What Makes American Exceptionalism Less Than ‘Exceptional’ – OpEd


It was reported on September 15th 2023 that the U.S., Britain and Canada are imposing more sanctions on Iran right before the one-year death anniversary of Mahsa Amini who lost her life thanks to Iran’s morality police. I would like to know if the resistance movement in Iran made such a request to the governments of the US, Canada and Britain to impose sanctions on “people and entities” of their country, thus adding to the difficulties they are already suffering? I want to know if resistance movements outside Iran with Iranians in it made such a request? Or ordinary people of developing nations made such a request? Or someone in the Global South? I mean, who asked the US, Britain and Canada to decide that they can punish the people of Iran as a way of expressing their sympathies with the Iranian masses? Who is the “morality police” here: the hated regime in Iran or the US, Britain and Canada? Or both? What makes these countries so exceptional that they can play with the destinies and wellbeing of others? 

People are not exceptional. Period. Any theory of exceptionalism defies the crudest definition of human nature. We have to accept without raising too many questions the simple fact of life that there is one Nikola Tesla, one Charlie Chaplin and one Noam Chomsky. Some people are exceptional for reasons that cannot always be logically explained. It might have something to do with the best or the worst of circumstances. This does not change the role that the individual will play in altering the tracks of history. It has never been otherwise since the beginning of the human story on this planet. There is no evidence to vaguely suggest that it’s going to be any different in the years to come. 

But when exceptionalism is associated with place of birth or being a member of a social group, then we have a serious problem. Why would someone born in the United States be any more exceptional than one born in Nepal or in Burundi, which is supposed to be the poorest country in the world? Opportunities may vary but life goes on and people are creative when it comes to survival. The average human being is provincial everywhere; I don’t think an individual easily transcends the barriers placed by circumstances of birth and upbringing. Only an exceptional mind is able to achieve the kind of a cosmopolitan imagination that Shakespeare possessed in the Elizabethan era. George Carlin couldn’t have put it better when he says:  

 “I could never understand ethnic or national pride because, to me, pride should be reserved for something you achieve or attain on your own, not something that happens by accident of birth. Being Irish isn’t a skill. It’s a f——g genetic accident. You wouldn’t say, “I’m proud to be 5’11”. I’m proud to have a predisposition for colon cancer. So, why the f–k would you be proud to be Irish or proud to be Italian or American or anything?…Here’s another slogan you run into all the time. “God bless America.” Once again, respectfully, I say to myself, “What the f–k does that mean?” God bless America. Is that a request? Is that a demand? Is that a suggestion?… It’s delusional thinking. It’s delusional thinking, and Americans are not alone with this sort of delusions. Military cemeteries around the world are packed with brainwashed, dead soldiers who were convinced God was on their side.”

(I too come from a part of the world where exceptional people are the rule, an exceptionally petty-minded lot, painfully insecure, envious, thankless and to add to these royal qualities, a fanatical dedication to the pursuit of money and power at the expense of a million other things that could make a person happy without reason.) 

The exceptionalist narrative is at the heart of the American dream. Somehow it means that they have a history, unlike any other history on this planet, one worthy of emulation. The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States (2017) by Eric Cheyfitz (2017) goes deep into the subject of what American Exceptionalism means in the 21st century. Cheyfitz throws light on the relationship between American imperialism and the violence towards the poor and the weak at home. American foreign policy in the Global South cannot be separated from the domestic policy; one effortlessly translates into another. As Cheyfitz puts it:

“Foreign policy will not change until domestic policy does because the two are in a dialectical relationship, grounded in the narrative of American Exceptionalism. I define exceptionalism as a mode of imagining a history outside of history, as a way of reading history ahistorically in order to create a coherent narrative—one that appears to be without contradiction—that we call the Nation. I understand that nations are narratives that rationalize, or idealize, the material force of the state. That is what is implied in the formation of the nation-state, a synthesis of rhetorical and material power. The state, then, requires the narrative of the nation to cover its tracks. The nation is the state’s alibi.” (20) (my emphasis)

The attempts to “erase history” even while evoking or laying claim to it is, in essence, “the language of American Exceptionalism—grounded in the rhetoric of the American Dream” (6). There is dramatic irony to this erasure of history by a racist and classist nation for audiences living in the Global South. The irony is that it’s a nation that is psychologically distant from what is happening in the underdeveloped parts of the world. The ideal of a nation intricately bound to the idea of freedom for the individual, serves as a narcissistic trap, preventing Americans from seeing that the march of history is not towards some kind of a utopia, a perfect world that does not have to deal with the complexities of human nature. On the contrary, treachery and betrayal played a significant role in legitimizing the occupation of what is today the United States of America.  

