Francisco and you get the picture.

It's worse now. When in Germany and France during the Bush years, I had a hard time trying to let the good people of those countries that not all Americans are like *that*, but I don't represent maintstream Americans at all. More of an outlier than an example.
posted by Chuffy at 10:52 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]




I would think, if it accomplishes nothing else - and it likely won't - the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency should have made it impossibly absurd to argue that American culture, American people, are in any way exceptional, in any way better than any other country out there, no matter how ridiculous.

How do we look at Zimbabwe now, and point and laugh at Robert Mugabe? Or even at North Korea? How can we now criticize anybody for anything and say, "well, that's just how they are over there," now that we've elected Donald Trump to be our President?

We've ripped away the curtain and revealed ourselves to be every bit as stupid, superstitious, ignorant, prejudiced and short-sighted as humans everywhere.

On one level that's uncomfortable, but at least it also immunizes us against the world's suspicions. The author's Turkish friends are just as caught up in the idea of America as unique and omnicapable - they just see it from the other side and don't like it. But no, of course we didn't engineer the 9/11 attacks and then successfully conceal that for more than 15 years. Who does this guy think we are? We elected Donald Trump for God's sake.
posted by Naberius at 11:05 AM on August 8 [29 favorites]


We did not study world maps, because international geography, as a subject, had been phased out of many state curriculums long before. There was no sense of the US being one country on a planet of many countries. Even the Soviet Union seemed something more like the Death Star – flying overhead, ready to laser us to smithereens – than a country with people in it.

As a Canadian living in the US, it never ceases to amaze me how unbelievably insular Americans are. In no other country on Earth are you allowed to escape American culture - even the Saudis all watch American TV. A Canadian cable TV subscription brings 90-ish% American content into people's living rooms. But Americans not only avoid outside media but are actively shielded from it.

From Macleans: "Americans trying to bring guns into Canada with ‘alarming frequency’" - these aren't even smugglers or criminals, just regular Americans going on vacation and not even thinking that Canada has a different set of laws. Like somehow Canada is just a less popular flavour of ice cream.

I dare even liberal Americans to spend a week consuming media that's not American. Good luck even finding it.
posted by GuyZero at 11:19 AM on August 8 [19 favorites]


But no, of course we didn't engineer the 9/11 attacks and then successfully conceal that for more than 15 years. Who does this guy think we are?

The country whose intelligence agencies came up with Operation Northwoods? It's not like the USA doesn't have form where this sort of thing is concerned.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 11:22 AM on August 8 [1 favorite]


It is not *that* quiet.

There's overt, braying MAGA-style fascism, and then there's the far more subliminal mental poison of exceptionalism and the profiteering and brutality it masks that makes even good liberals tow the line without understanding the horrors they're party to. I think the latter is what the author is primarily addressing here.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:31 AM on August 8 [26 favorites]


I dare even liberal Americans to spend a week consuming media that's not American. Good luck even finding it.

Double points if you consume media other than produced by the BBC during said week.
posted by thegears at 11:54 AM on August 8 [7 favorites]


I feel like I bang on this drum a lot, but you know what would help unlearn the myth of American innocence? A good education in US history that actually grapples with America's original sins of genocide and slavery. This education must come not just if you have a particularly woke high school history teacher, or if you have the opportunity to take a reasonably thorough US history class in college. It must come from the start, from those first civic history lessons in elementary school.

I haven't ever quite gotten over the anger that even my privileged elementary school education--where I was in classes for "gifted and talented" children, where we got to go on frequent field trips, where we had good, thoughtful teachers--even that supposedly good education fed me the lie rather than the truth. We went on field trips to Spanish missions in California, we recreated them in dioramas, and I don't recall a single mention or acknowledgment of how those missions enabled and enacted genocide against California's native people, apart from anodyne mentions of disease. I learned that in college. Which, let me tell you, rendered a retroactively nightmarish cast to those field trips.

To be fair, we did learn about California's native people separate and apart from white conquest. They weren't erased from our education. But what happened to them, what was actively done to them with state and popular support--that was never much mentioned or discussed. This kind of failure of education leaves you with a populace that's unable and unwilling to reckon with its country's failings. It leaves you with a populace that's mired in a perpetual present, with no understanding that the present is just history, still happening.

America's original sins are not over, and they are not forgiven. American history education as it currently stands isn't history, it's myth-making, and it's propaganda. It's barely a step up from tall tales about Paul Bunyan. Yeah, that's probably the point, I know. But it shouldn't be, and fixing history education is one small start to fixing all our other giant problems, because a lot of them stem from it.
posted by yasaman at 11:58 AM on August 8 [75 favorites]



I dare even liberal Americans to spend a week consuming media that's not American


although I enjoy, as always, the image of shoveling "media" into one's capacious maw like Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children, what does this mean? read a book, watch a show? read a newspaper? none of this these takes great effort except perhaps filtering out all American websites, if exclusively non-American is what you mean. this is like daring someone to eat a ham sandwich. in that I...can? ordinarily, I wouldn't hesitate to, but being dared to makes me wonder if there's something ominous I should know.

it is true that the British Film Institute won't let me watch rare films on their online player thing because I'm outside the U.K., but I don't think that's a leading cause of American ignorance and arrogance. but I will tell them it is, just in case it makes them feel worried and guilty enough to ignore the licensing restrictions.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:33 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]


A good essay. I'm very lucky that my father was in the Foreign Service, so I grew up abroad—I didn't move to the US for good until I went to college—and I went to a couple of international schools where the education was in English but the textbooks were often British; at Saint Mary's International in Tokyo, my best friends were Panamanian, Pakistani, and South African, and we had a game where we confronted each other with atrocities from the history of the other guy's country. Which was very educational.

