Orlov: “American” exceptionalism
The term “American exceptionalism” has been receiving more than its fair share of play recently. It was pressed into service in the vapid banter that passes for political discourse in the US, with the Republicans accusing Obama of not believing in it. More recently, it surfaced as a term in international relations, when Russian president V. Putin chastised the US for believing it in a NY Times editorial, equating it with chauvinism and lack of respect for the rule of international law. It seems that it is Putin’s dream to extend his cherished concept of “dictatorship of the law” to encompass even the US.
I feel that “American exceptionalism” does exist, and is, in fact, quite pervasive, but not in the way politicians and politicos in the US wish to think. This term, as those in the US are currently attempting to use it, is yet another of their attempts to mangle the language, along with “Libertarianism” that isn’t libertarian (i.e., socialist) and “football” that isn’t football (the entire planet’s favorite team sport). This sort of mangling of international terminology is rather exceptionally obnoxious.
The term “American exceptionalism” was born during a meeting which took place in the spring of 1929 between Joseph Stalin and the US Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone, during which Lovestone argued that workers in the US weren’t interested in socialist revolution. In response, Stalin the seminary drop-out demanded to put an end to this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” Stalin used the term in a mocking way, and something important was lost in translation from Russian “исключительность”, which is closer to “abnormality,” to English “exceptionalism” which has a few positive connotations, whereas in Russian, with the verb “исключить” (to expel) as its base, it is altogether non-aspirational.
Stalin’s taking an exception to “American exceptionalism” aside, Lovestone may at the time have had a valid point. At that time, the US could have been considered to stand a good chance of mitigating the negative effects of capitalism and advancing in the direction of a just and equitable society without resorting to brutal class struggle and violent revolution. The reasons for this had to do with luck: the US had the natural resources, the industrial capacity, a well-organized labor movement and an immigrant population that hadn’t had the time to develop rigid class distinctions.
But just a year later, at the 1930 American Communist convention, it was proclaimed that “the storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism.” While the USSR surged forward, the US wallowed in the mire of the Great Depression and recovered economically only thanks to the gigantic windfall of Word War II, at the end of which it remained as the only industrial nation that hadn’t been bombed to smithereens, flush with natural resources, and with a new-found egalitarian attitude borne of wartime patriotism and a newfound ability to understand each other thanks to the installation of Dayton, Ohio English as the nation’s official dialect. The US reaped another, much smaller windfall with the peaceful collapse and dismantlement of the USSR in 1990, extending its life expectancy by perhaps a decade.
But now this period is well and truly over: the resource base is depleted, the industrial base is in shambles, and society is rapidly degenerating from a class society to a caste society, with a disappearing middle class, an unbridgeable chasm between the haves and the have-nots and the lowest social mobility of any developed nation. If and when the revolution finally comes, I imagine Stalin’s embalmed corpse, resting in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, smiling ever so sweetly.
So much for “exceptionalism” (in quotes); what about “American” (also in quotes)? I am currently working from an undisclosed location south of the US border, where temperatures hover around 85°F, the ocean is pleasantly warm, fresh fruit comes from a nearby jungle, the Internet is high-speed and rent is quite a lot cheaper than what it cost me to heat the boat in Boston. I am still very much in America (without the quotes)—as former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez put it “We are all Americans.”
America, you see, is the term the entire world uses to describe the major land mass of the planet’s western hemisphere comprising some 43 million km2, grouped, for convenience, into North America and South America, and containing 36 countries. But then there is one country that controls well under a quarter of the total landmass and contains just over a third of the population, but which has the gall to call itself “The United States of America.” It is not the only “united states” in America; it is not even the only “united states” in North America because there is also Estados Unidos Mexicanos.
People south of the US border use a different intonation or roll their eyes ever so slightly to signal the difference between America the geographic term and “America” the country that had the impertinence to appropriate it. “Americans” themselves should probably use finger-quotes, to be polite, when they mean to say “America” rather than America.
Getting back to the subject of “American exceptionalism”: I believe that “America” (in quotes) is in some ways exceptional (in Stalin’s original sense of “abnormal”). I will therefore move “exceptionalism” outside the quotes and say a few more things about “American” exceptionalism.
First, “America” has an exceptionally bad government. There is fervent insistence that “America” is a democracy, but a look into the details of the matter discloses a decrepit political structure whose sole purpose is to legitimize privilege, wealth and aggression.