In an earlier book The Poetics of Imperialism:Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (1991), Eric Cheyfitz rightly points out:

“Thus, those of us who live within the privilege of Western patriarchy live in an increasingly narrow psychic and social space. For we cannot afford to enter most of the social spaces of the world; they have become dangerous to us, filled with the violence of the people we oppress, our own violence in alien forms that we refuse to recognize. And we can afford less and less to think of these social spaces, to imagine the languages of their protest, for such imagining would keep us in continual conflict, in continual contradiction with ourselves, where we are increasingly locked away in our comfort. Terrorizing the world with our wealth and power, we live in a world of terror, afraid to venture out, afraid to think openly. Difference and dialogue are impossible here. We talk to ourselves about ourselves, believing in a grand hallucination that we are talking with others” (xx).

This “grand hallucination that we are talking with others” is reproduced in panel discussions on third world and working class issues that we see on official channels on television and on the internet, which is repeated by experts and parroted by so-called professionals, media pundits and research scholars in journals and at conferences in universities. The grand hallucination continues. We are talking to ourselves about ourselves. Ironically we persist in imagining that we are talking with others. Anyone who has read Freud knows that hallucinations are not without histories. Stereotypes perpetuate hallucinations and in turn are perpetuated by them. In this hallucination there is no space for either difference or dialogue. The rest of the world does not care for these hallucinations at the heart of American Exceptionalism. Their quest for freedom is in an entirely different direction. The idea of freedom in the Global South is predominantly about economic justice. As Cheyfitz puts it: 

“Whereas in its call for democratic political forms the narrative of American Exceptionalism was on the cutting edge of history in 1776 and 1787, its use today finds it utterly out of touch with history in a world that no longer looks toward but past it to other narratives in order to imagine new forms of democracy, particularly those that envision forms of economic justice.” (56)

In a telling instance of mass deception by the power elite, Cheyfitz brilliantly illustrates how people were fooled into believing that credit was somehow the same thing as income. 

“In terms of the exceptionalist narrative, what took place over this thirty-year period was the displacement of the term income by the term credit. That is, millions of people came to believe or convinced themselves that credit was income, when credit only simulated income. Within this movement, the exceptionalist narrative, always distanced from reality as ideology, lost all touch with reality in the sense that credit, while ultimately dependent on income, is in and of itself negative income. In this context, credit became a simulacrum of income, a sign without a referent. That is, to say the obvious: when the creditor demands the debt, all credit stops and income is necessary to pay the debt. The story of the 2008 crash is that, up until the catastrophic moment, people hallucinated credit as income in what they took for an infinitely expanding housing market with infinitely rising housing prices that could provide the collateral for credit they were not making as income. When credit crashed and there was no income to back it up, that is, when credit could not magically become income (either because jobs were lost or actual income could not cover the debt), the exceptionalist narrative became Disinformation, which is to say the two key terms—credit and income—that had made sense of the narrative were erased. Simply put, millions of Americans found themselves actually or virtually homeless and/ or jobless, that is, without income, in deep debt, and so without the possibility of further credit.” (62-63)

This is the tragedy of freedom that comes from above and that is not earned by those below. The persons giving the freedom from above are also scripting the terms and conditions of the freedom. They take it as their right and privilege to lie to the masses. It’s usually done with a rather abused word ‘choice.’ As if somehow people are given the choice to decide their fate. As if the poor are poor because they’ve chosen to be poor, while the rich are rich because they worked on their choices, rather than their privileges. That’s how the masses are disinformed and made to believe that they own their lives and their bodies, when clearly they don’t. There is little doubt that no justice comes closer to reality than economic justice. This is something that is never spoken about because it would mean freeing the poor from their alienation. They would be the owners of their labor. That’s not what the rich and the greedy middle classes want. Human rights are made to be synonymous with property rights. Everything that comes freely from Mother Nature such as the land we work on, clean air and water – collective wealth – must be turned to private property. To have is to be free. The only real freedom is the one that private property owners possess. Property gives them the right to be considered human. In the absence of property, people are less than human. As Cheyfitz observes, 

“The right to property and property rights, not the right to “the means of acquiring and possessing property,” is at the heart of the American way; and human rights are merely a function of property rights. Recognizing this, we enter the heart of darkness. The less property one has, the less human one is. Ask the Americans who are jobless or homeless or without health insurance. Globally, the fact that between eight and eighteen million people die every year from poverty-related causes bears witness to the equation of humanness and property about which we are thoroughly disinformed in the narrative of American Exceptionalism.” (68)