And still I somehow grew up with a whitewashed version of American history; my textbooks had glossed over what happened to the Native Americans and fed us the (now long discredited, thankfully) Catastrophe-of-Carpetbagging Reconstruction narrative, and I had a gut sense of the US as the peak of civilization. Even as I learned to hate the war in Vietnam and what black people were dealing with and the fucked-up political system, I still kept that gut sense (and bristled when foreigners made snide remarks about my country). It didn't really get eroded until many years later when I started doing some serious reading in American history written by actual historians and realized the well was poisoned from the very beginning. And now I'm a sad anarchist whose patriotism is confined to a love of burgers and baseball.
posted by languagehat at 12:37 PM on August 8 [19 favorites]


"good liberals"

Good Liberals. Really? Like who? Obama and Clinton with their drone strikes, demure service to Wall Street and hypercapitalism? Like I said, that facism is not very quiet. It is just not generally observed. It is very effectively enforced, though. Maybe comfortable liberals is the right wording.
posted by n9 at 12:45 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]


I read this earlier and as a non-American I'm interested in how Americans read into it. I don't think the author's intention was to get Americans into collective self-flagellation.

The article makes me think about a mirror image of exceptionalism (or triumphalism?). Somewhere I read that there has been a kind of consensus (for some value of consensual) of what I temporarily label as "Nazi exceptionalism", in the sense that Nazi Germany was so evil, and it could only find explanation in something exceptional somewhere -- perhaps in some flaw of the German nation, or Old Europe, or maybe it was a bunch of exceptionally bad elite. They were the Other. It Can't Happen Here. Previously in a thread I voiced some similar sentiments, and got some mixed responses.

I wonder why it almost never occurred to me that there was any basis for exceptionalism of any sort. During my own exploration of history (largely outside my own country's curriculum -- they're even worse, and I'm not a good student either), I came to think that there were not really much of exception, despite the differences in national characters and fortunes. Humans are quite similar in their nobility and brutality, in achievements and failings. And humans are very good at enforcing and reinforcing conformity in the in-group and creating otherness against the out-group. This is not to deny the autonomy, agency, creativity, and will to freedom in individuals, but not all individual traits extend to groups as large as a nation in a trivial way.

But, as with many conundrums of life, try not to despair. It's not all lost and there's much that one can do.
posted by runcifex at 12:47 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]


But no, of course we didn't engineer the 9/11 attacks and then successfully conceal that for more than 15 years. Who does this guy think we are?

I dunno. Who is the more brilliant engineer? The person who planned these pretty ad hoc attacks or the people/bureaucracy that systematically ignored intelligence warning about them for a protracted period of time and then used (and used and used and used) the attacks as the reason for trillions of dollars worth of war spending, millions of deaths and a forever war that has pumped enough dollars out of the pockets of the American people to fund universal healthcare for generations into the pockets of every fucker that can make, process, transport, repair or market a weapon? I won't tell you what I think. But suffice it to say: our country sucks.
posted by n9 at 12:51 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]


How do we look at Zimbabwe now, and point and laugh at Robert Mugabe? Or even at North Korea?

Is that supposed to be a serious comparison? What a careless and callous thing to say.

And who is exactly is laughing when Mugabe sends thugs to beat the crap out opposition voters with sticks? You?
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:05 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Humans are quite similar in their nobility and brutality, in achievements and failings. ...not all individual traits extend to groups as large as a nation in a trivial way.

Although I'm inclined to agree that we start from a basic baseline of human nature, American education and culture do nurture a particular subset of tendencies which tend to go unchallenged. American exceptionalism is less a trait than an attitude, a choice we don't remember making. I've only ever attended school in the US and so would welcome corrections from folks who have experience outside of that, but: Do bullies anywhere else appeal to a national ethos to justify their cruelty? I don't mean citing their membership in an in-group or their victims' membership in an out-group. I mean do playground spats elsewhere culminate in the declaration "It's a free country!", analogizing the nation itself and its freedoms with the right to bully?
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 1:27 PM on August 8 [5 favorites]


Yes, people laugh at Mugabe and Kim Jong-Un. The "Holy shit, how does someone that obviously crazy command so much power? The world is a ridiculous terrible place" kind of laughter. Humans universally laugh at painful subjects that are out of their control.

How is it careless or callous to make that comparison? The US does worse things to a larger number of completely innocent people than either of those two. And I'm not downplaying the evil of Mugabe or Kim, since that would be the exceptionalist interpretation of that statement.

Americans seem to think that Trump makes them look bad by being so boorish and stupid. There is some of that, but mostly it just confirms what everyone has always known about Americans. The confusion is more along the lines of "What's different now that the leader of the US can say everything that they have obviously always believed and done when they couldn't before, is it just because he's clearly suffering from dementia or was there a political shift?"
posted by Infracanophile at 1:53 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]


The most destructive outcome of a belief in American exceptionalism is that Americans as a consequence, in a general sense, are willing to accept all kinds of dysfunction. Start with the lack of an effectively functioning social safety net and go from there really. It's all fine, if you're the greatest and you don't believe how badly you have it. It's incredibly corrosive. (And dumbfounding, to this outsider)
posted by deadwax at 1:58 PM on August 8 [25 favorites]


For years I've been mystified by American's self-describing themselves as some sort of example or pillar of democracy, which I really don't get in light of the whole world pointing and laughing at the bush/gore election*, the electoral college gerrymandering system, 100+ years of US foreign policy undermining democracy around the world, and the systematic disenfranchisement of blacks and latinos.

I'm not saying it's better everywhere else (or where I live), but the US is really not that exceptional in terms of democracy except in one arena: P.R., and even that went out the window with the current chief executive.

* Presidential elections aren't that hard: you print votes, you make lots of boxes where people put the votes, you have people standing there from both sides making sure no one cheats, you open the boxes and count the votes, the one with 50%+1 wins, bam.
posted by signal at 2:03 PM on August 8 [5 favorites]


The most destructive outcome of a belief in American exceptionalism is that Americans as a consequence, in a general sense, are willing to accept all kinds of dysfunction. Start with the lack of an effectively functioning social safety net and go from there really. It's all fine, if you're the greatest and you don't believe how badly you have it. It's incredibly corrosive. (And dumbfounding, to this outsider)

One of my most mortifying and shamefully belated realizations after the 2016 election was that American exceptionalism regards this dysfunction as a feature rather than a bug. We won't let just *anybody* get food or healthcare or the vote. Those things only go to people who *deserve* them.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 2:16 PM on August 8 [13 favorites]



A good education in US history that actually grapples with America's original sins of genocide and slavery.


everybody just needs to sneak into a showing of Little Big Man when they're eleven years old and discover that the indins were actually the good guys and the cavalry (General Custer in particular) were the baddies. From that point on, everything-you-know-is-wrong becomes a motto to live by. At least that's how it worked for me.

full reveal -- I'm Canadian but way back when, suburbia 1971, the distinction seemed abstract at best. Pretty much all the TV I watched was American, all the movies, all the books I was reading ...
posted by philip-random at 2:32 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


This deeply resonates with me. As a German immigrant to the US, anti-exceptionalism isn't new to me (the German left is drenched in it and I came of age during the Bush years). As a college-bound teenager, you just were reflexively anti-american (directed towards what I thought was the thick veneer of Bush-era patriotic ignorance).

