Watching the Olympic trials the last couple days, I was thinking that the opening ceremonies in Tokyo next month (always my favorite part of the Games) will undoubtedly feature elements of Japan’s unique, fascinating culture*. Then I thought, “And what elements of U.S. culture could be featured if the Games were being held stateside?” Fast-food franchises? Not attractive. Cowboys and Indians? Uh, no: much too shameful. The moon landing? Well….dated, but OK. Really, though, what do we have to celebrate in this country that isn’t part of another heritage? The Constitution, maybe, but aside from the fact that it’s not sexy enough for prime time, it’s becoming a bit tattered and frayed around the edges these days. In short, there’s not a lot about the United States’ culture that’s both unique and laudable.
No, most of the things that have set this country apart in the last century-plus are most distinctly not cause to celebrate. Our gun fanaticism, for instance, related to the whole love of violence we seem to espouse. Our indefatigable “me-ism” that gets in the way of any united effort to resolve critical problems. And, perhaps an outgrowth of those two attitudes, our overarching devotion to domination. There’s an article that’s been rattling around in my head for the last couple months, written by Juan Cole for Informed Comment. Cole summarizes a new poll conducted by the Alliance of Democracies that shows that 44% of 50,000 respondents in 53 allied countries view the United States as a threat to their democracies, a significant jump from even last year. And they fear that threat much more than they do the regimes of either Russia or China, by 16% and 6%, respectively. Those latter figures aren’t the shocker, though, looked at from the Joe or Jane Average viewpoint in Everytown, USA. The slap in the face is that this country, this bastion of democracy and human rights, could be seen as a threat in the first place; the fact that it’s rated as worse than our two biggest “enemies,” per the last several Administrations, is just a ripple after the initial shock.
How is it possible that democracies around the world fear the United States? Cole goes on to relate that economic inequality and the increasing power of Big Tech are two factors cited as negatively affecting democracy. Check: reason to fear the U.S. is self-evident in those cases. Then there’s the willingness of the U.S. to invade other sovereign nations; Iraq comes to mind. Also, TFG’s railing against NATO was seen as lack of support for its members, not to mention the extraordinary debacle of his election in the first place, AND his incitement of the January 6th insurrection, AND the GOP’s failure to condemn same. In other words, our allies are afraid that the crazy might be contagious.
Not only recent events support the collective wariness of our allies, however. It’s a badly-kept secret that this country has interfered all over the world, for 150 years, for any number of reasons, whether it was to advance the interests of the United Fruit Company in Latin America in the early 1900s, or to install the Shah of Iran in 1953, or to prop up Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam in the late ’50s. And of course, we assisted Saddam Hussein, until we turned on him. Par for the course in international diplomacy, perhaps, and no more than some of our allies have done in their histories, but unusual when such actions are effected with the backing of a modern military that could destroy the planet many times over. A force that consumes more of our resources than the next eight or so countries combined.
A military, which, incidentally, has been gaming total-war scenarios for several years now, along the lines of a World War III. Such a conflict could come in the near future, says the Pentagon, and to that end, the armed forces are also constructing scenarios under which troops would occupy major U.S. cities to put down a predicted class revolution. The reasoning being that the country would have to be pacified internally before external foes could be fought. Total domination of all theaters is the goal. For my part, when it gets to the point that Milwaukee is garrisoned by the Army, it will be time to grab what’s essential and bug out, to head north to saner climes. The point here being, of course, who else does this? I really don’t think any of our allies is planning to subjugate the rest of the world; nor any of our adversaries, for that matter.
Our media is playing a long game to align hearts and minds with the concept of exceptionalism tied with domination. Jeff Cohen of Reader Supported News recently made the assertion:
If you get your foreign policy news today from CNN or MSNBC or NPR or similar outlets, then you’re bombarded hour after hour with the idea that the United States has the absolute right to impose sanctions on country after country overseas if they violate human rights or are not democratic.
“Human rights violations” and “democratic” being relative, naturally. For instance, we don’t count the holding of children in cages at our southern border as being any kind of violation. And we continue to supply the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with weapons of destruction to kill Yemeni civilians because the Saudis are merely “defending” themselves against a tiny, defenseless neighbor. Meanwhile, draconian sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and other non-allied nations are perfectly acceptable. Alienating countries like Russia with heavy sanctions is fine, too, even though it could be a valuable partner in solving world crises. Ditto, China. Not too many other nations relentlessly engage in similar hypocritical, myopic, cutting-off-nose-to-spite-face tactics in the 21st century. We stand out, no doubt about it!
What about other ways in which the U.S. is exceptional? We’ve all read the horrifying pandemic statistics over the last year; many of us have lived them. Such a tragic situation, a record-high per-capita death toll, in supposedly the richest, most advanced country in the world, is surely outside all conventional expectations. We’ve definitely hit the top of the scale in that regard. In other measures, too: Nicholas Kristof, veteran New York Times opinion columnist, wrote this week:
As for reading, one-fifth of American 15-year-olds can’t read at the level expected of a 10-year-old. How are those millions of Americans going to compete in a globalized economy? As I see it, the greatest threat to America’s future is less a surging China or a rogue Russia than it is our underperformance at home.
We Americans repeat the mantra that ‘we’re No. 1’ even though the latest Social Progress Index, a measure of health, safety and well-being around the world, ranked the United States No. 28. Even worse, the United States was one of only three countries, out of 163, that went backward in well-being over the last decade.
Take THAT, you wanna-bes! STEM graduates and respect for science? We can race anybody to the bottom.
By myriad measures, then, the United States IS exceptional. There truly is no other country like us today. Nor would most other countries want to be like us, at this point. Perhaps the most egregious and ultimately harmful way in which we’re exceptional is our hubris: the degree to which we believe, contrary to all the evidence staring us in the face, that we are indeed the brightest, most advanced, moral, democratic, admired, and wealthy-in-all-respects nation in the world. No wonder our friends fear us.
* Granted, Japan’s history has some dark moments; for example, the 1930s and 1940s. But there’s much on the positive side of the ledger to balance out the worst of their actions through the centuries.