Starting with Congress, its two houses are both founded on systemic corruption. The Senate has two members from each state, be it a huge state like California or a tiny one like North Dakota, making it rather cheap for lobbyists to purchase roughly half the Senate, the rest being somewhat more expensive but still affordable. The House of Representatives is formed by a process called “gerrymandering,” whereby electoral districts are formed in ways that disadvantage the groups which the ruling elite wishes to see underrepresented. The result of this is that, according to numerous opinion polls, members of US Congress are now less popular than lice, cockroaches, colonoscopies, Hitler or Genghis Khan. This august body has been essentially incapable of governing. Its main activity involves enacting legislation which runs into thousands of pages, most of them written by lobbyists, which none of the members can either read or understand.
As a result, President Obama has recently announced his intention to ignore Congress and to start ruling by decree (the local euphemism for “decree” being “executive order”). This is rather typical of presidential régimes that are burdened by a morbid legislature, and, as such, is a step in the right direction. Turning ever so briefly to the supposedly independent judiciary, the US Supreme Court has consistently decided that justice is a matter of wealth and privilege, judging that “free speech” amounts to the right to spend money, and that “corporate persons” have more rights and fewer responsibilities than human ones. And so “America” is no longer a democracy, and although one never hears it from corporate-owned or corporate-funded “American” media, the “Americans” themselves seem well aware of the fact, which is why so few of them bother to vote. Why should powerless people participate in a humiliating face designed to legitimize the power of those who oppress them?
Second, “America” also has an exceptionally bad health care system. The rot started with a very bad mistake—the idea that health care should be tied to employment. It has now degenerated to a point where the medical system eats up a fifth of the country’s economic output, and is drifting in the direction of socialized medicine administered by a powerful group of profit-seeking companies. It produces outcomes that are slightly worse than those of Cuba, where per capita expenditure on health care is just 5% of that in “America.”
Life at an “American” hospital is a non-stop macabre comedy where sleep-deprived interns compulsively poke away at computers while ignoring the patients, and where the hospital profits from their numerous mistakes. Every “American” should know the term nosocomial, which designates medical problems caused by medical care itself. While “American” truck drivers must by law pull over and rest after ten hours behind the wheel, “American” doctors are often required to work 24-hour shifts, not because the decisions they make are so much less important than those made by truck drivers, but because their mistakes drive up profits by causing complications that require additional treatment. The sine qua non of “American” health care is emergency medicine, much of it devoted to keeping elderly patients alive for no good reason, and often against their will—until the money runs out. How much money? Well, a great deal of it, but how much anything costs is kept as a great mystery which is disclosed to patients only after the fact, often as part of a legal effort to bankrupt them.
This is why many “Americans” are discovering that their favorite doctor is, as the saying goes, is “Dr. Blue—Jet Blue.” A quick flight to America proper takes you out of the hands of “American” medical establishment and puts you in the hands of proper American doctors, who tell you how much your treatment will cost beforehand, charge reasonable rates and achieve reasonable results with reasonable effort.
There are other areas in which “America” is exceptional. For the sake of brevity, I will only touch upon one of them, briefly.
“America” has an exceptionally bad foreign policy. A key aspect of “American” foreign policy is that “America” is a sore loser: once defeated and expelled, it goes into a passive-aggressive mode of trying to rewrite history using economic sanctions and covert activities. Cuba overthrew the “American” dictator Fulgencio Batista 55 years ago, but sanctions are still in effect. Similarly with Iran: 35 years after its “American” shah was overthrown, it is still being portrayed as the enemy. Another key aspect of “American” foreign policy is its complete lack of compunction in resorting to political assassination. Luckily, “America” seems to be losing its ability to project power beyond its borders. It ran roughshod over Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan unopposed, it was checked in Libya, and, if all goes well, it will be checkmated in Syria and Iran.
I could go on and on and talk about exceptionally high prison population, exceptionally expensive and ineffective education, exceptionally weak national infrastructure, exceptionally high levels of surveillance, exceptionally high murder rate and so on and so forth, but I hope I have made it clear: “American” exceptionalism is not something for “Americans” to be proud of. How it came about is by no means the fault of the vast majority of “Americans.” If it is anyone’s fault, it is the fault of their ruling class, with its faulty, self-serving, and ultimately self-defeating ideas. There are some impediments making the transition from being “Americans” in quotes to becoming Americans proper—and to accept their birthright as inhabitants of the American continent—but these impediments are mostly mental, cultural and organizational. All of them will have to make that journey sooner or later, as “America” breaks up and disappears in a maelstrom of national bankruptcy, repudiation of federal authority and open revolt.