But only after living in the US for a few years - mostly in liberal and extremely liberal areas - has it become clear to me how deeply entrenched the exceptionalist ideology really is. When I watched 'The West Wing' back home I thought, 'surely this is tongue in cheek because this nationalist hubris cannot be serious. There's no way intelligent people [read: liberals] can fall for this.'

Turns out I was wrong, a lot of people (partly including me, I guess?...) fall for it. Damn.
posted by The Toad at 4:06 PM on August 8 [12 favorites]


I had the good experience of living in full cultural immersion in northern Europe and also spending a number of years in Canada and Central Europe. Much later, once I was married and in grad school, my American wife and I were back in Europe for a long pull, and it was a real eye-opener for her to really confront the fact that people all around the world don't necessarily want to be Americans.

The business of American mass culture, and its ubiquity since the 90s, has brainwashed Americans to think that the world wants to be "just like us." Sure, you might find people wearing jeans & a t-shirts, but while they might want clean water, a decent job, and peace, that combination is neither uniquely nor definitively American. Yet Americans think it is.

It seems that the absence of a some sort of aesthetic-political-social-community culture in the US— this vacuum — has left people like Suzy Hanson to be blindsided once they discover that she's been raised without a culture.

If an Ivy grad should find herself without a culture to equip her once abroad, I sigh for the rest of us.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 4:48 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]


Good Liberals. Really? Like who? Obama and Clinton with their drone strikes, demure service to Wall Street and hypercapitalism? Like I said, that facism is not very quiet.

Less the power players than the "I'M WITH HER!", NPR-listening rank and file that are largely oblivious to the things you're talking about because they are never on the receiving end or exposed to media outside that questions their consensus reality. So, yeah, comfortable is probably accurate.
posted by ryanshepard at 4:48 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]


it's kind of hard for me to relate to it, as i grew up in a time where everything was discredited and disparaged - the 60s and early 70s - maybe some people got their faith back, but i sure didn't - between what happened nationally and what happened to me as a misfit in a small midwestern city, it's always been hard for me to see americans as anything but mostly ignorant fascists in training

which i guess is what she's confessing to

but let's face it, we've all lived under a regime that's threatened to destroy civilization for ideology and not only don't most people question the sanity of this, many don't even seem to remember that we are still living that way

no, i don't believe that our government did 9/11 - this is not because i don't think our journalists don't screw up or wouldn't not report it or whatever, but because i think our government's too fucking incompetent to do a good job of something like that or be able to keep it quiet

maybe the real difference between us and the rest of the world is that having much more rope, we've got to find a much taller tree from which to hang ourselves from
posted by pyramid termite at 5:08 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]


What's new under the sun?

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." - Goethe

"Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself." - C.S. Lewis

"A prison cell is the heritage we gain for the blood and lives our forefathers gave; they fought for religious freedom and left us with minds free from superstitious cant and dogma; they waged war for political justice; they carried on the struggle against chattel-slavery - these were the titanic battles that were fought, bringing us to the threshold of all wars - the class war - in which we are enlisted as workers." - Bill Haywood (IWW leader), 1917

" As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions.... They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn't they?" - Charles Bukowski

"What better way to enslave a man than to give him the vote and tell him he's free." - Albert Camus

" If people permit exploitation and regimentation in any name, they deserve their slavery. A tyrant does not make his tyranny possible. It is made possible by the people and not otherwise."
- John Whiteside Parsons, rocket scientist
posted by Twang at 5:31 PM on August 8 [5 favorites]


maybe the real difference between us and the rest of the world is that having much more rope, we've got to find a much taller tree from which to hang ourselves from

I don't get this, care to explain, pyramid termite?
posted by The Toad at 5:39 PM on August 8


"Unlearning the myth of American innocence" is an interesting title. If "innocence" is interpreted as ignorance, then according to Hansen, it's an entirely accurate description!

An unflattering comparison from George F. Kennan comes to mind:
But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.
Of course another way to interpret "innocence" is absence of guilt. And here, I think there's two things to keep in mind:
1. After the end of World War II, the US was one of two superpowers. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been the most powerful country in the world.

2. Power is inherently evil.
I'm not sure how many Americans understand the second point. American movies, the dominant art form of our age, both reflect and reinforce a superficial understanding of conflict. They nearly always portray conflict and war as being between good guys and bad guys. The cause of the conflict is simple: the bad guys are evil, and must be defeated or destroyed. Compromise is obviously impossible. Star Wars is the archetype here, but most superhero movies follow this pattern as well.

The idea of a stable "balance of power" between two or more rivals, each with its own agenda and its own vital interests, is very rarely portrayed. (I think Game of Thrones might come closest - like the Battle of the Blackwater, portrayed from both Tyrion and Davos's point of view - although I've only read the books, I haven't watched the TV series.)

Why is power inherently evil? For one thing, it's closely linked to violence. Even when wielded with the best of intentions, violence is inherently dangerous and unpredictable. When deployed by a state using modern technology, it's almost unimaginably destructive.

When's the last time you saw a movie hero shoot someone by mistake? (A couple Hong Kong examples come to mind, like Hard Boiled. Contrast with a movie like John Wick, where the hero shoots and kills a large number of enemies in public places with unerring precision.)