This wholesale condemnation of the poor at home and outside along with the exclusion of indigenous people is what in essence American foreign policy is all about. In the same vein, Cheyfitz makes the connection between Israeli and American exceptionalism. “American Exceptionalism finds its counterpart and precursor in Israeli exceptionalism; both are narratives of settler colonialism that claim originality through the displacement and demonization of Indigenous peoples” (83). The demonization or idealization, which is the counterpart of the former, of individuals and groups is always about an outsider, who, for some inexplicable reason is opposed to the American way of life. Israel is doing exactly the same thing by repeating the falsity that the Muslim Arabs or Palestinians are opposed to their existence. Cheyfitz rightly observes, 

“the extent to which colonial American history, the substratum of exceptionalist narratives, is constructed from the paranoid fantasies of the invading settlers: fantasies of terrorism (the “war on terror”) that the U.S. continues to construct as I write. This is not to deny that either the Puritans had or the U.S. has enemies. It is, rather, to emphasize that what the Puritan and the U.S. war on terror construct in order to justify preemptive violence is an unmotivated global enemy bent on the total destruction of an imagined innocent, beleaguered community, the proverbial “homeland.” That this “homeland” was itself wrested through colonial violence from its Indigenous inhabitants is denied in exceptionalist history (Disinformation). This is the point of Apess in his Eulogy. This is the point of Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank. This is the point of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not to take this point is to erase history (the complex intersection of conflicting narratives) and thus to make negotiations, not to say justice, increasingly difficult if not impossible.” (97)

But American kids are never taught the history of genocide, slavery and colonialism, except as the result of an unfortunate accident that could have been averted with a little bit of foresight. Wrongs are committed by some bad apples in a field that essentially produces edible fruit. Far from it, the results of American support for Israel in its occupation of Palestinians Territories speaks for an ugly and inhuman past. Cheyfitz notes correctly that in the context of 

“official American history—by and large what is emphasized in the schools, promulgated by the major media, and circulated in political speeches by the two major parties—is itself nothing but a system of erasures. Thus, when someone calls attention to what has been erased, to that unexceptional history of colonial and imperial violence, which erases the difference the exceptionalist narrative claims from its European past, he or she risks marginalization and/or vilification, the latter if the voice is centrally public.” (128) 

What is it which ensures that the “system of erasures” is perpetuated in such a manner that anyone who challenges it is immediately ostracized from mainstream discourse? People are fed with illusions that make it look like the past does not matter any longer. What matters is the present and the future. The point however is that the present and the future need to come to terms with the past in an honest manner in order to make social and economic justice a reality. Americans need to honestly acknowledge that, “At the center of this illusion is the official denial of Native genocide, the fact that the United States of America is built on stolen Indian land” (267). As Cheyfitz points out, “the origin of American Exceptionalism in the legalization of “Indian-hating.” But in conjunction with that origin, it is equally important to emphasize that, in continuing the force of European imperialism, the United States from its beginnings denigrated and then repressed Indigenous epistemologies. Ironically, it is these epistemologies that always offered, as they continue to do so, solutions to the crisis of socioeconomic inequality that the U.S. and the world have been facing historically. This crisis has now been brought to a tipping point by the fact of climate change and the threat to sustainability it poses. We cannot afford to miss the irony here, if I can put it in its simplest terms: it is only what the West has othered that can save the West from itself. (275) (my emphasis)

It is others who can save us from too much of ourselves. Anti-semitic Europeans had a lot to learn from the Jews that they persecuted for centuries. Likewise, it is the turn of the Israeli Jews to learn from the Arab Palestinians, whose lands they have unjustly occupied. The most important lesson being peaceful coexistence. Americans have something to learn from the victims of their foreign policy in the Global South. Americans also have something to learn from the poor at home. Indians have something to learn from their neighbors. Maybe our neighbors have something to share with us, something that can put an end to the general backwardness of South Asians. We all have something to learn from one another. Nations of the west need to understand that they cannot make life impossible for people in other parts of the world and then complain about the refugee or immigrant problem. It is not the fault of refugees and illegal immigrants that they are victims. The average citizen of the west needs to understand that, when you make their countries unlivable for them, they have to escape to survive. This means that, sooner or later, they end up at your doorstep. 

Most people these days subscribe to an exceptionalist kind of nationalist narrative which says that their country is somehow unique to world history. This kind of narrative is reinforced by a government-run bureaucracy subservient to the corporate lobby. As a rule, there are no exceptions. Period. I don’t believe that people are either particularly good or bad; they are mostly interested in themselves. That’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s just that you cannot expect too much from a normal human being. However, education and culture can play a major role in enabling people to act in humane and kinder ways. The only exceptions are those who go against the grain of human nature, which is essentially cruel, rapacious and with a voracious appetite for destruction. This is the reason why we admire men and women like Simone Weil, Mahatma Gandhi and John XXIII. They make an important point. It is hard to die for others. It is harder to live for others.  


Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar from Hyderabad, India.

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