The Power of Myth I

It should come as no surprise that American politics, and society in general, contains a great many myths. Myths are central to humankind, for their power to explain the supernatural to their normative power. However, the effects of myths are not always anodyne, and some actually exert a negative influence on our polity. In this series of posts, I set forth some of these myths and examine how their influence corrodes and/or cheapens our political discourse.

American Exceptionalism

This is the foundational myth of America. We are taught from a very young age of not only the unique nature of America, but of our national greatness. The struggles of the Pilgrims, manifest destiny, WWII, and other historical events are used to prove the rightness of America’s cause and her unique position vis a vis other members of the international community. At its most vehement, American Exceptionalism transcends patriotism to become something more like rabid nationalism.

My argument is that this type of rabid Americanism is bad for our polity. It leads otherwise reasonable people to discredit any idea that is somehow foreign. It rejects the notion that one country can learn valuable lessons from another. That somehow America is so unique that we alone have all the answers to any problems we might confront.

Listen to any political debate, in whatever medium, and you will invariably hear one partisan make the argument that the other”s ideas are un-American. Or European or socialist. For a large segment of our population, these words alone are a sufficient argument. The notion that ideas and policies may have value is simply not considered.

What is particularly amazing is that many of these same people did not bat an eye when a previous administration engaged in activities that were blatantly un-American, like torture or warrantless wiretapping. [I should note that there were many honest conservatives and libertarians who did raise their voices in those instances. ] I attribute much of the lack of outrage at actual foreign ideas (human rights violations are usually more prevalent in authoritarian regimes) to a strain of Exceptionalism mixed with the “Democrats/liberals are wimps” myth.

This particular variant of American Exceptionalism is this- because America is inherently good, our torture is therefore good. Or, repressive regimes torture merely for the spectacle or to assert their power, whereas the US only tortures to protect American lives.

Whatever the underlying reasons for its stability, American Exceptionalism has undermined our polity. It breeds a certain level of arrogance and myopia that is dangerous not only to ourselves, but to the world community. And, it really is a form of arrogance to believe that we alone have all the answers, all the time.

Democrats/liberals Are Wimps

I’d like to say that taking on this myth is a fool’s errand. But I really do believe it is important to examine and dispel this myth. However, for those who accept this myth as part of their core beliefs, no amount of argument or logic is going to change their minds. And, to those who think the myth is silly, there is no reason to engage in this exercise. Yet, there are many people somewhere in between the two extremes who are willing to buy into this myth. And, make no mistake about it, its effects are pernicious. But, I’ll leave this myth up to others (perhaps those more patient than me?).

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Myth I

  1. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to recognize American Exceptionalism – in the form you describe – as a twisted exaggeration, rather than outright myth. Calling it a myth, to my mind, implies that it’s outright false.

    However, there are very real ways in which America is exceptional. Size for one, heterogeneity another, military power and projection still another, etc…

    I would agree that people take it too far so as to dismiss foreign options as unpalatable. However, there are also other people who say we should do things the way Europe and other countries do, without fair regard to the ways in which key differences affect our ability to do so.

    Like the blog and some of your comments at Ordinary Gentlemen.

    • I agree with your second point fully. And thank you for the kind words!

      I’m not sure that we entirely disagree on the first point. I think that many myths have at least a kernel of truth in them. But I believe that America is exceptional in much the same way as any other nation. (For some reason, I can’t get the old Monty Python bit out of my head- “we’re all individuals.”) What I find untenable about American Exceptionalism is that, even with a less exaggerated version of it, we are still likely to come perilously close to nationalism.

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