Hans Morgenthau, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (1946):
There is no escape from the evil of power, regardless of what one does. Whenever we act with reference to our fellow men, we must sin, and we must still sin when we refuse to act; for the refusal to be involved in the evil of action carries with it the breach of the obligation to do one’s duty. No ivory tower is remote enough to offer protection against the guilt in which the actor and the bystander, the oppressor and the oppressed, the murderer and his victim are inextricably enmeshed. Political ethics is indeed the ethics of doing evil. While it condemns politics as the domain of evil par excellence, it must reconcile itself to the enduring presence of evil in all political action. Its last resort, then, is the endeavor to choose, since evil there must be, among several possible actions the one that is least evil.

It is indeed trivial, in the face of so tragic a choice, to invoke justice against expediency and to condemn whatever political action is chosen because of its lack of justice. Such an attitude is but another example of the superficiality of a civilization which, blind to the tragic complexities of human existence, contents itself with an unreal and hypocritical solution of the problem of political ethics. In fact, the invocation of justice pure and simple against a political action makes of justice a mockery; for, since all political actions needs must fall short of justice, the argument against one political action holds true for all. By avoiding a political action because it is unjust, the perfectionist does nothing but exchange blindly one injustice for another which might even be worse than the former. He shrinks from the lesser evil because he does not want to do evil at all. Yet his personal abstention from evil, which is actually a subtle form of egotism with a good conscience, does not at all affect the existence of evil in the world but only destroys the faculty of discriminating between different evils. ‘Man,’ in the words of Pascal, ‘is neither angel nor beast and his misery is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.’ Here again it is only the awareness of the tragic presence of evil in all political action which at least enables man to choose the lesser evil and to be as good as he can be in an evil world.
posted by russilwvong at 5:43 PM on August 8 [11 favorites]


Welcome to your regularly scheduled America is So Terrible! thread.

For context, I identify as a left-leaning independent. The GOP - especially its current incarnation - repulses me. The orange POTUS makes me sick to my stomach. But these "did you know Americans aren't great but are actually horrible!" discussions bring out a self-congratulatory smugness that is willfully dense.

American exceptionalism is frequently exploited and misapplied but its basis is not a delusion. In the modern era, the US has a reach and influence on a global scale that far outmatches any other single nation. You can argue all day about why this is or the merits of it. I am not arguing any of those things. But it is still true. At some point the US evolved into the globe's center of attention and it still is - evidenced by the nearly infinite number of threads online about, yes, America.

The US' influence on virtually every major sector of life - both for good and ill, is so deep and wide that it is not threatened by a single idiotic administration or aggrieved Internet commenters.

It is no surprise that the American consciousness has integrated this into its identity. It would be shocking if it did not. I mean, what do you expect?

Of course it's ridiculous for individual people to somehow take credit for this. Of course it's boorish to treat people from other countries as lesser. Individual Americans are not better human beings than anyone else. Some Americans do not understand this. This is sad. They are wrong. We can do better, and we can be better. But let's not pretend that nothing sets apart the US as a whole. Of course it is set apart. Any reading of history shows that. The question is, what do we do with this? How do we respond and act on it, either as Americans or as citizens of other countries?
posted by thebordella at 6:55 PM on August 8


I don't get this, care to explain, pyramid termite?

we have more leeway - we have more strength - and we have climbed much farther

so, we have much further to fall and will leave a deeper crater

or, to return to my original image, with the long rope we've placed upon our necks, we're really going to have to find a tall tree if we want to hang ourselves and do a lot more rope throwing and pulling to get it done
posted by pyramid termite at 7:06 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


we're really going to have to find a tall tree
posted by pyramid termite

SO eponysterical.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:09 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile two thousand years ago or thereabouts ...

Individual ROMANS are not better human beings than anyone else. Some ROMANS do not understand this. This is sad. They are wrong. We can do better, and we can be better. But let's not pretend that nothing sets apart ROME as a whole. Of course it is set apart. Any reading of history shows that. The question is, what do we do with this? How do we respond and act on it, either as ROMANS or as citizens of other countries?
posted by philip-random at 7:10 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


I feel like in the 1960's and 70's many of us had learned this lesson, that American exceptionalism was a lie.

It's just sad to hear of one woman's journey to learning it only now. And how many won't take this journey? Those people, those Trump voters, they are killing us all.
posted by adam hominem at 7:19 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile two thousand years ago or thereabouts ...

Perhaps more apt, this being the 100 year anniversary of WWI - the beginning of the end of an empire that spanned the world, substitute British for American.
posted by dazed_one at 7:28 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


The fact that nothing, including Rome or Brittania, lasts forever sheds no light on anything.

The US is set apart in the modern era. The fact that its citizens internalize this is straight up human nature. The fact that some of its citizens misapply this is something to work against.

Someday the US will no longer be the center of attention, and someday after that it may cease to exist. There will be many factors aligning that lead to this.

But as long as Internet nostradami keep posting to these threads, its place remains secure. When nobody cares anymore, then the lights will go out.
posted by thebordella at 7:35 PM on August 8


The fact that nothing, including Rome or Brittania, lasts forever sheds no light on anything.

Absolutely untrue. History can teach humility; in an ideal world, understanding that empires greater than one's own have risen and fallen (and within living memory, no less) should deflate that American exceptionalism.

The US is set apart in the modern era.

Depending on how you define "modern era", the US isn't really "set apart" from the rest of the world. World War II marked the end of the British empire, although it had been decaying for some time prior to that. Within the 72 years since then, we have seen the rise and collapse of the USSR and the ascension of China as global powers. Right now, the US is king, but history teaches us that dynasties end, often suddenly and with much violence.
posted by dazed_one at 7:48 PM on August 8 [9 favorites]


But as long as Internet nostradami keep posting to these threads, its place remains secure.

That seems a very long bow to draw. Discussing the waning of the US's preeminent position means it's not happening? That defies logic.
posted by deadwax at 7:50 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


The only time I ever got punched in the face was in the back of a limo traveling towards Hollywood, CA for a bachelor's party. Everyone was good and sloppy, and I was having an interesting conversation with this punk rocker kinda guy who seemed pretty cool... until I started criticizing American foreign policy. Which is not a particularly difficult thing to do.

