I grew up during the golden age of American cop shows; Starsky and Hutch, Cannon, Magnum, The Rockford Files, NYPD Blue, The Bionic Man (who didn’t stand in the school playground, jump off a wall doing the bionic sound effects?), the original Charlie’s Angels and many more. Okay, so purists might note that some of those are about PI’s, but to me as a young, impressionable kid the message was one and the same; in America the good guys always win out! And the bad guys are always ugly, snarling, swarthy and fated to lose, and lose badly.
And this was a message that, in my imagination at least, went far beyond the glamorous West coast or the exciting decadence of the East coast; it was a global phenomenon. To cross America was just not a good idea, and if you did, whoever you were, then the consequences were bound to be severe.
This was my childhood grasp of the American Dream. America stood for what was right and good! Period!
It didn’t mean that the bad guys didn’t exist, or that bad things didn’t happen, it just meant that in America those bad things and bad people didn’t prevail. For me it wasn’t about arriving off a boat with few dollars in my pocket and making good. It was about the shining, moral city on the hill. A beacon of hope and morality in a fast decaying world.
These were the days when America ruled the world, spreading that enticing message across small screens everywhere and re-enforcing it with blockbuster movies that made you just wish you were American. Clint Eastwood, whether he was bare-knuckle boxing, toting a Magnum (‘the most powerful hand gun in the world’) or gunning down small armies of unworthy Mexicans, meant that as a ‘punk’ kid I just didn’t want to know if that Magnum still had one round in the chamber for me.
All I wanted to do was be a bad-ass American cop like Clint, knock the bad guys down, drive around downtown in my throaty, muscle car, and get home in time to kiss my beautiful wife!
America was the place to be, bar none!
And then I grew up.
All of a sudden the Vietnam War became more than just a fight against black-hearted Commies.
Watergate was more than just a blip on the political radar.
Tommy Smith’s black gloved fist on the Mexico Olympics podium was more than merely a cool image; it was a signal, a pointer that all was not well in the Land of the Free!
Never having understood at the time when as a very young school child we used to have classroom drills where the alarm went off and we had to cower beneath our desks, heads between our knees and ‘kiss our asses goodbye!’ All I remember thinking was why do they keep calling it my ass when it’s my bum they’re talking about? For us kids it was just another game that broke up the day; another excuse for a sneaky giggle with no underlying meaning behind the exercise.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood that both the USSR and America had the power to scorch not just their own countries, but ours as well.
But why would the good guys want to have such weapons?
It didn’t compute in my adolescent head. It went against the pervading logic that I witnessed on the TV every Saturday evening.
But ignorance is, as they say, bliss. It took years, decades even, for the sheen and glitter of the Stars and Stripes Banner to tarnish for me. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken a more critical, a more defined view of what goes on in our world. I may have been a very later starter in taking this more informed outlook but I feel now I’m ready to speak out and say my piece.
I understand now that my childhood American Dream was not at all what most people thought of when they dreamt of America. What I was actually visualising and identifying with internally was American exceptionalism. That elusive, hard to define characteristic that set America in its hey-day apart from other nations. It was, for want of a better expression, the moral high-ground; the ability to turn round to nations doing things the ‘wrong’ way and say, ‘hey! Don’t do that! Otherwise we’ll kick your ass!’ and what’s more everyone knows that not only can we kick your ass, we’ve got the moral standing to be able to do it and no-one will ever question that virtuous undertaking.
But things change, and not always for the better.
America has now lost that moral authority that commanded the high ground. No longer are they the shining city on the hill, and as much as I understand Joe Biden’s need to insist that American exceptionalism is alive and kicking, all the evidence points to the contrary.
It seems an odd thing to say, and perhaps an even odder thing to even think, but the decay had probably set in long before the USSR fell apart, but the end of the Cold War was in retrospect the time when the rot really took a deep hold, and it makes me wonder if achieving the heights of international power that America did was in the long term a negative for America and its place in the world.
As the USSR fell apart America rose. On the face of it America’s stock had never been higher, but with that rise in stock American arrogance also grew, and out of all proportion to reality. It was almost as if Fukuyama’s fabled ‘end of history’ had happened, but perhaps not in the way he’d envisaged it.
American exceptionalism had gotten hold of the American psyche and filled them with an inadequate, ill-informed and out of touch reality as far as the rest of the world was concerned. And if you weren’t American the rest of the world was nowhere; the world began at the Florida pan-handle and ended in Seattle (Anchorage aside). American’s travelling outside of the dream realm behaved as if the rest of the world and the people in it were playthings for their amusement.
I spent a lot of time travelling at this time, and disrespectful Americans were everywhere, flashing their pearly whites after treating a poor local like a pile of shit and saying, ‘it’s okay! I’m American,’ as if that made everything acceptable! When patently, it wasn’t okay and it didn’t make it acceptable!
And that attitude pervaded right to the top, where American officials and representatives took it upon themselves to decide the rights and wrongs of duly elected governments, opting to do the ‘democratic’ thing with swift regime change when a particular leader didn’t tow the American line.
