Are We Really THAT Exceptional?

by lizard

Of the 100+ comments in the wikileak thread, the commentary I find the most disturbing comes from the perennial defender of American Empire, “The Polish Wolf.” I was so dumbfounded by the lengths to which this person is willing to defend the indefensible, I figured a closer look at (his?) rationalizations was in order. so here we go.

Assange is exaggerating his own importance, but most important he is buying into the popular myth that the US is the bully that needs to be stopped. The US has secrets, but the structure of our society and our tolerance of dissent means that our sins are much more open than the misdeeds of a country like China or Russia – thus, we convince ourselves that the US is a much worse country than others, that the world would be better off if the US were diplomatically weaker.

The key to understanding a person like The Wolf is to realize no matter what America does, it’s okay, because other countries do worse. And, after all, we have an open, tolerant society, so the reports of America being a “bully” is just a myth.

I’m not going to rehash my response here. But I will acknowledge the two factors that I think do make America exceptional: our military capacity to do harm to our enemies is unprecedented and unparalleled on this earth, and the position of our currency gives us a tremendous amount of influence on the global economy.

But that’s not the strain of exceptionalism The Wolf is smoking.

America is exceptional – America is the empire. We live in a world of Empires – there has never been a lack of imperialism in the world. But as empires go, America is favorable to any other viable candidate for world dominance. The Germans, the Russians, the Japanese, even the British were far worse. Can America do better? Sure. Is a world with a weaker America a more just world? No. All the misdeeds you list that make America unfree pale in comparison to the actions of any nation close to America’s size.

The “misdeeds” I list that The Wolf doesn’t seem to have a problem (because other countries do worse, remember) is:

domestic spying, state-sponsored kidnapping, torture, surveillance of non-violent peace activists, watch lists, invasive searches (TSA), assassination lists, preemptive arrests (like at the RNC, which included journalists), and the signature of any burgeoning fascist entity; unchecked corporate power influencing our entire political process.

So I guess, according to The Wolf, these little misdeeds “pale in comparison” to the actions of countries of our relative size. notice the lack of specifics here. what action is worse than being assassinated or tortured?

The Wolf isn’t all contrarian. No, he concedes I have a “legitimate concern” regarding the wealth disparity, but then launches into another curious, unsubstantiated proclamation:

You point out the wealth disparity, which is a legitimate concern. Nonetheless, by most standards the quality of life for a working class person now is better than it was fifty years ago.

I would be interested to know by what standards this assertion can be made.

Here’s another gem:

And I don’t want to shrug off the real loss of freedoms we have suffered – that’s a fact, and a hard one to imagine. But you failed to mention any country up to a third the size of the United States that doesn’t employ such measures. And comparing our restrictions on freedom to the gassing of six millions Jews or the starving of three million Ukrainians and a fifth of all Kazakhs would be laughable were it not so offensive.

Offending exceptionalists is pretty easy. While they are able to acknowledge we are suffering losses of freedom, they’re gag reflex keeps them from swallowing big chunks of reality. The fragility of their position, though, is exposed when they have to use the “…but we haven’t gassed six million jews” defense.

But what really caused me to write this post was The Wolf’s latest response to me, implying the world’s increase in HDI (Human Development Index) is because American Empire has enriched it (the world).

Would you like to argue with my facts, or just be angry at them? What was China’s HDI in 1918? What is it now? Repeat that experiment with India, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Easter Europe. I don’t want to get the numbers but I found easier ones. In China, life expectancy has improved by 11 years since 1960; in Brazil, it has improved by 15 years since 1967. In the US, since 1950, our life expectancy, even for poor workers, raised by a similar amount.

You can look up the other components of HDI too, but looking up facts is not your style. Moreover, you are free to argue that the relative prosperity most of the world now enjoys is not worth the price paid. That doesn’t change the fact that the United States empire is the only empire in history (that I can think of) that materially enriched the world as a whole, not just itself.

This is incredibly arrogant, delusional thinking, which is par for the course for an American Exceptionalist. They tend to be rather unshakeable, which the rest of the response clearly indicates.