I remember what he said once he realized where I was going with it, something like "Oh yeah SURE it's real easy to criticize America". Maybe he didn't want to have the object of his allegiance questioned while really we should have just been out getting sloppier and celebrating my friend's impending marriage. Stuffed if I know. Anyway like any well informed foreigner eager to share interesting facts, I agreed with him and proceeded to do so, and had just started describing my general horror and disdain at the proliferation of American military bases around the planet and in my country of origin in particular, when some American fists came flying at me.

This struck me as so fucking hilarious that I swear I didn't feel the punch. It was cartoonish. And also boozy. I'm not sure, but this might be the most American thing I've ever experienced.

Oh the dude who punched me was white of course. He apologized a few months later.
posted by ephemerae at 8:21 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]


Big chunks of America is just incredibly parochial, and bits are just wretched horrible jerks and worse. But, an immigrant American may give us all an outpost on Mars. The entire tech world is trying to replicate Silicon Valley, there's stupid fart apps but there is "something" that was not invented in London or China or anywhere. Hollywood films are shown everywhere, superhero flicks are a smidge embarrassing in academic sense but French films or Hungarian animation is amazing but it's still Hollywood that has something. Maybe it's the wrong thing but it hasn't happened in Spain. Umm, moon landing. A whole bunch of nukes and incomprehensible power and a bunch of Germans and Japanese that would like to thank USian style of world domination. China is a powerhouse, they build and copy iphones, why have none of those billions come up with the next new idea? Hey, just google it.

Maybe it's over, maybe the mistakes in middle east and north korea will be the downfall.

There is so much to seriously criticize about the government, so much it gets so utterly wrong. But no dictator here and I'd defy any possibility. And I think Italy has better food and hope that Africa gets it together and Sweden saves the worlds seeds. But the next google is unlikely to gestate in South Korea as clever as they are, or London or Europe or Uruguay.

Problems so many problems and it seems so disingenuous to claim specialness and the folks that invent transistors or CRISPR or google just stay focused on their project but there does seem to be something in the water. Oh and the illuminati is just up the street.

posted by sammyo at 8:22 PM on August 8


Thanks, pyramid termite, I understand.

My takeaway from this piece, and from my own lived experience so far, isn't 'America is terrible', as quipped upthread. It's that America is exactly as terrible as all other (colonialist) countries. The point is Americans are unique in how much they are convinced their country is not terrible, but in fact the standard everybody else should aspire to. It's a cultural arrogance (not a personal one).

I have American daughters who tell me 'I love America because it's where I was born!'. I could be living in Europe, but can't imagine leaving and will soon become a citizen (if the Trumpers let me). So, I guess you could say I'm firmly on the pro-America side in my personal life.

What I take from this piece, personally, is not that 'Americans suck,' but that I should look for blind spots in my own socialisation (as a German and now American liberal). I'm sure they are there.
posted by The Toad at 8:46 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]


American exceptionalism is frequently exploited and misapplied but its basis is not a delusion. In the modern era, the US has a reach and influence on a global scale that far outmatches any other single nation. You can argue all day about why this is or the merits of it. I am not arguing any of those things. But it is still true. At some point the US evolved into the globe's center of attention and it still is - evidenced by the nearly infinite number of threads online about, yes, America.

I think the problem Hansen addresses in her essay is not just the exceptionalism itself but the American tendency to assign a moral value to our place in the world -- that is, to assume that our possession of such extraordinary influence doubles as evidence of our worthiness, that our power is in itself a moral qualification to exercise it. That's what makes the exceptionalism so dangerous. It's not just "We're more powerful than you so we get what we want." It's "Our power is a sign from God that we have the right to do whatever we want." The former can be reasoned with, even if that means an arms race. The latter is an unassailable conviction. It's a new colonialism, insidious because unacknowledged. We're self-congratulatory without being self-aware. What Hansen is advocating is not for us to deny our influence but to contextualize it and hopefully be humbled by our status as the bull in the world's china shop.

It's just sad to hear of one woman's journey to learning it only now. And how many won't take this journey? Those people, those Trump voters, they are killing us all.

Why would anybody want to take this journey? Most white people get to move through the world like Dorian Gray. Who wants to be dragged up to the attic and told No, actually, *this* is who you are? It's not just Trump voters. I have white friends who were just as horrified as I was on Election Night but with whom I will not broach the topic of white privilege. The West Wing liberals are nowhere near as corrosive as MAGAhats but I'm not sure they fall on an entirely different spectrum.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 8:47 PM on August 8 [21 favorites]


(On non-preview, what The Toad just said.)
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 8:49 PM on August 8


This is excellent (and I've heard the same about the book it's an excerpt from) although it's hard to evaluate it with any kind of analytical distance given how closely it echoes my own experiences as an American who's spent a substantial portion of my late 20s/early 30s in Turkey. I think I've had some version of more or less every conversation she recounts here at one time or another.

also, Hansen has been consistently writing some of the most thoughtful longform journalism on Turkey I've seen in the English-language press over the past few years, from this on the İstanbul contemporary art scene in 2012 to her more recent account of the ongoing purge that has followed the coup attempt last summer. Her work is well worth keeping an eye out for.
posted by karayel at 9:11 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]


It's just sad to hear of one woman's journey to learning it only now. And how many won't take this journey? Those people, those Trump voters, they are killing us all.

This is part of what's dangerous. Othering. "Those people." Meanwhile in this thread we have a few people claiming exceptionalism could have saved them (by dint of not having a decent public education) or did (by not growing up in the US) save them.

I grew up in a parochial, conservative part of the US, had an entirely public education in the 80s and 90s, was brainwashed in the group that came to be Trump's largest support base, namely white evangelicals, and yet I speak several languages, live abroad, am not the evangelical everyone in our large family except my two paternal grandparents were, grew up with an intimate knowledge of our area's history of Native American oppression (Kalapuya in our area) and racism (Oregon is pretty shit) as related to the larger issues (from how school history whitewashed it etc. this would be a book and better ones are out there but that's beside the point which is people), and have written about this stuff too. As have many other Mefites, some of whom have also spoken in this thread, but not casting themselves as exceptions.