I can hear the righteous bells extolling now as the choir chants in melodic tones, ‘America!! Fuck yeah!’ — a line lifted from the parody movie, Team America: World Police, as US forces destroy the world in order to make it fit their pervading narrative. And never has a film parody hit closer to the bone!
Then the Iranian revolution happened. Something went wrong and the narrative script fell short of the reality, and the Iranian people have been paying the price ever since for having the nerve to choose their own path.
Then 9/11 followed and American exceptionalism took a wild swing into the long rough as the War on Terror began in earnest and American morality missed the moral fairway completely and ended up in the mud at the bottom of the lake of Monumental Errors.
Legalised torture, rendition, human rights abuses and the death of hundred’s of thousands of civilians are but a few of America’s moral ‘misdemeanours’ since that dreadful day.
But US political and military overreach continues unabated and unabashed not in spite of, but despite Biden’s strident assertion that America is back. The chaotic, unilateral manner of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is the latest underwhelming manifestation of the denigration of American exceptionalism and morality.
All it did was tell us all that America doesn’t care!
The woefully out-dated, over-used and over-abused AUMF is another such illustration of the continuing belief by Americans that America can trump everyone and everything in its path with impunity, and yes, the use of the word ‘trump’ is deliberate!
In today’s fast moving world, where secrets seem to stay secret for little time at all (e.g. Facebook’s whistleblower, the Pandora Papers, the Afghanistan Papers) hypocrisy is easier than ever to uncover.
So promoting democracy is all well and good if it is done without any political slight of hand. But if it’s not then the world will soon know all about it.
The US struggles with it’s own constitutional crisis, borne arguably out of the need for revenge and economic gain (in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively) that has led inevitably and undoubtedly to the weakening of American democracy, doesn’t in itself disqualify America from promoting or standing up for the overwhelming benefits of democracy over autocracy. But what should disqualify America from the moral high ground is the hypocritical democratic double-dealing of successive US administrations in feeling emboldened sufficiently to advocate for democracy, whilst simultaneously going behind the back of the very people who choose a democratic vision different from one that is agreeable to American political and economic sensibilities, and then end up paying the price in blood.
America’s vision of (liberal) democracy is framed by its own experience, history and constitution which is understandable and wholly reasonable. But the thing is that democracy comes in many colours, and many shades of colours, and America tends to view other versions or models of democracy as a pale imitation of its own, when patently this is not true.
Martin Conway says in his new book (1) that ‘democracy owes its durability not to its principles but to its flexibility,’ — the recent (undisputed I might add) German election is a wonderful case to point. A multi-party system where voting is spread across many parties reflecting the multiplicity of views in what is an ethnically diverse population, and results invariably in a functioning and able coalition government that actually gets things done.
Surely to expect or demand democracy as a reflection of its own is political narcissism in the extreme, but this is the American vanity that drove regime change in nations around the globe time after time after time.
What’s more the German electorate stand by their voting systems. They believe in their election results and abide by them even if it’s not always the result they were hoping for. The same can definitely not be said of the American public where public trust of governmental institutions, including elections, are at an all time low.
“While there is much to appreciate about a government that has survived civil wars and world wars alike, and has inched forward, albeit slowly, to provide expanded rights for many of its citizens, including immigrants, it is time to end the myth of American exceptionalism,” …// and that America… “can, and should, learn from democracies throughout the rest of the world.”
Scott Warren, Founder of Generation Citizen.
But in a nation so polarised and so caught up in it’s own self-importance, is there still the capacity or even the willingness to learn, when to go down that route would inevitably mean admitting that somewhere along the line it all went wrong?
My assumption is that American vanity would not yet allow for such an outcome.
Peter Beinart calls this consistently repeated flaw, this American inability to see itself as others see it, ‘magical thinking.’ American policy makers he insists have a lack of ‘cognitive empathy’ that ‘precludes Americans from looking at themselves critically.’
This lack of empathy is the magical thought process that has attempted to breathe life into the decaying embers of a smouldering American exceptionalism, and this same lack extends right to the top of the political tree where politicians cannot brook any dissension to their way of seeing and doing things because they are blind to the inherent shortcomings and failures of a nation chock full of its own self-congratulatory self importance.
And honestly, I can’t see things changing in the short term. The seemingly warm embrace of Biden’s foreign policy rhetoric is paper thin, two-dimensional and still largely an extension of Trump’s unsympathetic and horribly limited America first agenda.
In politics, at the end of the day, there’s what right and true, and there’s what economically profitable. And America’s wayward agenda always puts dollars before lives, dollars before what’s right, and dollars before what’s true.
Outside of America we can see this all too well. And it’s not pretty! It’s not pretty one little bit!
Inside America Trumpista’s are too caught up in what their cult hero says and does to see that what he preaches is little more than hot air and that he doesn’t care one iota for them or for their families. And the other half are too caught up trying to keep the Trumpista’s out of their democratically righteous rose gardens, and all the while no one is actually watching the wind to see which direction it’s blowing in.
And it’s blowing away from America, and it’s blowing faster and harder than Americans could ever imagine.
American stock is falling for sure, but maybe it has to fall a lot further yet before the veil of self-deceit will drop and Americans will see themselves as we see them.
And maybe then, we might see that exceptionalism begin to revive.
- Martin Conway; Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945–1968, 2020.