Now I will admit, invading Iraq was a classical hubristic imperialist move – the pretense flimsy, the motives selfish and short sighted, the results disastrous. But that means we committed an imperial sin, if you’ll pardon the religious language. That was one administration starting a war that the current administration is attempting to end. That’s neither a trend nor a slide. Indeed, the trend has been for the US foreign policy to cause fewer deaths, not more, as the decades go by.

If we invade Iran, you’ll have a trend and I will admit that the US is becoming expansionist. However, expansionism among powerful countries is the rule. If we become an aggressively expansionist nation, we may be unethical in your and my view, but we will hardly be historically exceptional.

Neither fascism nor communism are based on foreign policy, however. Thus, your arguments for us being ‘fascist’ come down basically to comparing occasional extraordinary rendition to a police state. I say this not to justify the former, but in order to make clear the exceptional nature of the latter, lest we forget what true fascism is and in diluting the word rob ourselves of a descriptor for those governments actually resembling fascism.

I’ll let y’all come to your own conclusions about who has a more accurate national assessment of where we are, and where we’re going.

What I will say is anyone who thinks “it can’t happen here” isn’t paying attention.


  1. CharleyCarp

    A smart and brave fellow visiting DC a while back and said, among other things, the following:

    In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

    If we are exceptional, it is because of the face amount on that check and the possibility that someday, somehow, with much effort, it might actually be cashed.

    • am i happy with the state of affairs in this country? no. only an idiot would be happy with this congress, this president and this anemic government which seems totally unequipped to deal with the myriad of problems we face….

      yet, i do believe this country is exceptional if only because of this line…. the right to pursue happiness….

      it is a right we all have. happiness for me would be peace. so i pursue peace.

      nobody in the founding fathers ever said it was gonna be easy though…..

  2. I’ll never understand the defense of injustice by comparing it to something worse. What’s the phrase? “Reductio ad Hitlerum”?

    America has done bad things. We can, and should, do better. How that’s a bad thing is beyond me. Hell, even Goldwater thought things could get better.

    • The Polish Wolf

      “America has done bad things. We can, and should, do better. How that’s a bad thing is beyond me. Hell, even Goldwater thought things could get better.”

      I couldn’t agree more. I merely am trying to point out that in the realm of foreign policy, doing less is not doing better. In some cases it is – we would have done better by not invading Iraq – doing less. We would have also done better by intervening in Rwanda – which would be doing more, being more imperial, but being imperial with a better long term purpose.

  3. lizard19

    The Wolf has continued the apologist cheerleading for American Empire over at Intelligent Discontent

    as expected, it’s pretty vapid stuff.

  4. I encounter this vapid kind of thinking, which I call “supreme stupidity”, everywhere. And it is not the Wolf’s fault – far from it. He mirrors exactly his upbringing – his education, popular books, TV shows, “news” and movies are all part of a life-long indoctrination process that essentailly kills the living brain, and creates the zombie mentality he exhibits.

    He is not stupid – far from it, his ability to write his ideas with some clarity is what makes him exceptional. But he has internalized the contradictions, and probalby doesn’t realized that he subconsciously avoids exposure to reality.

    And that is par for the course with imperialist countries. Hubris. The Brits think they were an exceptional empire, as did the Soviets, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spaniards. All of the evil that we do is projected onto others, leaving us with a clean slate … oh, we’re a little bad sometimes, but not a bad as them!!!/i>

    And it is not just right wingers – it is the whole of the allowed political spectrum in this country. Democrats and Republicans are as immune to reality as as any Soviet apparatchik.

  5. The Polish Wolf

    Man, Charley, Bear, and Duganz I think have very reasonable comments on this. I agree with them all; I think lizard may misunderstand what I am saying.

    I never said ‘America is good because all other empires are bad’; the essence of what I said was ‘America is necessary because all other empires are bad.” Do I think Sweden running the world would be more humane? Yes. But they are neither willing nor able to do so. As lizard pointed out, we are.