I'm not an exception. All I did was listen. To the people who lived where I lived. In the US.
posted by fraula at 1:02 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]


russilwvong, a link to the quote in your comment would be deeply appreciated by someone whose given name translates from the Sanskrit as political ethics.
posted by infini at 1:56 AM on August 9


I suppose everybody is enabled/limited by their frame of reference, but what this piece articulates very well is the fact that Americans --owing to imperialism or hegemony or leadership of the free world, or however you want to call it-- constantly get that frame of reference reflected back at them wherever they go. But it's a reflection that is always a little out of alignment, a bit inferior to the original, if for no other reason than that these reflections are fragmentary, they are cut off from the body of experience that embeds and embodies their experiential essence. Things are judged in how they meet or or fail to meet or differ from that standard. All sorts of countries have a version of Coke, and that's fun and exciting and everything, but there's only one original-- and there's no escaping that original: ultimately that's the kind of Coke that everyone should want.

And, of course, social and political phenomena are also couched in terms of a debate that's centered on America and its interests. Thus we talk about "cyber" and "fake news" and "deep state" and "global value chains" and "disruption" and "diversity" as if there is a natural and ultimate meaning to those words, and the rest of the world just needs to catch up-- or, get swept away by the ostensibly impersonal force of manifest destiny.
posted by dmh at 2:45 AM on August 9 [3 favorites]


I spent three or four months in an American school in 1980 while my father was a visiting prof at a college there, and even at age 12 was struck by this myth-making. Simply having to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning brought it home; we did nothing of the sort in Australia. Then there were the social studies textbooks (pamphlets, really), one on the First World War which started with the sinking of the Lusitania and ended with how America won it, one on the Second World War which started with Pearl Harbour and ended with how America won it, and another on the Soviet Union and its nefarious anti-American ways. Even a kid (who had been dropped into it rather than raised on it) could tell that something was off.

On my next visit to the U.S. as a young man, at the end of a year spent studying in England, I remember watching a half-hour news broadcast on one of the main channels. The world news consisted entirely of highlights of American successes at the 1992 Olympics and a story about U.S. troops in Kuwait.

Those early encounters were a valuable lesson when it came to interpreting my own country's myth-making, and lately the myth-making of my adopted home of the UK; in both Australia and Britain the circles of self-awareness seem larger than in Hansen's portrait of US attitudes. Brexit has brought it out strongly in the UK, in the form of Remainer criticisms of that whole shambles and its ideological underpinnings. But Britain's example is a salutory lesson in how long it might take Americans in general to shift their perspective: it's sixty years since Suez, and still our politics has been derailed by imperial fantasies dressed up in anti-EU rhetoric.

Speaking of American perspectives:

Perhaps more apt, this being the 100 year anniversary of WWI - the beginning of the end of an empire that spanned the world, substitute British for American.

Since when do we count an anniversary of a war from the middle? Or do you mean the shorter American WWI of 1917-18?

Right now, the US is king

From another vantage-point, the US was Prince Regent from 2001 to 2016, and now it's Charles I locked up in the Tower.
posted by rory at 3:36 AM on August 9 [5 favorites]


In the modern era, the US has a reach and influence on a global scale that far outmatches any other single nation. You can argue all day about why this is or the merits of it. I am not arguing any of those things. But it is still true. At some point the US evolved into the globe's center of attention and it still is - evidenced by the nearly infinite number of threads online about, yes, America.

This most excellent collection of sentences are a gem. QED. now to tiptoe gently on the eggshells of your exceptional and manifest destination

That point when which the US *cough cough* "evolved into the globe's center of attention"; can probably be traced back, by scholars, to the point when the "complex" had the insight that mass communication and PR were as effective a tool of empire and war as the heavier, more expensive weaponry in the back of the room. Private sector and public sector communications together projected the attractiveness of this soft cultural domination (what, after all, is a cultural hegemony?) across the planet - why do we think of Levi's and Coca Cola as the sign of political and social change in a specific geography?

This is still so much a part of the ideology/strategy of "force projection" ah, potemkin, look what thou wrought that its an important section of every such document published. I'm not educated enough to pinpoint any links but have come across them frequently in the mainstream media as well as metafilter political threads. Tbh, its a "known" factor that I've seen acknowledged as the "hidden hand" in mainstream newspapers written adn published outside of the continental United States.

The biggest shift, imho, the tipping point of this Trumpian era, is that the globe's attention is turning away from that carefully crafted center after decades of monopolistic enthrallment. The interwebs had already begun the fragmentation, and orangeface on twitter simply brought it to its logical endpoint.
posted by infini at 3:44 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


Even the exceptionalism isn't all that exceptional. As a UK citizen living past the dusk of the British Empire we still have many of the symptoms regarding our own place in the world.

Niall Fergusson finds a ready audience for saying that the British empire was exceptional- exceptionally good for the colonized countries as it gave them the chance to be "civilised".

Your average English person here is amazingly ignorant of the various roles that Britain played in Ireland.

UK history teaching gives a very white-washed version of our history- making it very difficult for most to understand why various "thems" distrust or dislike this country- which is obviously one of the good guys- right?

We are taught in school that the British Empire "ended slavery" (not focussing on how much we initiated and participated in the triangular trade of cotton, tobacco and slaves prior to this).

Quite amazing that the majority of folk in every nation can consciously acknowledge that every nation is chauvinistic, but believe that their own chauvinism happens to be correct, or an objective fact.
posted by Gratishades at 3:59 AM on August 9 [9 favorites]


Impossible not to link to this comment from the 45 thread as evidence
posted by infini at 5:20 AM on August 9




> But no dictator here and I'd defy any possibility.

In August 2017 you can still say that? Wow, the blinders are welded on.

> I'm not an exception.

Yes, of course you are, unless the majority of those who, like you, grew up in a parochial, conservative part of the US and were brainwashed by white evangelicals now speak several languages, live abroad, and have stopped being evangelical. I don't really see what your point is.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on August 9


Speaking of American perspectives:

Since when do we count an anniversary of a war from the middle? Or do you mean the shorter American WWI of 1917-18?


