America must stop believing its collective rhetoric before it can start developing its collective conscience.
In these early stages of the 2016 presidential election cycle in the United States, the race to proclaim America’s place at the zenith of “exceptionalism” among the nations of the world has only just begun.
The declared right-wing candidates, their undeclared cronies and their progeny are all on the march to keep Americans ever aware that their left-wing president and his progeny have squandered the legacy of the “greatest nation on earth.” They collectively believe that America is historically “exceptional” as a nation, and they have coined and use that term only as a positive attribute. That is to say that through the tinted right-wing lens, America is never exceptionally bad at anything.
Maybe it is simply that President Barack Obama had heard enough of this and decided that he too should get in on the exceptionalism bandwagon. Thus, while announcing on April 23 that US drones had killed two innocent hostages by mistake, he claimed that one of the things that makes America exceptional is “our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.” After telling the nation of the self-imposed tragedy, Obama apparently thought it was important to applaud himself and the nation for candidly facing the facts, as if that would somehow give laudable purpose to another failed mission with regrettable collateral damage.
Keeping in mind that “exceptional” is only a positive concept in this context, the latest presidential fantasy reaches for new heights on the exceptionalism scale. Identifying just a few historical blind spots — the Vietnam War, the War on Drugs and an incarcerated generation, entrenched and growing income inequality, and rampant unchecked gun violence come to mind — is more than enough to suggest a massive and continuing national failure to confront imperfections and learn from mistakes.
There is so much wrong with the exceptionalism narrative that it is hard to know where to begin, so I will start with President Obama and his latest flirtation with exceptionalism.
Armed drones presently stand out as the newest military “marvel,” ready for potential worldwide sale by the mercenary US arms industry to both good guys and bad guys. While arming the world may seem constructively exceptional to some, using those arms to indiscriminately kill humans makes America an international pariah in the eyes of many, surely including those whose loved ones have been collaterally murdered.
Then comes the news that regrettably and once again the US killing machine and its drones screwed up, but with the twist that presidential candor on the subject should make us swell with pride for its collective educational benefits in future operations. What it should do is make us sick.
As for the spinning right-wing exceptionalism carousel, neither historical facts, nor present uncomfortable truths can stop the music. As with a merry-go-round, it keeps circling to the same point and always plays the same song. For example, at the moment, this supposedly exceptional nation finds itself mired in an epidemic of raced-based police violence that has for decades failed “the confront our imperfections” exceptionalism test.
Furthermore, now that this systemic imperfection has been publicly exposed, our national capacity to “learn from our mistakes” is being challenged by both police and right-wing public safety zealots and gun nuts. A nation with enduring and growing pockets of black poverty and despair seems only exceptional in this instance in its rush to arm its citizens to the teeth and look the other way as scared cops react violently to the slightest hint of resistance from young black males. Take another national ride on the carousel.
To help make my point, remember the killing of 20 young children and six educators in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut a little over two years ago? In the aftermath, there was much talk about meaningful Federal gun control legislation and the lessons learned from yet another tragic outburst of gun violence.
But once we got done with the thoughts and the prayers, the right-wing exceptionalists shut down any meaningful national discussion about controlling gun violence. Apparently unable to confront our imperfections and learn from our mistakes, and even with 20 small coffins as a backdrop, the carnage continues unabated in this “exceptional” land.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will forget about the hostages killed by US armed drones, studies will be done and reports rendered — terms like “near certainty,” “continuing imminent threat” and “signature strike” will enter the lexicon of the US killing machine. The public is unlikely to find out what lessons were really learned from our mistakes in this instance, if any, as the blush of “exceptional” candor fades and classified briefings again become the norm. The biggest lesson likely learned will result in a more focused effort to ensure that today’s “exceptional” candor is not repeated but filed away as an exceptional exception.
None of this is to say that America cannot play a constructive role in meeting today’s challenges abroad. But this nation can only do so once it stops believing its collective rhetoric and starts developing its collective conscience. So many of our international adventures belie any conscience at all, but America’s international humanitarian efforts at least suggest a conscience-driven undercurrent that might one day overcome the hubris-driven killing machine that today defines us.
We must demand an end to drones, assassinations, snipers, boots on the ground, mercenary weapons sales and the like. As a nation, we must strive to replace them with dialog, broad cross-cultural tolerance and negotiation. More of the latter and less of the former might well have saved us from the nation’s latest wallow in post-tragedy thoughts and prayers.
*[A version of this article was also featured on Larry Beck’s blog, Hard Left Turn.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.