Sunday, May 27, 2007

American Exceptionalism and 9/11, Part I.

In which 9/11 signals and end to American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism is a doctrine, starting actually from nearly the very beginning of the independent United States but gaining a lot of traction first after World War I and then after World War II, that said that because of some natural characteristics America was exempt from the general historical trends facing Europe. The reasons for this were variously given as the early establishment of more civil liberties than in Europe, including voting rights *with exceptions*, the absence of a feudal inequality *with exceptions*, the existence of vast natural resources with no previous inhabitants *with exceptions*, more economic equality leading to less class divisions under capitalism *some exceptions to this*, etc.. I put the "exceptions" in between the asterisks because I couldn't tick them off with a straight face.

Anyways, after World War II American Exceptionalism became enshrined as a national doctrine with reference to the Cold War. Europe was semi-socialistic and thought to be ineffective on the world scene, the Eastern bloc was totally socialist and perceived to be expansionary, meaning that only the U.S. could provide a force motivated by good ole free market capitalism and civil liberties that could counter the Soviet Threat. This specific idea, the righeousness of America vs. Europe specifically, was built on the war time belief that American Exceptionalism was what prevented the U.S. from falling prey to a mass fascist movement.

American Exceptionalism in the Cold War period had the effect of insulating the U.S. politically, in terms of ideas as well as general historical knowledge of current events, from the rest of the world, providing a kind of political vacuum that was filled with Americanist, for want of a better word, propaganda, trading on the founding fathers and the righteousness of American capitalism (sometimes tempered by the state). Realistically, this was a winners' doctrine, not something that reflected reality much. The U.S. was the only party in the Second World War that emerged economically intact. Everyone else, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, was significantly destroyed economically. Because the U.S. was the only game in town it was able to expand its economy significantly in the post-war world, becoming a mass exporter of consumer goods to Europe and to the rest of the world. This in turn lead to higher standards of living for workers in the U.S., without the need for extremely intense Union activity, than in Europe. The Golden Age was taken as further evidence for the validity of American Exceptionalism. Well, the Golden Age eventually ended, in the mid '70s, but the ideological arrangements started after the Second World War continued on.

The Cold War ended in '92 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but American Cold War ideology was extended, only now it wasn't Communism that was being fought but various humanitarian causes. In countries with white people and/or oil. Sorry, Rwanda. But that's a little off topic, the point is that the end of the Cold War ended the imperial ideology of the Soviet Union but it didn't end that of the U.S. History continued to be blotted out, knowledge of the development of the political systems of other countries continued to be non-existent, and knowledge of what the U.S. was really doing all over the world lay in a similar state of non-comprehension.

Then 9/11 happened and all of that went to shit. Suddenly, the actions of right-wing fundamentalists formerly linked to the U.S. through the U.S. funding of their side in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, reintroduced the U.S., violently, into history. It also, I would argue, signalled the beginning of the end for the ideology of American Exceptionalism and the belief that Americans could live life in a vaccuum in relation to the rest of the world and get by.

What have we seen since 9/11? A dissolution of the very things that were pointed out as examples that America was exempt from the crises that happened to Europe. The American who loved civil liberties, had nice lives, had a long tradition of democracy, suddenly rallied behind nationalism and the leader principle, approved of invasions of the civil liberties of their fellow Americans. I don't know about you but this looks eerily similar to events that people, including some on the liberal/progressive end of things dismiss as overwraught historical parallels. A crisis, a leader, blank checks against civil liberties, accusations of people being traitors for opposing war and all of this, you mean to say it doesn't look like fascism?

The error lies in thinking that fascism was the result of political activities committed by a small group of individuals rather than the product of a social, historical, and economic crisis that effected the societies where it hit on a structural level.
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I'm taking a break, I'll continue this later.

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