Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Opiate of American Exceptionalism

I have often complained about the myth of American exceptionalism that plays so well with the Christofascist/Tea Party base of the Republican Party.  What better way to avoid facing reality than to (i) cling to a myth that America outshines every other nation on earth and (ii) refuse to accept objective reality that shows that America has many, many problems and that in numerous categories, America ranks far down the list compared to other nations which the Kool-Aid drinking loons of the GOP love to deride.  Frankly, it's part and parcel with the alternate universe the far right inhabits where facts, science and the truth are ignored and/or denied as much as possible.  It also fits perfectly with the Christianist myth that America was founded as a "Christian nation." A piece in the Sunday Review provides some stark data that underscores the lie of the cult of American exceptionalism.  It's not a pretty picture, but it is based on objective reality.  Here are some excerpts:

What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility

The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No. 1, he might declare — in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany.

Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.  .  .  .  .  .  But during a presidential campaign, it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that many major issues are barely discussed. Problems that cannot be candidly described and vigorously debated are unlikely to be addressed seriously. In a country where citizens think of themselves as practical problem-solvers and realists, this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature of the democratic process.

American exceptionalism has recently been championed by conservatives, who accuse President Obama of paying the notion insufficient respect. But the self-censorship it produces in politicians is bipartisan  .  .  .   Both parties would rather avert their eyes from such difficult challenges — because we, the people, would rather avert our eyes.

“European politicians exercise much greater freedom to address bluntly the uglier social problems,” says Deborah Lea Madsen, professor of American studies at the University of Geneva. An American politician who speaks too candidly about the country’s faults, she went on to say, risks being labeled with that most devastating of epithets: un-American. 

Of course, the reason talking directly about serious American problems is risky is that most voters don’t like it. Mark Rice, who teaches American studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., said students often arrived at his classes steeped in the notion that the United States excelled at everything. .  .  .  .  “Sure, we’re No. 1 in gross domestic product and military expenditures,” Mr. Rice says. “But on a lot of measures of quality of life, the U.S. ranking is far lower. I try to be as accurate as I can and I avoid editorializing. I try to complicate their thinking.” 

Sometimes the most patriotic thing one can do is to speak the truth and expose lies and inconvenient realities.  Sadly, most in the GOP prefer to remain cheer leaders supporting a myth rather than face problems and formulate a solution.  Currently, Mitt Romney is telling every audience he faces what he thinks they want to hear.  That may be popular with the ignorant and uninformed, but it does nothing to fix the nation's problems.  Indeed, one could argue that it is ultimately the cheer leaders who are the most "un-American" because they are leading the nation to more misfortune and a declining position in the world long term.

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