    I am also puzzled by lizard pointing out that the US has an unprecedented level of global economic control, and then pointing out that the current state of the global economy is the result of American economic policies. That’s fair enough – but then lizard criticizes me for saying that the current state of the global economy is the result of American economic policies. The difference? I happened to add that the current state of the global economy has given more people better lives than ever before in history.

    I will not defend all the actions of the American empire, and I will not argue that we are in some way incapable of making mistakes. However, I think history is enough of a guide to show us that there is no better alternative. Those who pretend America can and should cease being an empire cannot contribute to the necessary conversation about how America can be a more just and humane empire.

    And lizard has the raw materials to be helpful! What percentage of the population can make heads or tails of the names ‘Suharto’ and ‘Mosaddegh’? But rather than saying “the US supported a killer and overthrew a democratically elected leader, thus the United States should stop involving itself in world affairs, as evidenced by a poet telling us we should never have gotten involved in world war two”, why not instead “The US should have supported Mosaddegh and Allende, thus making its foreign policy goal the spread of Democracy, not free enterprise. It should have prevented Suharto from killing hundreds of thousands of his own people. In the long run, demands for Democracy and human rights would have been equally effective at winning the cold war, but the post-cold war world would have been generally more stable and the American reputation far better maintained.”

    See how its possible to critique American foreign policy choices without arguing for isolationism, a policy which has proven itself disastrous?

    • lizard19

      maybe i am misunderstanding what you are saying, but then again, you aren’t catching my drift either.

      this isn’t an either/or argument i’m making, like you seem to imply. it’s not either we try to dominate the globe, or we become total isolationists.

      what i am trying to get through to you is the nature of our imperial ambitions are not altruistic; they never have been. this country has spent the last half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the 21st using our (public generated) economic and military might to enrich greedy assholes on wall street and in corporate boardrooms.

      if you understood that, you would see iraq is not a mistake and afghanistan is not a mistake. it’s part of a geopolitical power play for control of eurasia. if you can’t see that, fine. then there’s not much more to discuss.

      i wish more people could understand this. these fuckers are sacrificing my children’s future for their Great Game. and i’ll say it again, wolf, they don’t give a fuck about you. the material and civil gains in this country and elsewhere have been won by people fighting and dying for their rights.

      and now that a growing majority of Americans are too fat and brainwashed to see what’s happening, we’re going to give it all away for “security.”

      i don’t give a shit what that crazy cleric did to warrant being put on an executive hit list. if his rights are stripped, so can anyone else’s. don’t you fucking get that?

      now sit back and watch as the espionage act is resurrected to go after Assange. and sit back and watch the clamp down that’s been accelerating for the past decade. wave good bye to net neutrality and freedom of speech. prepare yourself to watch our elected leaders wipe their asses with the constitution.

      and make sure to tell yourself while all this is happening how fucking great we are, and how wonderful our influence has been as entire countries default and the dollar crumbles.

    • Hee hee – I bristle at not having made a “reasonable” comment. But you need to know, and someone needs to tell you, PW, that even as you can write sentences, spell the names of foreign heads of state, and make seemingly rational arguments, you really don’t know much more than you are supposed to know to pass a citizenship test.

      Small example – you say the U.S. should have prevented Suharto from killing “hundreds of thousands” of “his own” people, (it would have been OK otherwise?). It was more like a million, one of the largest bloodbaths of the twentieth century, and as evidence shows, the U.S. was not a benign observer, but rather, with the help of the Brits and Aussies, an active participant and cheerleader.

      Can you embrace that possibility? If not, if you insist that such cold-blooded mass murder with full knowledge and intent, is not possible for our empire, then you’ve passed the citizenship test. We’re a benign force, innocently doing good, planting trees, and making mistakes now and then. Etc.

      • lizard19

        maybe i’m being too sensitive, but i don’t think this is “hee-hee” stuff we’re talking about here.

        The Wolf wondered in the other thread why i would wish the effect of tyranny on him over some “online” argument.

        i wish that because personal experience is obviously the only way some people will finally realize what is at stake right now.

        more and more people are having direct personal experiences of systemic dysfunction. it’s real. people die in trucks because their battery dies. that’s what’s happening.

        and if the welling anger isn’t somehow snapped from these pre-channeled mental ruts, then we are going to inevitably erupt in very stupid, predicable ways.