Sorry, I meant that 100 years ago we were in the midst of WWI. I did not mean to claim the war was any shorter than what it was.

And I'm not American, thanks.
posted by dazed_one at 10:30 AM on August 9


I don't really see what your point is.

Thanks for a wee bit'o ad hominem, puts the discussion in perspective. thebordella put it better than me

The US' influence on virtually every major sector of life - both for good and ill, is so deep and wide that it is not threatened by a single idiotic administration


Let's go back to the article, the author compared a less than exotic town in New Jersey, which is bvabout an hours drive to IAS , is there an equivalent place ANYWHERE else in the world? Mostly a bunch of immigrants and misfits that would be displaced or sequestered in most other countries. I'm not a great traveler but poked around in odd corners of SA and Eastern Europe and loved the people, the environment even if hard in places. Smart folks not a bit less competent, more in many, better art, better social sensibilities, better armies if they could afford it.

The current administration freaks me out, but talk to the most radical military man and there will be NO case for marshal law that ANY would agree to, invade NK and kill others sure although that's not the message I see from any news show. But following the rule of law/constitution, cheering Trump but supporting Congress if it impeaches.

I don't think we know all the terrible things the secret agencies have done, unconscionable, and I hope some will eventually go to jail but probably not. That's not the point, bad stuff but not the point. Google may turn out to be quite evil, but it's unique, world wide and world changing. I can find examples, don't have the skills to distill the zeitgeist.
posted by sammyo at 4:46 PM on August 9


thebordella: Welcome to your regularly scheduled America is So Terrible! thread.

For the record, that's not my view at all! I think FDR's Four Freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want- are still admirable today. The US played a leading role in both World War I and World War II, and of course US leadership was essential in containing the Soviet threat to Europe, and rebuilding Western Europe and Japan, during the Cold War.

The Marshall Plan and NATO in particular are outstanding achievements of American statesmanship. Louis Halle, The Cold War as History:
The British Government, in announcing the [Marshall Plan's] completion in Britain, expressed its gratitude to the Government and people of the United States for giving to Britain, at a critical moment in history, 'the means to regain her economic independence and power.' Speaking to the House of Commons, Mr. Hugh Gaitskell, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said: 'We are not an emotional people, and we are not always very articulate. But these characteristics should not be allowed to hide the very real and profound sense of gratitude which we feel toward the American people, not only for the material help they have given us but also for the spirit of understanding and friendship in which it has been given.'

Because such moments never last is no reason why they should be forgotten.
The danger today is that the consent on which US power rests has been eroded: by the Vietnam War, by George W. Bush, and now by Trump. To quote Louis Halle again:
... real power is always something far greater than military power alone. A balance of power is not a balance of military power alone: it is, rather, a balance in which military power is one element. Even in its crudest aspect, power represents a subtle and intimate combination of force and consent. No stable government has ever existed, and no empire has ever become established, except with an immensely preponderant measure of consent on the part of those who were its subjects. That consent may be a half-grudging consent; it may be a consent based in part on awe of superior force; it may represent love, or respect, or fear, or a combination of the three. Consent, in any case, is the essential ingredient in stable power - more so than physical force, of which the most efficient and economical use is to increase consent.

By using physical force in such a way as alienates consent one constantly increases the requirements of physical force to replace the consent that has been alienated. A vicious spiral develops that, continued, ends in the collapse of power.
infini: The Hans Morgenthau quote is from the book Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. Unfortunately it's now out of print. The easiest place to find it would probably be your local university library.
posted by russilwvong at 5:11 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


The point is Americans are unique in how much they are convinced their country is not terrible, but in fact the standard everybody else should aspire to. It's a cultural arrogance (not a personal one).

I mostly agreed with this excellent comment, but, geez, anyone who thinks that the full-fledged British empire didn't have such a cultural arrogance...In fact, you can see the residue of that attitude to this day in certain members of the English upper class, where, due to changed circumstances, it now looks hilariously provincial.

This kind of arrogance is not unique to Americans, it has existed in one form or another in just about every regional or world superpower in history I'm familiar with:
I will speak first of our ancestors, for it is right and seemly that now, when we are lamenting the dead, a tribute should be paid to their memory. There has never been a time when they did not inhabit this land, which by their valor they will have handed down from generation to generation, and we have received from them a free state. But if they were worthy of praise, still more were our fathers, who added to their inheritance, and after many a struggle transmitted to us their sons this great empire. And we ourselves assembled here today, who are still most of us in the vigor of life, have carried the work of improvement further, and have richly endowed our city with all things, so that she is sufficient for herself both in peace and war. Of the military exploits by which our various possessions were acquired, or of the energy with which we or our fathers drove back the tide of war, Hellenic or Barbarian, I will not speak; for the tale would be long and is familiar to you. But before I praise the dead, I should like to point out by what principles of action we rose ~ to power, and under what institutions and through what manner of life our empire became great. For I conceive that such thoughts are not unsuited to the occasion, and that this numerous assembly of citizens and strangers may profitably listen to them.

Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and sacrifices throughout the year; our homes are beautiful and elegant; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps to banish sorrow. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as our own.

Then, again, our military training is in many respects superior to that of our adversaries. Our city is thrown open to the world, though and we never expel a foreigner and prevent him from seeing or learning anything of which the secret if revealed to an enemy might profit him. We rely not upon management or trickery, but upon our own hearts and hands. And in the matter of education, whereas they from early youth are always undergoing laborious exercises which are to make them brave, we live at ease, and yet are equally ready to face the perils which they face. And here is the proof: The Lacedaemonians come into Athenian territory not by themselves, but with their whole confederacy following; we go alone into a neighbor's country; and although our opponents are fighting for their homes and we on a foreign soil, we have seldom any difficulty in overcoming them.
That's (supposedly) 431 B.C.
posted by praemunire at 8:25 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]


This kind of arrogance is not unique to Americans, it has existed in one form or another in just about every regional or world superpower in history I'm familiar with

In my personal experience, having grown up in Germany, having lived in the UK, having spent time in France and other European countries and now living in the US: yes, of course other peoples are nationalist, too. But America has a special, naïve, very deep belief in its own superiority, so deep that it's not only present in conservatives, but also reaching far into the left wing. Real, biting scepticism and criticism towards their own country and institutions is almost unheard of and perceived as edgy or rude. In Europe and the UK sarcasm and self-deprecating anti-nationalism are the default. In the US, they are rare occurences on the margins, while the rest of the country is garbage trucks adorned with stars and stripes ;-)

Of course Metafilter is one of the places to find such scepticism, and that's why I like it here!

