Friday, March 02, 2007

Is Every Country "Exceptional?"

Okay, so Arthur Silber has written another excellent piece today. I could post that nearly every day, really, but simply being a front door for Once Upon a Time is not the complete mission statement of this humble demiblog. Indeed, if pressed, I'd have to admit that a mission statement is one of the many things this blog lacks. I draw your attention to it on this particular day, though, because Mr. Silber brushes up against something that I've been puzzling about for some time.

He notes the mini-tempest that brewed up a day or so ago about both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama having (separately) used the word "wasted" in connection with the American legionaries whose lives have -- in fact -- been criminally wasted in Mesopotamia. Apparently, that's the height of impiety -- the correct word is "sacrificed." Mr. Silber writes:
But it is almost impossible to deal with the fact that so many Americans, almost all our political leaders, and our media virtually without exception are so relentlessly stupid, and so resolutely determined to remain so. As this latest episode in national idiocy proves yet again, and for the millionth time, this laughably pathetic state of affairs certainly would appear to be the unalterable truth of where we are.

And so we debate whether these lives were "wasted." With the blind ferocity of religious maniacs, we enforce our new Puritan code, which demands that certain prohibited thoughts may never be uttered. Violation of this code means banishment from public life and from further "serious" consideration. Every matter of importance is reduced to the intellectual level of a remarkably backward house pet.
It seems to me that the central dogma in the maniacal religion to which Mr. Silber refers is that America is always right. Or, at the very least, America is usually right and is always well-intentioned ... the most that America could be guilty of might be a blunder.

Rationally considered, the notion instantly and resoundingly fails the giggle test. But it's very seldom rationally considered. Instead, American exceptionalism is the prevailing myth in which we're raised. It's our intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, and we tend to be as little aware of it, consciously, as a fish is of the water in which it swims.

Now, let me approach the thing I'm wondering about. Our country maintains more than 700 military bases in more than 130 countries, worldwide. It does not hesitate to invade, occupy, and destroy other countries -- countries half the world away, countries that never attacked it, nor possessed any credible means of doing so. Surely, we would instantly denounce any other country that operated in this way as a hegemonic empire. But a huge majority of Americans honestly do not recognize the US in that description. It is, seemingly, impossible for most of us to entertain the idea that our own country willfully does wrong. My question: is this failure the real American exceptionalism? Have the majority of the people living in past "bad-actor" states been similarly blind? Did most Germans, circa 1939-45, think of the Thousand-Year Reich as being a great benefit that their Vaterland was bringing to an ungrateful world? Did the typical Frenchman of the early 1800s sincerely believe that Bonaparte's forceful, unifying leadership was exactly what those recalcitrant Spaniards and Britons and Dutchmen were really lacking? Did the British, in the 1850s and 60s, feel genuine anger at the "insurgent" Chinese who foolishly resisted the British East India Company's opium monopoly in China? I do not know; but I wonder.


Craig said...

I'm not sure about the French and British, but the German question seems easy.

Obviously, the rise of the Nazis was due in part to Germany's defeat in WWI. Hitler appealed to a populace who felt betrayed by German leadership and humiliated by England, France etc.

I'm guessing that the Germans who believed in "exceptionalism", as you put it, were typically Nazi partisans and probably didn't represent the views of the average German citizen. There was also this weird mixture of mythology and prophecy. Basically, it was preached in some quarters that Hitler may have been the second coming of Siegfried or some such nonsense.

There's a book called Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Godhagen. He lays out a pretty convincing case, I think, that the persecution of the Jews was a result of a long-standing hatred for Jews in Germany, and not just the result of Nazi policy.

Bartleby said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Craig. The degree of enthusiasm for (and, perhaps, knowledge of) the "final solution" in WWII Germany wasn't primarily what I was wondering about, unless it was actually the prime motivation for spreading German "administration," so to speak, over all of Europe and perhaps beyond. I am assuming, I suppose, that it wasn't, although I might well be mistaken. As you point out, though, much of the popular German enthusiasm for the WWII "project" could be explained as vengeance for the terms imposed by the victors at the end of WWI -- terms which resulted in some gratuitous starvation of German civilians, and probably could be said to be a significant cause of Big Mistake Number Two. So, the German part of my question might more usefully have simply been transferred to WWI: were most Germans entusiastically convinced that the Kaiser's management was something that most of Europe really needed?

I think I need to do a lot more reading. Perhaps that acknowledgement is the first step in a useful process.