      • A little hard to follow … but since most of us have been exempt in the past from feeling the effects of neoliberalism, and are only now beginning to know its force, I wonder if that is what brings about the urgency? Is it that white American males are no more important to our corporate-run state than Indonesian political activists?

        Polish Wolf expresses everything that an intelligent person is supposed to absorb in our culture, and nothing more. He’s caught a whiff of the seedy underbelly of American foreign policy, and so studiously looks around the world to places where there has been some growth and prosperity, and credits the U.S. for that growth. He then concludes that yeah, we do some bad stuff, but overall, we’re a force for good. He’s a good citizen, he passes the test.

        What he doesn’t see is legion. Explaining it to him is pointless, as it is the old counting to ten metaphor – he’s at 2, so you cannot dump 10 on him, and furthermore, he doesn’t even want to count, so why bother? I get some humor out of it as I note those those place in the world that are experiencing some prosperity are exactly those places that have taken economic measure to protect themselves from American’s neoliberalism.

        Permit me to see humor where I find it.

      • The Polish Wolf

        I have no problem acknowledging that the US supported a killer and is partly responsible for the results.

        What I have problem with is the argument that the US therefore needs to stop involving itself in world affairs. There are at least three ways to look at what the US should have done in the Cold War, just as there are at least three ways to look at what the US is doing now.

        One is to argue that given the circumstances of the Cold War, the US was justified in doing what it did. If the US expected Indonesian Communism to be anything like Communism in China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, etc., a cold calculus would say that killing a half million people to prevent communism, if that was the only way, would be acceptable. If the US could have stopped the Stalinist purges or the Great Leap Forward by killing a million people, that would have been a net humanitarian action.

        The opposite view is that the US is in fact exceptional, that blood spilled by those we support is somehow more violent than blood spilled by our opponents, and that inaction is thus preferable to action. This is also a defensible view on the surface, but the end result is already known – fewer US deaths but far more global atrocities, but on the plus side the US can’t be blamed for any of them.

        in contradiction to both of these viewpoints, I would argue that the US really is exceptional, but in a different way. The US is exceptional because our power is such that we can look out for our interest sufficiently while also expending effort on human rights & the prosperity of others, a strategy which in the long term (and if properly marketed) leads to more lasting success. We haven’t often done this, but when we have it’s been highly successful. Take our Cold War sphere of influence (Western Europe and parts of the Pacific Rim). Rather than control it by force like the Soviet Union did, we allowed these areas to become highly prosperous, using our own capital to rebuild their economies and giving them (in the case of Japan and later Korea) very favorable trading terms. This cost us a great deal of money and also undercut our industrial hegemony, but in the long run our allies were much more loyal than those of the Soviet Union, which held its satellites by force and maintained industrial dominance in its own sphere.

        On the other hand, in Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia, we for whatever reason tried to run the show the same way the Soviets ran their sphere – invasions and coups and terrorism.

        Lizard and I both agree that this action was morally wrong. However, Lizard sees our treatment of these countries as integral to our being an empire, and thus argues that as long as we maintain an imperial mindset, we will do these things. I disagree – these were mistakes even from an imperialist mindset. They were the actions of an effective empire circa 1920, maybe. But in a world where almost everyone has access to either ballots or bullets, actions that control governments but alienate people are short sighted and ineffective.

        We kept Latin America, most of Africa, and part of Asia from becoming communist, but that could have been better accomplished by investing in these areas like we invested in Western Europe. And now that we have competition again in the form of China, it is the regions we tried to control through overt or cover power, rather than cultivating their actual success, that are most receptive to Chinese soft power.

        So, do I support the American empire? Absolutely – because what is actually best for the American empire is also best for the world. Our withdrawal from world politics will solve nothing – a smarter imperialism will. Unfortunately, those who believe that the worst and least effective actions of the American empire are an inevitable coincidence thereof remove themselves and their well-informed minds from the struggle to make our empire work for the world when they call for its dismantlement.




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