Again, I'm not writing this to diss Americans - encountering this idealistic belief/quasi-religion has been an interesting experience for me, especially as a post-holocaust German.

Can there be 'good' nationalism? Can there be one country, one culture that sets the standards? If not, how do we create coherence within a country, without devolving into propaganda and blind flag-waving? I've been thinking about the latter a lot, especially after the election. Maybe America needs the naïvete precisely because there isn't much else holding it together...
posted by The Toad at 9:20 PM on August 9 [6 favorites]


In Europe and the UK sarcasm and self-deprecating anti-nationalism are the default.

Nowhere in Europe or the UK has been a superpower since 1945 at the latest.

Real, biting scepticism and criticism towards their own country and institutions is almost unheard of and perceived as edgy or rude

And this is just not accurate. You can find plenty of same here on Mefi alone. It kind of amazes me that foreign critics of the U.S. right would nonetheless adopt one of the right's basic tenets, that it's people who grew up narrow-minded in crazy-white places are the True Americans, whereas, say, my parents, who dragged me out to anti-nuclear weapon, anti-U.S. intervention-in-Latin-America protests before I was old enough to ride a bike, are the freakish exceptions.

Just to be clear, I'm not attempting to minimize the problems with American culture. I only think they tend to be attendant on any culture that develops a serious relative power advantage over its neighbors for a sustained period of time. That doesn't make them any less harmful, just less...uniquely American. See Pericles, above.
posted by praemunire at 10:15 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]


other peoples are nationalist, too. But America has a special, naïve, very deep belief in its own superiority,

Historically, citizens of powerful empires and superpowers tended to have a special, naive and deep belief in their own superiority. This nationalistic hubris is not unique to the US - to claim the opposite is just another form of exceptionalism.
posted by dazed_one at 12:25 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I'm not American, thanks.

Sorry for the mistake, but it was the only way I could make sense of calling 2017 the 100 year anniversary of WWI. (Hey, it's also the 75th anniversary of WWII. ;)
posted by rory at 3:15 AM on August 10


Surely a better word for much recent American behaviour is "jingoistic", calling it it "nationalist(ic)" is an attempt to make it sound better than it really is.

And I don't think anyone is saying that Americans are the most nationalistic (or uniquely so) in history so these appeals to historical similarities are an irrelevant distraction. The point of the article is that America and Americans are perceived in a negative way by many other countries, saying "its not just us" is entirely missing that point and is the level of argument you'd expect from a 5-year old, "they did it too" doesn't fix your own behaviour or other nation's perception of you.
posted by epo at 3:23 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


If I were to guess, I think "they did it too" is a way to point out that this attitude may grow kind of organically in places with a certain hegemonic power and by placing it in that context, we can see how difficult it is to resist and combat that. I mean, I don't know my history as well as I should, but is there a good model of a humble, open-minded global superpower we can look to?
posted by R a c h e l at 9:17 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


Not justifying that attitude - as an American I have been shocked by the narrow-minded provincialism of some other Americans and annoyed by the unthinking ethnocentrism of other Americans (often on the internet) and still too often blindsided by my own nationalistic/ethnocentric biases, so, by and large I agree. I just don't think it's a particularly simple problem to solve.
posted by R a c h e l at 9:24 AM on August 10


> The current administration freaks me out, but talk to the most radical military man and there will be NO case for marshal law that ANY would agree to

If you'd said "it's unlikely," I'd have agreed with you. But you said "I'd defy any possibility," which presumably is equivalent to saying "It's impossible." And it's not. Just unlikely. Perhaps you don't realize how swiftly unlikely things can happen given the right circumstances.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on August 10


I mean, I don't know my history as well as I should, but is there a good model of a humble, open-minded global superpower we can look to?

I'm just an amateur history nerd, but nope, i can't think of any humble superpowers. Jingoistic (good word suggestion, btw epo) hubris seems part and parcel of empires. Probably born out of a combination of propaganda and confirmation bias, among other factors.

They have their own national flavor, but, from the Romans to the British to the Americans, they all have it.
posted by dazed_one at 10:04 AM on August 10


it was the only way I could make sense of calling 2017 the 100 year anniversary of WWI.

Being in DC this summer and seeing all the WW I museum exhibits was pretty crazy-making.
posted by GuyZero at 10:06 AM on August 10


praemunire, I don't identify as a 'foreign critic' of the US. I've lived here for 7+ years and sorry, this has just been my experience. Maybe even in Berkeley, I hang with the wrong crowd? It might also be that US-born Americans like to 'keep up appearances' when I'm around because I'm perceived as a foreigner...so I never get the super critical stuff and a lot of West Wing cheerful liberal patriotism. Like, when only family members are around you tend to dish about that crazy aunt, but when others are present you keep it to yourself.

As for superpowers: I see Europe as a superpower. Maybe that is super mistaken, though. You may have a point there. I was going to say 'Europe + UK' but that's, sadly, over...
posted by The Toad at 1:35 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure one can count europe as a superpower. It's a powerful alliance of nations in an economic and, to a certain extent, military sense, but the limitations of its central government and the self interest of its individual members inhibit it from acting entirely like a superpower.
posted by dazed_one at 3:26 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


Wow, if you substitute members for states, that sounds...eerily similar to the founding fathers' hopes for the US, huh?
posted by R a c h e l at 9:29 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Rachel, from my personal anecdata, my EU friends have less trouble processing the Federalist Papers than the reality of Trumpian America. But then, I'm in my largely liberal bubble...
posted by runcifex at 11:16 AM on August 11


`"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he didn't exist."
posted by one weird trick at 3:30 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


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